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The Frontiers Decade:
Decade in Space

Over the years, Frontiers has asked some big questions: How did the universe begin? How did we get here? Are we alone in the universe? Can we survive extended space travel? Can we live on Mars? Interviews with scientists and insights into their work have given viewers a lot to think about in the last decade and in the new century.


Early missions to Mars sent rockets and robotic vehicles in a quest to learn more about the red planet. Now the goal is to find a way for people to get there. Space travel is hazardous to human health; many challenges lie ahead if people are ever going to travel to and colonize Mars.

On July 4, 1997, the Mars Pathfinder, launched in December 1996, entered the Martian atmosphere, deployed a parachute to slow down, then bounced more than 15 times before coming to rest on Mars. Inflated air bags protected the lander -- an example of NASA's "faster, cheaper, better" design. For the first time in human history, a spacecraft from Earth landed on another planet in our solar system while millions watched the landing via TV and the Web.

In this activity, you'll design, construct and test an original model of a bouncing lander. Hold a classroom contest to see which landers work best to keep the cargo from breaking.


  • raw eggs
  • tape
  • markers
  • packing peanuts
  • chenille stems or sticks
  • balloons (various sizes)
Note: For practice rounds, replace eggs with water-filled balloons or plastic eggs.


  1. Devise a harness out of chenille stems to hold an egg. Practice with a plastic egg first.

  2. Work with a partner or in teams to construct the basic lander. Discuss the best way to cushion an egg's fall, using two or more air-filled balloon bumpers.

  3. Blow up the balloons and fasten them to the harness with tape to form a cushion surrounding the egg.

  4. Drop the lander several times from a height of about one meter. Observe the orientation of the egg when the lander comes to rest.

  5. Place an "X" on the top of the narrow egg dome. Redesign the lander so when it comes to rest, the "X" always faces up. Use extra balloons, packing peanuts and chenille stems as needed.


  1. Some critics of interplanetary exploration say it's too expensive. Assign "costs" to materials used to make your lander. For example, each chenille stem costs $100; eggs cost $200; balloons, $500 (count the ones that break, too). How much does each lander cost? Which lander is successful and comes in at the lowest cost?

  2. Map the solar system and investigate the status of Pluto, which some astronomers no longer consider a planet. See the new Hayden Planetarium and the Rose Center for Earth and Space at

  3. Space exploration will not take place without failures. In 1999, miscommunication about metric and standard measurements doomed one spacecraft. And in December 1999, the Mars Polar Lander failed to call home. But early in 2000, students at Stanford thought they picked up signals from the lander. Research the latest news from NASA about Mars missions at the Center for Mars Exploration at NASA Ames:

Related episodes include Life's Big Questions (Show 501) and Journey to Mars (Show 902). Please visit the Subject-Area Search feature on this website for more information about these Frontiers shows and related activities!


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.