Position Paper: Where to Send NASA's Next Big Mission

John Weiss, Carleton College
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This material was developed as part of the Carleton Teaching Activity Collection and is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project
Initial Publication Date: December 6, 2010 | Reviewed: December 10, 2020


In this paper, students weigh the merits and costs of various possible targets for further robotic exploration. They consider what we might understand better by exploring each target and how that new understanding may aid us, either for practical benefits or toward our better understanding of the universe. On the other side, they must also compare the costs of their proposed mission: bigger, longer, more distant, or more difficult missions all cost more and therefore require a stronger justification to the American taxpayer and policy-maker.

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Learning Goals

A synthesis and evaluation of much of what they have learned by the end of the introductory astronomy course (focused on the solar system). Since almost everything discussed in the course is a viable target, they get to spend time mulling over much of the course material before evaluating the merits of many choices. In addition, they should learn how to better craft a data-driven argument, preferably with hard numbers.

Context for Use

This paper occurs at the end of a term wherein we have studied the solar system in reasonable detail. (The class is an introductory astronomy course, so student comfort and knowledge of chemistry and physics are limiting factors for the depth of our study.) This is also typically the third or fourth data-driven argument piece I have had them write when this appears, so they have some experience and some feedback about how these kinds of arguments work.

Description and Teaching Materials

Prompt for NASA Mission Activity (Acrobat (PDF) 80kB Dec1 10)
Peer Feedback Form (Acrobat (PDF) 21kB Dec1 10)
Rubric (Acrobat (PDF) 65kB Dec1 10)

Teaching Notes and Tips


On the earlier essays, I struck to a grading rubric (included). For this one, I still used that approximate weighting as a guide, but I didn't follow it exactly. By this stage, students knew enough what to expect that I wanted the extra freedom to tackle unexpected issues.

References and Resources