Hi, I’m Michael, Program Coordinator at the Space Centre

A few weeks ago, Trish talked about rocket science, and the history of rockets. Since the early days of Robert Godard’s designs, to the Saturn V rocket for the Apollo missions, to the Falcon 9 rocket that Space X just launched, the design of rockets has been fairly uniform. This week, I’m exploring the future of rockets, and where they may take us next!

Different kinds of rockets have different purposes. The enormous Saturn V rockets were designed to get humans to the Moon, about 384,400 km away. Since our last visit to the Moon was in 1972, it’s no wonder that the Saturn V rocket remains the largest rocket ever built. Our current focus is in what we call low Earth orbit, up to 2000 km above Earth, and the main destination has been the International Space Station. Rockets used to reach lower Earth orbit are much smaller than Saturn V but there have been some exciting new developments.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



Image credit: NASA

What we saw on May 30th, when Space X launched their new Falcon 9, was the first time NASA astronauts went into space on a new rocket design since the Space Shuttle (1981-2011). The exciting advancement in this new design is that is has reusable rocket boosters that land back on the Earth. Check out the footage of them landing, it’s right out of science fiction! These reusable boosters bring down the cost of space flight and may eventually open up space travel for commercial flights—perhaps someday you could take a vacation to space!

What you may notice from all of these rockets is that they similar, besides varying in size. Their long, slender aerodynamic design lets the rocket efficiently cut through our atmosphere. Once the rocket is in space though, it’s a different story. What are the possibilities of new spacecraft design once we escape Earth’s atmosphere? Well, the purpose of the spacecraft will influence its design and aeronautical engineers, the people who design spacecraft, use Newton’s laws of motion to help guide their work.

If we’re heading to the outer solar system with a probe like New Horizons and its payload of scientific instruments instead of humans, we want to make the spacecraft as compact and light as possible—this limits the amount of fuel to reach its destination.

If we want to tackle the next big challenge, getting humans to Mars, we’ll need to design a spacecraft that humans can live in for about 7 months. Current spacecraft aren’t suitable. If we build a bigger spacecraft we’d need to have even bigger rockets to launch from Earth, unless we re-think our approaches to space travel – new fuels, new methods, new designs.

What kind of rockets will we need next? As humans continue to work more in space, we will find different needs and purposes for these rockets. We are only limited by our ingenuity, creativity, and imagination.

I hope this has inspired you to start dreaming about what rockets and spacecraft might look like in the future. We’ve pulled together a couple of playlists to hopefully inspire you further. Go through the playlist at your own pace. Here’s how we suggest you start:

Junior Astronomer Playlist (kids 8-12)
TimeActivity
30mins.

NASA’s newest rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS) and the spacecraft Orion are designed to take humans to the Moon and beyond. Watch a few videos from NASA’s Rocket Science in 60 Seconds and learn about the building of the SLS rocket system from the people involved.

Ask yourself: What surprises you about the people involved in designing and building rockets?

20mins.

Read about the different kinds of engineers who worked on the rocket. Download the activity sheet of the engineer that most interests you.

Ask yourself: What is it about the type of engineering that interests you?

30mins.

Learn to draw a rocket with this activity.

Ask yourself: How would you improve the rocket’s design?

90mins.

Use what you’ve learned about rockets and design your own rocket. Before you begin drawing think about what your rocket’s mission, how long that mission might be and whether humans are going to be transported by it. Draw your design on paper and share it with us.

Ask yourself: What would be the most challenging part of taking your design from paper to building the actual rocket?

Senior Astronomer Playlist (teens 13-15/adults)
TimeActivity
30mins.

NASA’s newest rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS) and the spacecraft Orion are designed to take humans to the Moon and beyond. Watch a few videos from NASA’s Rocket Science in 60 Seconds and learn about the building of the SLS rocket system from the people involved.

Ask yourself: What surprises you about the people involved in designing and building rockets?

15mins.

Read this overview about how rocket engines work and watch these two short videos about how engineers use rocket fuel and gravity to propel the SLS.

Rocket fuel video
Gravity video

60mins.

Listen to the interview with Jason Derleth, Program Executive for NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Program as he talks about how science fiction can inspire future human space travel on the podcast Concepts Near Science Fiction.

Ask yourself: What role do you think science fiction might have in future human space exploration?

30mins.

Read more about other ways engineers are looking at fueling rockets.

Green fuel
Graphene foam

Ask yourself: What advancements in propelling rockets do you think engineers will need to make in order for humans to explore beyond the Moon?

60mins.

 

Use what you’ve learned about rockets and design your own rocket. Before you begin drawing think about what your rocket’s mission, how long that mission might be and whether humans are going to be transported by it. Draw your design on paper and share it with us.

Ask yourself: What would be the most challenging part of taking your design from paper to building the actual rocket?