Blueprint to Blastoff: Free Engineering Materials for the Planetarium or Classroom

Talia-Bio-PhotoWe are offering 3 distinct educational modules, focusing on aspects of spacecraft engineering, to anyone with a planetarium or classroom who would like to use them. They supplement, but are independent of our newest show From Dream to Discovery: Inside NASA and are being shared free of charge.

This article was written by Talia Sepersky. She currently works as a planetarium educator at the Charles Hayden Planetarium, Museum of Science, Boston.

Intro: Putting the “E” back in “STEM”
Module 1: Fixing the Hubble Space Telescope
Module 2: Gravity And Space Travel
Module 3: Design a Mission
The Guides
Teacher Bundles

Intro: Putting the “E” back in “STEM”

When it comes to STEM, planetarium shows tend to be very good at covering the science, technology, and even the math portions, but engineering often gets left out. To help fill this void, in 2013 we, the staff of the Charles Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Science, Boston, teamed up with NASA to make a planetarium show about spacecraft engineering. The result of this partnership is the show “From Dream to Discovery: Inside NASA,” which explores what it takes to design, test, build, and fly a successful space mission.

As much as we would have liked to, we could not talk in detail about every part of spacecraft engineering during the show. However, through the partnership with NASA, we were able to expand on a few engineering topics from the show in three separate, supplementary education modules. We are extremely pleased to be able to offer these modules to anyone who wants to use them completely free of charge.

The modules themselves have three very different lengths, styles, and topics, and are designed to be presented in different ways. They can be used on a planetarium dome, and a flatscreen version permits their use on a conventional screen as well. Although each goes into depth on topics that are raised in “From Dream to Discovery: Inside NASA,” they all stand on their own and require no knowledge of the show itself. The three modules are: “Fixing the Hubble Space Telescope”, “Gravity and Space Travel”, and “Design a Mission”.

Module 1: Fixing the Hubble Space Telescope

We’ve found that many people in our audiences know that there was something wrong with Hubble when it launched, and that it was eventually fixed. However, few people tend to be aware of the details. The first of our modules, “Fixing the Hubble Space Telescope,” goes into some of those details. It’s the most straightforward of the three modules, consisting of a single video approximately eight minutes long. Large portions of the narration are undertaken by Dr. Jeffrey Hoffman, a former astronaut who flew on the first Hubble servicing mission.

With this module we wanted to focus on a specific case of spacecraft engineering, and Hubble Servicing Mission 1 provides a fantastic real life example. We also wanted to bring in the idea that failures can be instructive.

This module starts by introducing Hubble in space, and then describing how astronomers realized the telescope had a flaw, using some of Hubble’s earliest observations to make the point. It then takes Hubble apart to show the primary mirror and allow Dr. Hoffman to describe exactly what went wrong with making it.

While still looking at a cutaway view of Hubble, Dr. Hoffman goes on to explain the “fix” designed by engineers to repair Hubble, describing the arrangement of mirrors that allowed light entering Hubble’s tube to be refocused before landing on the detection instruments. While he is providing the narration, the visuals show this in action, following a light path all the way through Hubble to the instruments.

The module then moves on to the installation of the new optics on Hubble, with Dr. Hoffman talking about the work on the shuttle mission. This is accompanied by visuals of Hubble and the space shuttle in space, as well as actual video clips from the mission. In one of our favorite parts of this module, Dr. Hoffman shares his story of receiving the phone call that let him know the fix had worked, as well as some thoughts on what it felt like to actually touch Hubble. Some of the visuals for this portion include Hubble images, comparing pictures of the same objects before and after the repair.

The module concludes with the idea that we can learn from failures like Hubble’s. To quote Dr. Hoffman at the module’s end, “The important thing, though, is if you do have a failure, you really need to be able to learn from it. To have a failure that you don’t learn anything from, that’s tragic.”

Module 2: Gravity And Space Travel

It turns out that describing what goes on during a gravity assist can be tricky business. This module introduces some of the mechanics of the momentum transfer that happens during a gravity assist maneuver through Earth-based and space-based examples, as well as describing some of the various ways gravity assists can be used in a space mission.

Since gravity assists can be a tough subject to teach and the depth a presenter goes into will vary widely with different audiences, we designed this module to be as flexible as possible. It is broken up into five segments, each about 1-2 minutes in length (for a total of about 7 minutes of video). Each segment can be presented independently of the others if the presenter only wants to use some but not all. They can also follow after each other, with each segment building on the one before.

We created this format with the idea of using live interpretations in between each of the segments, to reiterate or emphasize the content covered in the previous segment and set up for the next one. However—maximum flexibility!—they can also be strung together to create one unbroken video, depending on the presenter’s preferred style. The core ideas behind momentum transfer and gravity assists are presented in segments 2 and 3, so our recommendation is that at least these two be used.

Segment 1 is relatively straightforward. It starts with the idea that spacecraft travel is often not as easy as pointing the spacecraft at its destination and giving it a push. It introduces the terms “gravity assist” and “momentum transfer” and also defines the word “momentum.”

Segment 2’s purpose is to help the audience gain a better understand of the transfer of momentum using an Earth-based example. To this end, we enlisted the help of a local roller derby team. We wanted to emphasize the idea that gravity assists work not just because the planets are large (i.e. have a lot of gravity) but because they are also moving (i.e. have a lot of momentum).

For this, we had one skater (designated Skater One) hold still and whip her teammates around her as they approach. While her teammates’ paths change, their speed remains more or less the same. We then recreated the same scenario with Skater One also in motion. This time, when she whips her teammates around, their speed increases noticeably even as Skater One’s decreases, due to the momentum transfer between them.

Segment 3 builds on the Earth-based example with a space-based one, specifically the New Horizons gravity assist flyby of Jupiter in February 2007. It starts by looking at what would have happened if New Horizons had gone directly from Earth to Pluto, then looks at the Jupiter flyby. The visuals show an overhead view of New Horizons approaching Jupiter and then visibly increasing its speed as it flies past. This segment uses some actual numbers to get across how much momentum Jupiter has to spare and to emphasize the fact that the planet is, for all practical purposes, not actually affected by losing some. It ends by describing the changes in New Horizons’ speed and flight time as a result of the flyby.

Since Segment 3 presents how a gravity assist can be used to speed a spacecraft up, Segment 4 explores how one can be used to slow a spacecraft down. It shows how the angle at which a spacecraft approaches a planet determines whether the planet transfers momentum to the spacecraft (to speed the spacecraft up) or the spacecraft transfers momentum to the planet (to slow the spacecraft down). It also re-emphasizes the idea that, no matter what the spacecraft does, it will have no practical effect on the planet.

The final segment, Segment 5, brings up the use of multiple gravity assists in a single mission, requiring careful planning many years in advance. To conclude, it loops back to the idea raised in Segment 1 that many space missions are only possible with the use of gravity assists (showing some of the rather convoluted paths these missions took), and that by making clever use of them we have vastly expanded our knowledge of the Solar System.

Module 3: Design a Mission

The “Design a Mission” module is the most interactive of the three and requires a live presentation. In this activity the audience, using information provided to them by the presenter, designs a spacecraft to search for signs of water in the Solar System. They have to choose a destination and then, based on that destination, a power source and whether their spacecraft will be a lander or orbiter. If they design their spacecraft well to suit their destination, the mission will succeed. If they do not, the mission will fail (and how it fails depends on the spacecraft design).

The module itself is made up of thirteen video clips to incorporate all the possible outcomes of the audience’s decisions. In total, the video clips make up about 35 minutes of footage, but a presenter should only need a fraction of that during any given presentation.

The first clip represents the audience’s first decision: will their spacecraft travel to Mars or Saturn in search of evidence of water? The visual for this clip is fairly basic, with images of both of those planets on the screen.

Once they’ve chosen the destination, the second clip represents the audience’s next decision: will the spacecraft be an orbiter or a lander? The presenter may want to provide the audience with some of the benefits and disadvantages of each, or ask the audience to come up with some on their own. The visual is of the two different styles of spacecraft. The “lander” option is based roughly on Cassini with a Huygens-style lander attached to its side.

The third decision is whether to make the spacecraft solar or nuclear-powered, and there are two clips that can potentially be used depending on whether the audience chose an orbiter or a lander. If they chose “lander,” the corresponding clip shows two versions of the lander-style spacecraft, one with solar panels and one without (the nuclear reactor is visible on the bottom edge of the nuclear-powered spacecraft, but is small and not immediately obvious like the solar panels). If they chose “orbiter” the visual is the same, with the orbiter-style spacecraft instead. Again, the presenter may want to make sure the audience knows the benefits and drawbacks of each choice.

Now that they have designed their spacecraft, it’s time to send it to the chosen planet and see if it succeeds. There are eight different clips to represent the eight possible outcomes of the audience’s choices. All start with a liftoff from Earth and a view of the spacecraft moving towards its destination. What happens once it starts moving depends on how well the spacecraft was designed.

The four Mars scenarios (nuclear orbiter, nuclear lander, solar orbiter, and solar lander) all succeed. The two lander scenarios make use of the landing sequence of the Curiosity rover for visuals. The landers will find evidence for water in the form of “blueberries,” frost, and silica deposits. The orbiters will find evidence of water from seeing river channels, hydrogen deposits, and rampart craters.

It’s much harder to succeed at Saturn, and only one scenario, the nuclear-powered orbiter, will lead to success. If the audience chose a solar-powered spacecraft, then as it moves through space towards Saturn the picture will turn to static to represent the spacecraft losing power and shutting down. If they chose a nuclear-powered lander, they will see a rather stunning sequence of their lander entering the atmosphere, heating up, and exploding. If they chose a nuclear-powered orbiter, they will find evidence of water in the geysers on Enceladus and in Saturn’s E Ring.

Since not all of the mission designs succeed, the presenter may wish to talk about failure in spacecraft engineering. To this end, we wanted to show audiences that the professionals also sometimes don’t get it right. The final clip shows images from four real life failed missions from different countries, specifically the Vanguard rocket, the Mars Climate Orbiter, the Phobos-Grunt mission, and the Akatsuki mission. As with the end of the “Fixing Hubble” module, the idea is to emphasize that failures happen, and that the important thing is to learn from them when they do.

The Guides

Between them, these three modules present a lot of information, some of it very specific. To make them as easy as possible for a large variety of institutions to use, we’ve also created planetarian guides to go with each. Our hope is that a presenter with no background in any of these three topics can make an effective presentation on any or all of them using just the material found in the corresponding planetarian guide. In addition to the script for the module, a set of FAQs, and a glossary, each guide contains copious background information as well as some suggestions for presentation.

The “Fixing Hubble” guide includes a layout of Hubble’s optics, even more detail about the flaw and how it was fixed, a brief breakdown of each of NASA’s Hubble servicing missions, and a list of Hubble specifications.

The “Gravity and Space Travel” guide goes into greater detail about the mechanics of gravity assists, how momentum is transferred, and why the spacecraft’s trajectory changes. It also looks at the usefulness of gravity assists on specific missions and provides a list of missions that have made notable uses of gravity assists. In the script section, it provides some guidelines for live interpretation in between the video segments as well instructions on how to recreate the roller skater demo from Segment 2 in house, using either staff or audience members.

The “Design a Mission” guide includes specific descriptions of each of the visuals in the clips and what they are designed to represent. There is an outline for the progression of the module, with some guidelines for discussion, background information on the pros and cons of landers, orbiters, solar power, and nuclear power, and a description of why each mission succeeds or fails. There is also a list of all of the video clips included with this module.

Separate from the planetarian guides, there is a set of educator guides for teachers using the modules in a standard classroom setting. The educator guides are geared more towards using the modules as part of a lesson in a school environment rather than a presentation in a planetarium show, and the information they include is not as detailed as that in the planetarian guides. There are also educator guides for topics not included in the modules, including “Waves and Information Transfer” and “Infrared Astronomy,” which also expand a bit on topics raised in the show “From Dream to Discovery.”


To ensure that many different institutions, classrooms, and other settings can make use of our modules, we are offering them in a variety of formats. The modules are all available in 1K, 2K, and 4K fulldome versions for planetarium domes. There are also flat versions available for use in standard classrooms or for anyone using a flatscreen projector (complete with captions).

4k domemaster downloads are available on the ESO Fulldome Archive.

Teacher Bundles

The Teacher Bundles for “Fixing Hubble” and “Gravity Assist” include the flatscreen captioned versions of the modules as well as the educator guides. The classroom version of “Design a Mission” is web-based, so the Teacher Bundle for that module includes the educator guide and link to the web-based activity. The modules page also includes a Teacher Bundle with the “Waves and Information Transfer” and “Infrared Astronomy” educator guides.

Copyright 2015 International Planetarium Society; article used with permission.

This material is based upon work supported by NASA under grant number NNX12AL19G. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed are those of the Museum of Science, Boston and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

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