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Who says people have lost interest in the space program?

April 13, 2012

This week marked another milestone in the end of the space shuttle program as the shuttle Discovery was flown for the last time to be displayed at the National Museum of Air and Space Udvar-Hazy Center (which is a must visit if you’re in the DC area).

Not too surprisingly, I think for many students and perhaps some adults, this event passed almost without notice. Many of my students were even too young to remember the Columbia disaster, and for reasons I can’t fully comprehend, the space program has fallen out of the public consciousness.

This is why if you haven’t seen it, you should watch this very moving testimony from Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson that places this decline on our collective failure to stop dreaming.

I can remember the excitement of the shuttle program in its heyday. In fact, one of my fondest memories of visiting my grandparents in Florida was getting to look through his albums of square photographs of all of the shuttle launches, which he attended almost religiously.

I agree with Dr. Tyson that the space program can fill us with dreams, regardless of who you are—young or old, male or female. That point was made abundantly clear to me this week when one of my former students, M, was successful in her quest to launch a space balloon, which I’ve written about before—here, here and here.

Here’s the video one of the students edited with footage of the launch:

This was an outstanding first launch. M and two students who I am now teaching have worked together all year long to help a very enthusiastic group of 6th and 7 graders design and build the space balloon. Unfortunately, some unforeseen hiccup caused the video from the camera to stop after 30 minutes of recording, so they only got some very nice high altitude photos of the school campus, along with a nice treat of an airplane flying the field of view of the camera when it was high over Atlanta.

If you watch the video, the enthusiasm of the students who participated in this project is strong and palpable. This excitement was even more evident in the photos as M recovered the balloon 2.5 hours southeast of Atlanta. The group is already hard at work with plans for their next launch, thinking about how they’ll add sensors to measure altitude and temperature, and how to troubleshoot their camera to make sure it can film the complete flight.

The total cost of this space balloon has been fairly minimal—probably less than $500. And the project itself has been done 100% by these students, with very little intervention from me. This gets me thinking that space balloons might be the answer to getting students more excited by about space exploration again, by helping them to become space explorers themselves. Maybe this could be the key to re-energizing the space program.

One last thought as I am contemplating how to bring more PBL into my classroom—I don’t see why building a space balloon has to be an extracurricular activity. This could be a great project for almost any science class from middle to high school to take on. Instead of memorizing all the names for various parts of the atmosphere in Earth Science, you’re actually studying them by measuring temperature and altitude. If you want to understand electronics, there are great lessons to be learned in electronics and programming by trying to build a circuit to connect altimeter and thermistor to an arduino. There’s plenty of physics involved in understanding the buoyant force that cause the air to rise, you can get into gas laws to predict when the balloon will burst, and how much Helium it will take to fill the balloon. If you’ve used a space balloon project in an actual course, I’d love to hear about it.

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