Earth and Space Science > Activities > Spacecraft Design for Interplanetary Travel

Spacecraft Design for Interplanetary Travel

John Walsh
Southampton Intermediate School
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Student groups will design and build a model spacecraft to travel to one of the planets within our solar system. Using internet resources to research the hazards of space travel and special features of their assigned planet, students will use common household items and recycled materials to build their space vehicle. An accompanying Power Point or video presentation will explain the unique features of each group's design. Teams will present their model and slide show/video to the rest of the class as a culminating activity.

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Learning Goals

Students will understand that space is a hazardous environment. Above the insulating layers of Earth's atmosphere, spacecraft are subjected to increased radiation exposure, extremes of temperature (both hot and cold), space weather (meteor showers), and possible collision from space debris. Launch and re-entry pose special challenges as well related to intense vibrations and heat shielding.

Students will gain an understanding of forces and motion as they research various propulsion systems that will allow their spacecraft to escape Earth's gravitational pull.

Students will also become familiar with the special characteristics of each planet within our solar system. Surface features, distance from the Sun, temperature variations, and the presence (or absence) of an atmosphere and rings are all factors that students must consider when designing an aircraft for space travel.

Context for Use

I teach in a public intermediate school and plan to use this activity with my 8th grade Earth Science students as an extra credit project after teaching about our solar system. My classes range from 24 to 36 students each, so I will have kids work in teams of four to complete this activity over the course of 6-8 weeks. Teams will present their models along with a Power Point or video presentation explaining the details of their design.
My teaching experience has shown that kids are fascinated by space travel and current/future NASA missions. Consequently, I believe this activity is appropriate for any science class grades 6-12. It could be a project worked directly into any science curriculum having to do with space, simple/complex machines, engineering design, or even current events. Younger children may be given a longer time frame to complete their model spacecraft, and an accompanying Power Point presentation may not be required. An added extension for high school students may be to include some of the moons of our planets in their challenge.

Prior to assigning this lesson, students should be familiar with some of the dangers of space travel and special characteristics of the planets within our solar system. Making a real-world connection to "Space Tourism" would also be appropriate since students will have the opportunity for suborbital flights within the next few years.


I think it would be advantageous to introduce this project after discussing "Space Tourism" and showing pictures of the suborbital spacecraft already built and flown by the leading companies: Virgin Galactic, XCOR, SPACE-X,and Spaceport America. These are just some of the companies that may take our students to space and back within the next few years! What a wonderful segway to designing a spacecraft for interplanetarytravel!
Another good way to introduce this activity would be as an extension to the topics of "The History of Flight" or "The History of Space Travel." NASA is already designing a new rocket to get us back to the moon someday, then on to Mars. This project challenges students to design a reusable launch vehicle to explore the other planets (and/or moons) in our solar system.

Description and Teaching Materials

In-Class Activities

1. Students will be introduced to the hazards of space travel and special features of the planets (and/or moons) within our solar system. The following web sites may be helpful to the teacher for concise explanations of these topics:

Dangers of Space Travel,or.r_gc.r_pw.&cad=b

Planetary Characteristics

2. Students will choose their own team of 4 (or be assigned to a group by their teacher). Each group will then "select" a planet (or moon) by picking the name out of a "hat." Teams will use classroom computers (or computers in a lab or at home) to research the special characteristics of their planet/ moon. The following interactive web sites may be useful because they are both fun and educational:

The teacher may want to have students fill out a data table that summarizes the special features of their planet/moon. A sample table can be found at the following site:

3. Introduce the topic of "Space Tourism" by showing several of the suborbital spacecraft already built and flight tested. The following web sites are links to the leading companies in this new field of space exploration:

Space Tourism

Suborbital Spacecraft

4. Inform students that in order to travel to their chosen planet or moon, they must build a reusable model spacecraft with specific parameters in mind. Primarily, their design must include protection from:

a. Launch and re-entry

b. Space radiation

c. Cosmic storms

d. Space debris

e. Special features of their planet/moon (including surface features, temperature extremes, presence of an atmosphere, rings etc.).

f. The spacecraft must also be reusable!

Show students the following web sites so they might get some ideas about spacecraft designs:

Spacecraft Designs

5. Pass out loose leaf paper and allow teams to brainstorm ideas for their spacecraft design. Instruct them to primarily use household items and recycled materials to build their models (to keep expenses to a minimum).

6. Inform student groups of the required timeline for this project, and tell them to be creative and to "think outside the box." Most importantly, HAVE FUN and WORK AS A TEAM!

7. Student groups will take turns orally presenting their model and slide show/video to the rest of the class.

At Home Assignments

This activity may be accomplished during class time over an extended period, or solely as an out-of-class project. I plan to require student groups of four to complete it on their own time with specific deadlines (two weeks each) for when they should 1) complete the research on their spacecraft design, 2) collect/purchase their materials and supplies, 3) build their model, 4) and make their Power Point/video presentations. If this activity is to be used as a year-end culminating project, the teacher may assign each part to be completed at the end of a semester.

Students may visit the following web sites to learn about the various suborbital aircraft already built and flight tested. These models should help students get some ideas for spacecraft design.


The materials for this project can be anything from the classroom, home, or purchased from a store. I would encourage students to use household items and recycled supplies so they do not spend a lot of money on this project.


Standard 1: Students will use mathematical analysis, scientific inquiry, and engineering design, as appropriate,
to pose questions, seek answers, and develop solutions.

Standard 4: Students will understand and apply scientific concepts, principles, and theories pertaining to the
physical setting and living environment and recognize the historical development of ideas in science.

Standard 5: Students will apply technological knowledge and skills to design, construct, use, and evaluate products
and systems to satisfy human and environmental needs.

Standard 7: Students will apply the knowledge and thinking skills of mathematics, science, and technology to
address real-life problems and make informed decisions.

Teaching Notes and Tips

After introducing the topic of "Space Tourism," hold a class discussion on commercial space travel. It is not an idea of the future - it is an opportunity of the present! We have already had several citizens fly in space with the Russian cosmonauts, and numerous suborbital spacecraft have been developed and successfully flight tested. Every one of us will have the opportunity to experience micro gravity in the near future. Our students will soon be able to travel to other planets within our solar system as well. This activity will allow them to be creative and think outside the box as student groups design and build their own reusable spacecraft. Let them use their imaginations with no wrong answers. I guarantee you will be pleasantly surprised by the finished product!


Since I only recently made up this activity, I have no links to student work pages, record sheets, or evaluation forms. I plan to create a sample rubric for my 8th grade Earth Science students that can be modified for other grade levels.

References and Resources

The references and resources used have been supplied throughout this lesson as Internet links. A summary of those links is provided below:

Space Tourism

Spacecraft Designs

Suborbital Spacecraft

Space Hotels