NASA Lunar Exploration Classroom Activity

by Elizabeth Keller

Christopher Halloran /

As a former scientist for NASA, I worked in the Space Life Science Payloads Office developing life science experiments for flight on board the space shuttle.  I was closely involved in the design, prototyping, testing and implementation of space flight hardware that would keep living specimens (rats, for example) alive, well, and happy while they ‘hung out’ in space in the payload bay.  There was an enormous amount of planning, experimentation, testing and validating of experimental procedures, as well as making sure the experimental housing was self-contained and required minimal maintenance by the payload crew (the astronauts). A lot of what we did involved planning operations for an environment we ourselves would not actually be working in and providing contingencies for ‘what happens if…’ situations that could come up (especially if you’re not there to babysit and fix your experiments on the spot).  Our work literally took our projects out of this world. Now you can give your students a classroom experience that closely models the procedures we really use at NASA to plan space missions.

Some really savvy education outreach coordinators at NASA have planned some fantastic classroom activities that will give students the opportunity to experience what it’s like to plan a space mission (click here to check out the resources). After looking through the instructor guide for the “Lunar Nautics Space Mission” I have to give these activities two thumbs way, way up and encourage you to get the support you need to try these in your classroom.  It will be a learning experience like no other that just may light the fires of inspiration under a budding scientist or two in your classroom.  Almost all of these well-thought-out projects use inexpensive, every day materials and involve a lot of hands-on activities that are challenging and just plain fun.  Some of them are even edible!

There’s a great deal of flexibility built into these instructional guides that give you the option of either planning a week-long ‘Space Camp’ , or just doing a four hour classroom activity.  Each activity is clearly planned out, starting with the purpose and goal of the activity, and includes a list of materials needed and any preparation that needs to be done.  There are clear instructions for the procedure and data sheets for recording, and students are required to work in groups.  The activity guide is intended for use for students between 6th and 8th grade, but I can see these activities working in a high school classroom as well.  What I really love about this guide is all the hands-on stuff for students to do – not your usual paper and pencil exercises that bore them to tears.

Here’s a sampling of some of the projects that sound like a blast:

* Building a Pioneer space craft out of food and candy
* Making a working rocket out of a soda bottle
* Designing and building a model Lunar Lander out of recycled materials
* Extracting Lunar Core Samples – made of candy bars
* Constructing a Lunar Rover out of candy
* Lunar Base egg drop
* Space suit designer
* Potato astronaut
* Building a solar oven to cook a hot dog
* Constructing a microgravity sled that can be tested under water

Students will use photographs of the surface of the moon to select where they plan to set their lunar mission.  The activities have students plan everything from what the science goals of the lunar mission will be (collecting soil samples? Capturing video?) to thinking about all of the equipment they will need, designing and building that equipment, estimating the cost, schedule, timeline and even contingencies. A couple of the most involved projects have students preparing presentations and proposals to request funding for their project. Whew!

The best part of the entire activity guide is the probing questions and prompts that are included.  Far from being just words on the page for teachers to mutter in the background while students are working on these projects, they impart the most important lesson students can learn from going through a mock-up mission planning exercise: the fact that your first, or even your sixth design may not even work, or be the best solution for helping you achieve your mission objectives.  Students should experience first-hand the process of designing and inventing and having their designs fail.  Too often kids want to give up after the first attempt, but they need to know that the most successful inventors, designers, and engineers don’t always get it right the first time and that’s just part of the process.  Persistence, patience, and tenacity are the best tools for getting it right eventually.  Because these activities require students to work together in groups, for their team to be successful they will have to cooperate…..just like in real life, for the grown-ups who really do this for a living for NASA.

All of the materials are free to download from NASA’s website.  You can even order the companion CD that includes software and supporting materials for the activity.  You’ll find more information about this Lunar Mission activity guide here:


Elizabeth Keller has been a scientist since she was six years old. She has a deep-seated love of science, studying it both inside and outside of school and then working for NASA as a scientist after finishing her graduate degree. She is the mother of four spirited daughters and lives in California.