There are a lot of challenges with space flight. One is simply getting the rocket off the ground. This is because the thrust to launch a rocket has to work against the force of gravity. So, there are two forces at play in this game: earth’s gravitational pull and thrust. Your kids will play with a computer interactive that demonstrates these two forces in action.
All objects exert gravitational force on all other objects. But the strength of gravitational force an object exerts has to do with mass. In order for something, like a rocket ship, to get off the ground, a force (stronger than earth’s gravitational pull) needs to be exerted on it. Once a rocket ship is out in space, it can be pulled by other objects and will orbit an object if it begins to fall toward that object. When something orbits earth, or the moon, it is actually freefalling.
SetUp
Hold a bean bag and let it drop to the floor. Ask kids: “Why do you think the bean bag went down instead of up or sideways?” (It’s such a common occurrence, kids may think of it as a “natural” one without some explanation.)
Now, make an X on the floor with masking tape and stand back from it. Ask: “How could I get the bag to hit the X? Do I need to toss at a certain angle or use a certain forceful toss? Does a stronger toss keep the bag in the air longer? Why?” (Answers may vary. Encourage the kids to explain their answers.)
Gather around a computer and pull up the Gravity Launch interactive and press start. Explain that you are trying to get the rocket ship to orbit earth. Plug 6 into the thrust and hit return, leave the angle at 15 and hit the launch button.
The rocket ship will crash into the earth. Ask kids: “What pulled the rocket ship back to earth? What will it take to get the ship to orbit earth?” (This may be a good opportunity to go over the concepts of thrust and angle. Thrust is the force the engines of rocket boosters produce to push it (the rocket) off the ground. The force needs to be strong enough to overcome earth’s gravity. The angle we’re talking about here is the launch angle, which is the initial elevation angle of the rocket once it is launched.)
Now plug 6.5 into the thrust and the rocket ship will go orbit the moon. Ask: “Why is it orbiting the moon?” (This is an opportunity to point out that things in space, like the moon, also have a gravitational force.)
Plug in 6.5 for the thrust again and discuss why the angle of the rocket ship is important.
Now kids can do Gravity Launch alone or in small groups.
Activity
Give each child a Gravity Launch activity sheet and a pencil and point them toward the student web page. The activity sheet will provide kids with the URL to access the interactive. If this activity is too difficult for your group, you may want to do the whole interactive together.
Here are some correct thrust and angle settings for each mission, 15, of the interactive:
Mission

Thrust

Angle

Thrust

Angle


1

6.35

50.844

OR

6.7

17.699

2

6.9

31.5

OR

7.0

34.624

3

7.112

42.506

OR

8.0

37

4

7.0

45.9

OR

7.6

12.39

5

6.9

52.251

Give kids about ten minutes to do the first launch. This is a generous amount of time, but unless they are being systematic about the settings, it could take this long. You also may want to ask some follow up questions to help gauge understanding. Here are some questions you could ask:
Seven, six, five, four, three, two, one... blastoff! Watching a rocket take off is pretty amazing, especially when you think about how big one is—one of the Delta rockets is 23 stories high! How much power would you need to launch a rocket that big into space and how would you make sure it goes where you want it to go?