As far back as records began, man gazed up at the stars hoping to discover what lies beyond them. Once the world itself must have seemed very small but, technological progress made it possible to discover new worlds on our planet. Once all geographical barriers were broken down and the world was mapped, it was inevitable that we would again gaze up at the distant stars and imagine how we might reach them. In the last century, what was once mere science fiction became science fact when a man walked on the surface of the moon and we are now looking at reaching, and potentially colonising, planets we once never knew existed.
There can’t be a young boy or girl who hasn’t been inspired by the advances in space technology and travel and, while we once dreamt of becoming an astronaut, there is so much more we can do through technology to learn more about space and space technology. Here are five ways you can link your Stem or design and technology teaching to space.
It’s unlikely that most of us will become astronauts and experience what it’s like to live and work in space, but advantages in virtual reality can put us in an environment so photorealistic that we would think we were there. Spacewalks, repairs and even strapping in for the launch sequence are all now possible in the classroom with technology that can even run on a smartphone.
Imagine losing a tool or a vital component while in space. You can’t exactly pop down to the local hardware store, and it would cost millions of pounds to send those parts up on another rocket. With advances in 3D printing, it is now possible for the crew of the spaceships to print their own replacement parts in plastic and in metal. Resources are available for you to try and recreate a simple tool and component in your own classroom.
But 3D printing is not just about making replacement parts – the way it can print an internal lattice structure has caused us to rethink how components are made. Using 3D printing components can now be made lighter yet stronger. Airbus has already pioneered this in their planes and wherever weight needs to be kept to a minimum and strength is needed, 3D printed parts can provide components that no other manufacturing technique can match.
Maths and science
Maths and science are an important part of the technology curriculum and compulsory at examination level, so what better way to factor these subjects into design and technology than by studying space technology. Graphing calculators for space shuttle ascent, differentiation and relative rates for the lunar landing, gravitational force and motion are just a few of the topics you can build into your teaching and learning. By using space technology to cover these, you can engage your students in topics that might otherwise be a little dry.
Technology and engineering
Maths and science may be vital in calculating how to launch from this planet and travel to another but it’s the technology and engineering of the vehicles, tools and other equipment to reach that goal and, eventually make it possible for a human being to be carried safely to distant planets. Nothing ever just appears – it is the result of careful planning, design and development, prototyping and manufacture. In fact, without the technology and engineering skills, space travel would still be just a theory.
Students can look at designing rockets and spacecraft and making models of their designs. On a more advanced theme, they can use computer-aided design (CAD) to model and simulate the forces on structures and shells. They could look at the coding necessary to operate a lunar vehicle remotely and the necessary communications technology, input and output sensors and the engineering needed to ensure such a vehicle can be operated from millions of miles away. In the future, artificial intelligence might be needed for such a vehicle to adapt to the surroundings. For the present, there is plenty of robotic and engineering work to be done and the results can be combined with virtual reality to give a sense of exploring planets ourselves.
A key feature of the new design and technology GCSE and A Level is the ability to explore a context before formulating a design brief based on an investigation into a problem or need. Space travel is now an accepted aspect of our modern lives and there will be further advances in the coming years. What a great starting point for a design context by considering the needs of those who will live and work in space. The need to exercise, eat, sleep and work all within a confined space with limited gravity pose problems that we simply cannot imagine here on earth. Considering the specific needs of others will be an invaluable exercise in developing problem-solving, critical thinking and creative skills.
And finally, what about a fresh start? Science and engineering have brought us to the point that we can finally reach the stars but what about the damage caused to our planet because of all that technological progress? What have we learnt from our mistakes and, if we were able to start a new life on another planet with that knowledge, what would we do differently? A great discussion to have with students to raise awareness of environmental concerns. After all, if the possibilities of space travel have opened our minds to the thought of leaving this planet someday, surely that can be the inspiration to look at what we still have and encourage students to implement change to improve the quality of life on the planet we currently inhabit.
Paul Woodward has taught and led design and technology in a variety of schools as well as working as a designer, examiner, moderator, resource author and D&T consultant. He is currently the Head of Creative Arts at a large independent school in the North of England
Find more resources on aerospace exploration at Airbus’ website