Purpose: Students will look at the past, present and future of spaceflight. They will learn how astronauts were once selected, how they are chosen today and how they might be chosen in the future. Students will discuss how having astronauts from diverse scientific professions, with diverse backgrounds and diverse physical abilities can improve space science and exploration.

Procedural overview: Students will read “Artemis missions will usher in a new, more diverse crew of astronauts” from Science News online. They will reflect on how most early astronauts were military fighter pilots and learn about the diversity of the current community of astronauts. After discussing what it might mean to have a more diverse community of astronauts now and in the future, students will share past experiences where working with a diverse group helped them accomplish a goal. Finally, students will imagine the future of space travel and will write about a diverse group of astronauts facing a challenge in space.

Approximate class time: 1 class period

Supplies:

Lined paper

Calculators

Directions for teachers:

The setup

Have students read the article “Artemis missions will usher in a new, more diverse crew of astronauts” from Science News online as homework. The article appeared in the Dec. 3, 2022 print edition of Science News with the title “Who gets to go to space?”

Help your students understand the meaning of diversity in groups before you begin.

The past

After students read the article, they will learn how NASA historically chose astronauts and consider the diversity of the early astronauts.

Encourage students to think critically when answering the following questions. The students might want to do some supplemental online research.

1. Why do you think NASA selected fighter pilots to be the first astronauts?

Student answers will vary. Fighter pilots already knew how to fly, so they were easy to train as astronauts.

2. Why was there a height restriction for the first astronauts?

The space capsules were small; the astronauts needed to be able to fit in them.

3. What was the diversity like in this first group of astronauts? Be descriptive.

The first groups of astronauts were not diverse. All the astronauts were white and male, and they had the same training. They were all fighter pilots.

4. Why do you think it was beneficial to have military fighter pilots as the first astronauts?

The fighter pilots were trained to fly in dangerous situations and accepted that there were similar risks involved with space travel. Because of their experiences, they were expected to react calmly and solve technical issues as they arose.

5. Eugene Cernan was an astronaut on Apollo 17. Cernan was both an engineer and a fighter pilot, but stated that “Science is not the reason we learned to fly.” Do you agree with his statement? Why or why not?

Student answers will vary. I agree with Cernan’s statement because flying to the moon and back was the goal of the Apollo missions. I disagree with Cernan’s statement because one of NASA’s goals is to explore and learn more about space.

The present

After learning about the past, students will look at how NASA’s astronaut pool has become more diverse and will analyze the “Science expertise” diagram from “Artemis missions will usher in a new, more diverse crew of astronauts.” In their diagram analysis, students will calculate the percentage of astronauts with science and military backgrounds and observe how astronaut diversity has changed over time.

Make sure that students have access to the diagram and a calculator while answering the questions. Before finishing this section, students will answer a question about their own experiences working in a diverse group.

After students answer the questions, ask them to share their answers to question number 7. Students may voluntarily share with a partner or share with the full class. Question 7 is meant to spark a discussion around the importance of diversity.

If needed, use the following questions to help guide the discussion toward the topic of diversity.

How were people in your group able to help you?/How were you able to help them?

What would have happened if most of the people in your group had been exactly like you? Would you have been able to complete your goal? What were the benefits of working with a diverse group of people?

1. Why do you think NASA sent a geologist to the moon as one of the first science-astronauts?

NASA sent the geologist to the moon because geologists study the composition of the Earth and could study the composition of other planets or moons. This means sending him to the moon would give us more information about the moon’s composition that could not be observed through samples alone.

2. Look at the diagram titled “Science expertise” and determine what percentage of Apollo astronauts had a science background. What percentage had a military background?

32 total astronauts

15 astronauts with a science background, 15/32 = .46875 = 47%

28 astronauts with a military background, 28/32 = .875 = 88%

3. What percentage of current NASA astronauts have a science background? What percentage have a military background?

43 total astronauts

43 astronauts with a science background, 43/43 = 1 = 100%

26 astronauts with a military background, 26/43 = .60465 = 60%

4. How has the scientific training of astronauts changed over time? Use your calculations and the diagram to support your answer.

Over time, astronauts have become more diverse in their scientific training. Most astronauts on the Apollo missions had no advanced science degrees and came from the military. Of the astronauts with science backgrounds on the Apollo missions, most were engineers. Only 2 of the 32 astronauts focused on other sciences. Now, all astronauts have scientific backgrounds.

5. What do you think is the benefit of having a crew with diverse scientific backgrounds?

Having a crew with diverse scientific backgrounds will help us learn more about space as the scientists (astronauts) will be able to directly observe what they encounter there. The astronauts will also have different knowledge and ways of thinking that may help them find creative solutions to any problems they may encounter. For example, scientists could be trained to perform specific experiments when in space. These experiments would be designed on Earth, so adapting them to the conditions present in space would require skills derived from many years of scientific practice. Having astronauts familiar with these scientific practices would be beneficial to adapt experiments so that they still yield accurate results.

6. In what other ways have astronauts become more diverse?

Astronauts used to be primarily white males. The pool of astronauts today includes women and people of color.

7. Think of a time when you worked in a diverse group. How did having diverse perspectives help you accomplish a goal?

Student answers will vary. I was struggling while working on a biology project about pill bugs and could not figure out how to test their response to stimuli. A member of our group, who hikes regularly, said that they usually find pill bugs under logs. I asked why they thought that pill bugs preferred hiding under logs, and they said that they think it’s because it is dark, damp and cool. I then suggested that we test the bugs’ response to light. A different member of the group, who likes to build things at home, suggested that we could use two connected containers, one covered and one uncovered, to see which container the pill bugs preferred. Because I knew nothing about pill bugs, I needed the knowledge and perspectives of my group members to help design the experiment.

The future

Students will use their creative writing skills to describe what space travel might look like some day. The questions below are designed to help students develop ideas for their fictional story. The questions can be used to create characters, settings and plotlines. After developing their ideas, students can write their story as homework.

1. What does the quote “We can’t become a spacefaring species if only some of us can go” mean to you?

Student answers may vary. This quote means that space should become a place that anyone can travel to, no matter their race, nationality, ability or knowledge. This quote means that space could become a place for humanity to search for new planets as our current planet cannot sustain our current resource use.

2. Why is AstroAccess organizing flights for people with disabilities?

The AstroAccess flights for people with disabilities could help us understand potential challenges that astronauts could face in space and help design spacecraft to navigate these challenges.

3. Describe a problem or challenge that astronauts could face during space travel.

Student answers will vary. Astronauts could have a problem with their equipment that causes the cabin to fill with smoke, making them unable to see. Without being able to see and having gravity to orient them, it would make performing tasks such as navigating extremely hard. Astronauts could have a problem with their spaceship when leaving a planet, leaving them stranded. They would have to adapt to the planet’s harsh conditions and work together to survive. Astronauts could have a problem where Earth becomes uninhabitable during their mission, making them the last humans left alive. This would mean that they have no backup or support from Earth and are entirely on their own in figuring out how to survive in space.

4. What might a diverse space crew look like in the future?

Student answers will vary. The crew members probably come from different places around the world, speak a variety of languages and have different professions, which are not limited to the sciences.

5. Create a diverse space crew, describing what experiences and motivations are bringing them to space.

Student answers will vary. Bob is a teacher from the United States of America who wants to help his students experience space; Aabha is an engineer from India who is an expert in advanced rocketry, and Grace is a European filmmaker who is making a documentary about spaceflight.

6. How could each member of the team contribute to solving a problem or challenge you identified?

Student answers may vary. The problem is smoke is filling the spacecraft. The filmmaker would turn on emergency lights for the spacecraft. Bob the teacher, who is blind, would fix the equipment issue with guidance from the engineer, since he is used to using equipment while unable to see. When the astronauts notice that the spacecraft is grounded and cannot return to earth, the filmmaker, who gardens at home, would start planting seeds in the greenhouse while the engineer would set up the lights and other equipment needed for the greenhouse. In the meantime, the teacher would set a schedule for the emergency rations by calculating how many emergency rations they each can use until the plants are harvestable.

Space stories

Using ideas developed from the prompt questions, students can write a creative story that shows how a diverse crew of astronauts could navigate a problem or challenge in space.

A good creative story includes strong characters, a well-described setting and a plausible plotline. The plot should make sense relative to the characters and the situations they find themselves in. Students should aim for a story of at least 250 words.

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