“Teaching about Astronomy–Past, Present, and Future of Space Exploration”

LDEO NGSS Summer Institutes: “Teaching about Astronomy” (GED 7214)

Lesson 9: The Past, Present, and Future of Space Exploration  

Expect Time Required: 3 – 4 hr

Submitted by:                                                                                   Date:                                     Time Needed:



Selected NGSS Connections:

ETS1.A: Defining and Delimiting Engineering Problems
ETS1.B: Developing Possible Solutions
  • There are systematic processes for evaluating solutions with respect to how well they meet the criteria and constraints of a problem.
ETS1.C: Optimizing the Design Solution

Selected PS/ES Core Curriculum Concepts:
Standard 1-Analysis, Inquiry, Design: Engineering Design

  • Key Idea 1: Engineering design is an iterative process involving modeling and optimization (finding the best solution within given constraints); this process is used to develop technological solutions to problems within given constraints.

Standard 7-Interdisciplinary Problem Solving

  • Key Idea 1: The knowledge and skills of mathematics, science, and technology are used together to make informed decisions and solve problems, especially those relating to issues of science/technology/society, consumer decision making, design, and inquiry into phenomena.
  • Key Idea 2: Solving interdisciplinary problems involves a variety of skills and strategies, including effective work habits; gathering and processing information; generating and analyzing ideas; realizing ideas; making connections among the common themes of mathematics, science, and technology; and presenting results.


                Dreams of exploring other worlds have probably existed since people first realized that the Moon, planets, and stars were beyond Earth’s atmosphere. The War of the Worlds, published by H. G. Wells in 1897, inspired a teenager in Massachusetts to dream about space travel. Robert Goddard wrote that the “Dream of Yesterday is the Hope of Today and the Reality of Tomorrow.” Through extensive experimentation, Goddard developed the liquid-fueled and multistage rockets, establishing the basis for later advances which ushered in the Space Age.
During World War II, German scientists developed V-2 rockets, also known as “buzz bombs, which created tremendous damage in Britain. When the war ended, many of these scientists were captured by US and USSR troops. They were offered reprieves from trials as war criminals if they agreed to work for their conquerors.
The world was astounded to learn that the USSR successfully launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, during the International Geophysical Year of 1957-58. A few months later, the US launched Explorer 1, and the Space Race was on. Within little more than a decade, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first people to set foot on the Moon.  

                It is impossible to image our modern world without technologies dependent on the thousands of satellites orbiting Earth. Cell phones and other communication systems, GPS, weather and other environmental monitoring, and much more rely on such technologies. At the same time, understanding of the Solar System and Deep Space have advanced greatly through Earth-orbiting instrumentation aboard the Hubble Space Telescope and International Space Station, as well as the many space probes providing close looks at other planets, their moons, asteroids, and comets.

                As a teacher of Astronomy, you should know a bit about the history of space travel, current expeditions, and future plans. Many of these are available through the NASA web pages.


History of Space Travel
                People like me growing up in the 1950s-1970s watched in awe as we read about or watched on our black-and-white TVs launches of rockets carrying, first, apes and then the seven Project Mercury Astronauts, the first Americans in Space. We were witnesses to the advances during the Gemini Project, when people first ‘walked in Space.’ The Apollo Project brought us closer and closer to the Moon, until that July day when Neil Armstrong set foot and proclaimed. “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for Mankind.”

                During the 1970s, other teams of US astronauts went to the Moon and back. The first successful space stations were placed in orbit, and the space shuttle program began. Advances in technologies since then created the satellite-based communication and navigation systems essential to our modern world.  We have proceeded from awe as we witnessed history being made to celebrations of achievements that occurred decades ago.

                NASA is not the only agency active in exploring Space. You may want to learn more the European Space Agency, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, and those in many other countries, including Brazil.  


                Browse through NASA History and other resources to learn about some of the significant events in space exploration.
Create a table listing at least ten that you think your students should be aware of.


                Also examine the home page of the International Aeronautical Federation to learn more about projects conducted through cooperation among national programs.
Write an “elevator speech” about this organization.


Current Space Exploration

                Although we are well past the era of “Firsts” in Space Exploration, there are still many exciting missions occurring now. As this is written, the Juno spacecraft went into orbit around Jupiter. Images captured by the Hubble Space Telescope continue to expand understanding of the Universe. Curiosity is still travelling over the Martian surface to help us learn more about the Red Planet.


Read about some of the current
NASA Missions and provide brief descriptions of three that your students should be aware of. You may want to look at missions throughout the Solar System.

                NASA is not the only agency active in exploring Space.


Future Space Exploration

                 It has been evident from the beginning that to make dreams come true, space exploration requires extensive teamwork and extensive lead time. Engineers, technicians, scientists, logistic experts, and hundreds of other people are now striving to create the missions planned for the next decade or more.

                For example, NASA and others are preparing for a manned Journey to Mars. The first “A” in NASA means “Aeronautics,” and many efforts are underway to develop new vehicles for travel here on Earth. NASA points with pride at the many benefits for people around the world that resulted from past inventions and technologies.



                Examine resources about plans for future space exploration and write 3 – 4 paragraphs about missions you think would be of special interest during the next decade or two.


How Do We Excite and Educate the Next Generation of Space Scientists?

                The Stennis Space Center in Mississippi has a storied history for its many contributions to the US space program, such as being where the Saturn V rocket that propelled the Apollo astronauts to the Moon. It is also where programs are offered to inspire students to become the next generation of space explorers. Their educational activities provide opportunities for elementary, middle and high school students and teachers to engage in hands-on activities during school years and summers. Selected college and high school students serve internships that provide opportunities to become part of real research being conducting by NASA scientists. Additional educational programs are available at the nearby Infinity Science Center.

                Many more programs are available through the NASA Science Centers, the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum, and other institutions across the country. Extensive efforts are being made to identify and attract creative young scholars who are willing to undertake the challenges of turning dreams into achievements. Special efforts are being made to bring in more from traditionally underrepresented groups.



                Find out about some of these programs and write 1 – 2 paragraphs about how you might try to encourage one or more of your students to apply for them.


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