This lesson is designed for middle school students with no previous knowledge of astronomy or the history of astronomy. In this lesson, students are introduced to the space race between the US and Russia, the contributions to space exploration by the US and Russia, some of the space missions conducted by the US, and current space missions.There are a number of video recordings, audio recordings, and images referenced in this lesson. You don't have to use all of them, but be sure to allow ample time for the ones you choose to use.

Group Size:


Learning Objectives:

  • Describe the competitive nature of the space race between the US and Russia and the contributions of each
  • Explain the importance of select missions in US history
  • Describe select current space missions

Guiding Question:

Why was the Scientific Revolution important and how did it contribute to progress?


Images and a laptop/computer that has access to the audio and video files used in this lesson.

Additional resources:



[Note: This lesson in its entirety with images can be found as an attached pdf and doc file. I usually like to set the scene for this lesson by describing the tension between the US and Russia in the 1950's, but if you'd like to keep that part out, feel free to do so.]

Lesson Summary:

  • Describe the space race between the US and Russia
  • Introduce the Vostok mission, orbit missions, and the Apollo missions
  • Discuss current space shuttle designs and the tragedies of Columbia and Challenger
  • Describe the difference between Space Probes, Space Stations, and Space Shuttles
  • Introduce a few current space missions

Lesson: The us space program + Current exploration

The Race for Space
The space race began in the 1950s. At that time, the Soviet Union was the greatest rival to the United States in politics and military power. The tensions between the two nations were so high that they were said to be in a “Cold War.” These tensions increased when the Soviets sent a satellite into space: in 1957, the Soviets launched the Sputnik 1 satellite into orbit. Sputnik orbited the Earth at 18,000 miles/hour and emitted radio signals that could be received on Earth. In November 1957, the Soviets launched the first living animal into orbit: Laika, a dog, orbited the Earth aboard Sputnik 2.

The United States responded in 1958 by launching its own satellite. Explorer 1. Over the next few years, both the United States and the Soviet Union placed many satellites into orbit.

Humans in Space
In 1961 the space race heated up even more when the Soviets launched the first human into space. Yuri Gagarin flew one orbit around the Earth about the Vostok 1 satellite.

Less than one month later, the United States sent astronaut Alan Shepard into space aboard the Freedom 7. The first American to orbit Earth was John Glenn, who orbited the Earth in 1962 aboard the Friendship 7.

The Moon
In May 1961, President John F. Kennedy launched an enormous effort in space exploration: the goal of landing an astronaut on the moon with these words, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.” In July 1969, three American astronauts circled the moon aboard the Apollo 11 spacecraft. Once in orbit, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin entered a tiny space craft called the Eagle and descended onto the moon’s surface in an area called the Sea of Tranquility. For about 2 hours, Armstrong and Aldrin explored the moon’s surface, collecting samples, and planting a flag of the United States. The United States sent 8 missions to the moon in total and collected almost 400 kilograms of moon rocks.

After the great success of the moon landings, the question for space exploration was, “What comes next?” The United States turned our attention to the development of space shuttles and space stations where astronauts could live and work.

Space Shuttles
A space shuttle is an aircraft that can carry a crew into space, return to the Earth, and then be reused for the same purpose, unlike previous spacecraft that were one-time use only. A shuttle includes large rockets that launch it into orbit and then fall away. At the end of a mission, a shuttle returns to Earth by landing like an airplane. During a shuttle mission, astronauts live in a pressurized crew cabin where they can wear regular clothes and breathe without an oxygen tank. Behind the crew cabin is a large open area called the payload bay. The payload bay serves all kinds of purposes from carrying satellites to acting as a laboratory where astronauts can carry out experiments. Space shuttles typically carry seven crew members.

NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, has built 6 space shuttles. Tragically, two of those shuttles, Challenger and Columbia, were destroyed during their flights. Challenger was the second shuttle put into service by NASA. It completed 9 missions before disintegrating 73 seconds after launch on its 10th mission on January 28th 1986. Columbia was the first space worthy shuttle in the NASA shuttle fleet. It disintegrated on reentry on February 1st, 2003.

Space Stations
A space station is a large artificial satellite on which people can live and work for extended periods of time. A space station provides a place where long-term observations and experiments can be carried out in space. While both the United States and Soviet Union placed space stations in orbit in the 1970s and 1980s, 16 countries, including the United States, began planning and construction of the International Space Station in the 1980s. The International Space Station was set into orbit in 1998. The International Space Station has large batteries to guarantee that it always has power. But, the main source of power comes from 8 large arrays of solar panels. At full power, the solar panels produce enough electricity to power 55 Earth houses.

Space Probes
A space probe is a spacecraft that carries scientific instruments that can collect data but has no human crew. Each space probe is designed for its specific mission. Each space probe has a power system to produce electricity, a communication system to send and receive signals, and scientific instruments to collect data and perform experiments.

Probes have now visited or passed near to all of the planets. They have also explored many moons, asteroids, and comets. The information gathered by probes has given scientists many new insights about the environments of different planets and have helped solve some of the mysteries of the solar system.

As you all probably know, our space exploration did not stop with our trip to the moon. In fact, this past summer the space shuttle Endeavour traveled from August 8th – August 21st 2007 in space and had the chance to dock with the international space station. Endeavour is the fifth and final space shuttle operation for NASA.

But, that doesn’t mean we’re not trying to explore space in the mean time. In fact, right now there are several man-made probes serving as our remote eyes throughout the Solar System. Some perform useful and valuable observations on a daily basis, such as the Solar and Heliocentric Observatory, monitoring the Sun 24 hours a day. Others are relics from the dawn of space exploration, including the longest-living space probe ever made, NASA's Pioneer 6.

Spirit and Opportunity are two rovers currently exploring Mars as part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Mission. Spirit landed on January 4th, 2004, three weeks before Opportunity landed on the other side of Mars. The rovers have continued to function effectively over ten times longer than NASA planners expected, allowing it to perform extensive analysis of Martian rocks and planetary surface features; the mission has been extended to continue collecting data through the end of 2009.

Another ongoing space exploration mission is the Cassini- Huygens mission to study Saturn, and in particular it’s rings. Saturn's beautiful rings are what set it apart from the other planets in our solar system. It is the most extensive and complex ring system in our solar system, extending hundreds of thousands of miles from the planet. Made up of billions of particles of ice and rock - ranging in size from grains of sugar to houses - the rings orbit Saturn at varying speeds.

One of the newest projects NASA launched March 7, 2009, is the Kepler Mission, named after one of our favorite astronomers, Johannes Kepler. The goal of the Kepler Mission is to look for other Earth-like planets, or planets that may harbor life in other solar systems in our galaxy. In particular, Kepler is looking for Earth-sized planets and determining their orbits, mass, density, brightness, in order to determine the most probable star systems that harbor life. Kepler sent its first scientific data back to Earth on June 18th and scientists at NASA are now analyzing it.

The last space project we’re going to talk about is Hubble. Named after the trailblazing astronomer Edwin P. Hubble (1889-1953), the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) is a large, space-based observatory, which has revolutionized astronomy by providing unprecedented deep and clear views of the Universe, ranging from our own solar system to extremely remote fledgling galaxies forming not long after the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago.

Hubble has been able to capture some amazing images of our universe, including the deepest portrait of the visible universe ever achieved by humankind. Called the Hubble Ultra Deep Field (HUDF), the Black Eye galaxy which is galaxy that resulted from the collision of two galaxies, the birth of stars, the death of stars, and different galaxy views.


Students are asked to answer a series of short answer questions. The assessment can be found as a separate wiki page here, where there is also a pdf and doc version available for download.

Attached Files:

Space Program Lesson (pdf)
Space Program Lesson (doc)

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