If you asked any class of students, of any age, “What job would you do if you worked for Nasa?” the top answer would probably be astronaut. But of the 17,000 people employed at Nasa, only 38 are astronauts – 0.2 per cent of the workforce. So, if 99.8 per cent of the people working for Nasa aren’t astronauts, what do they do?
The space industry actually has a really diverse workforce. In my case, I’m a seismologist. I study earthquakes and now marsquakes, too. Nasa also employs specialists in disciplines as varied as geology, meteorology, engineering, IT and data science to name but a few.
All this means that for teachers trying to engage primary pupils in the idea of a career in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem), space exploration is a great place to start.
Mission from Mars
Take Nasa’s InSight Mission, for example. InSight is a robotic lander that set down on Mars in November 2018 with the aim of studying the physics of the Red Planet so that we can understand how it formed and why it’s now so different from Earth. This fun quiz could be a good way to help students start to learn about Mars and why the InSight Mission is so interesting.
The mission requires a wide-range of experts crucial to its success: seismologists to study the data from the seismometer on Mars and track marsquakes; planetary scientists to track meteorites and model the cratering they cause and how they fracture as they travel through the Martian atmosphere; meteorologists and atmospheric scientists to analyse the weather and pressure data, and provide a daily weather report; and magneticists to study the magnetic field of Mars.
And before the mission even began, geologists analysed thousands of photos taken from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to help determine the landing site and continue to analyse the photos being taken by InSight to understand the terrain it has landed in. And, once the mission is over, mineral physicists will use the seismic data to model the interior of the planet to determine the structure all the way down to the core.
Given this wide range of experiments taking place, why not encourage students to list as many types of jobs related to this mission as they can? How many can they come up with in five minutes? This is a great way to get them to starting thinking about how a Stem-focused career can lead to all kinds of fascinating jobs within the space industry.
Rocket men and women
What about pupils who might be thinking of something more hands on – who may dream of building their own rocket one day? Taking the very same InSight mission as a case study, teachers can explore the input required from a range of experts in different specialisms linked to Stem skills to make the mission a success.
For example, the lander itself had to be designed and built for the unique conditions of Mars, which took an array of different engineers with a variety of skill sets. Mechanical engineers built the chassis and desk; electronic engineers sorted out all the wiring so that ground staff could communicate with the lander; solar engineers designed the solar panels to provide power; and rocketry engineers made sure the probe could launch.
Airbus Foundation Discover Space has some great resources to help teachers plan lessons, such as one where children will get to build and fly their own rudimentary rockets, which could definitely help to fire imaginations.
Furthermore, the InSight Mission had teams that designed the parachute to slow the lander, a team that built it for them, a team that calculated the trajectory and those who oversaw the safety of the launch. A great resource from Nasa asks students to design and build a shock-absorbing system that would allow for a soft landing on another planet, using everything from straws and paper to mini-marshmallows. Again, this is a great way to get students engaged in Stem and help them understand the fascinating careers it can lead to.
Teachers should also help pupils understand how many different missions Nasa has going on, from the International Space Station (ISS) to exploring the moons of Jupiter, to consider all the different types of job that each one entails. And, of course, Nasa isn’t the only organisation working in space. There are many companies and organisations, both academic and commercial, launching everything from low-Earth orbit satellites to inter-planetary probes. Elon Musk’s SpaceX even launched a car into space. Meanwhile, space tourism may one day become a very real possibility.
There are plenty of engaging online resources that teachers can use to help get children thinking and learning about space, and the challenges and opportunities it poses for humans – and how these might be overcome in the future.
There are myriad ways that teachers could inspire pupils to imagine themselves playing a key role in future space exploration by considering the wide range of challenges astronauts face in zero gravity.
For example, humans need to be protected from hazards ranging from solar radiation, freezing temperatures and a complete lack of oxygen. And if astronauts want to venture out of the spacecraft itself, as they do on the ISS for example, they need to wear space suits and this is no mean feat in itself – from mechanically engineered pressure seals, gloves that offer protection but provide dexterity, helmets that allow visibility but protect from the harsh sunlight, to developing and sewing the fabric to withstand the conditions of space (yes, there are tailors and seamstresses employed in the space industry, too).
And what if they want to travel around on another planet? Specialist vehicles will definitely be required. Another good resource from Nasa asks pupils to imagine how to build a crew exploration vehicle, which could prove highly engaging and get them thinking about the unique challenges of space.
Aside from surviving the harsh physical environment and the emotional impact of being away from home, locked in a big tin can (the space industry requires psychologists, too), astronauts need to eat, sleep, excrete and wash. All these things require complex solutions to handle the near zero-gravity environment in the ISS – the last thing you want is crumbs or water floating around and getting in your electronics.
A series on YouTube by astronaut Chris Hadfield is a great way to show the reality of these issues even in terms of everyday chores, such as wringing out a dishcloth, to get students thinking about the realities of life in space – and how you might overcome them.
So, next time you want to encourage students to consider the importance of Stem subjects, ask them to imagine working for the space industry. With so many different specialisms going into every mission, it doesn’t have to be about a vague dream but a fascinating reality.
Dr Anna Horleston is based at the University of Bristol and is working on the Mars InSight mission with Nasa as a planetary seismologist.
Find a host of exciting resources on aerospace exploration to inspire your students on the Airbus website.