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Lesson Plans

Lesson plan: How invention will land humans on Mars

May 28, 2019

Full Lesson


A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket lifts off from historic launch pad 39-A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S., February 6, 2018. Picture taken February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Thom Baur

SpaceX, a private aeronautics company, wants to colonize the Red Planet. Could this mean today’s youth might be the first humans in history to live on Mars? Many technical and ethical challenges lie ahead in response to this question. Using the invention process, students will explore solutions to some of the problems facing the Mars mission and decide whether or not they are on board with expanding humankind’s reach in the universe.

PBS NewsHour Classroom is always looking for ways to make our invention resources stronger. If you complete part or all of this lesson, we’d greatly appreciate it if you filled out this feedback form.

Estimated time
Three 50-minute class periods


Physics, Engineering, Mathematics, Technology


Members of this generation of students will be soon become part of the scientists and stakeholders working on the Mars mission. In fact, many SpaceX employees are in their 20s, just like those who worked on the Apollo moon landings.

In this lesson, students will learn about SpaceX’s successful Falcon Heavy rocket launch as well as current challenges facing its team, as they seek to become the first manned mission to Mars.

Students will research inventions and innovations made to previous technologies developed by NASA during missions to the moon and the International Space Station. Then they will use the invention process to identify problems getting humans to Mars, research inventions that helped solve the problem, including any potential unintended consequences, examine any redesigns that were done and finally, share their findings with their classmates and potential stakeholders.

Note: In addition to many of his entrepreneurial successes, Elon Musk has been in the news for inappropriate comments over social media, including a story about the Thai Cave rescue. You may want to share this aspect of Elon’s public life with your students, as it provides important discussion on how people should treat one another and what behavior might be expected of those in leadership.

Essential question
How has the power of invention allowed humans to do both good and bad?

Warm up activity

Directions: Pick up or point to various objects inside the classroom and ask students: Why it was invented? What problem were the inventors trying to solve? How successful do you think the invention has been? Let your students know that someone — likely a team of people — invented nearly all of the things we use on a daily basis: tablets and TVs, cars and stoplights, apps and video games, etc. These products came into existence because of the invention process.

Next, write the steps of the invention process below used by the Lemelson Center’s Spark Lab team on the whiteboard or use a projector; hand out a copy of the Inventor’s Notebook. Let students know they will be using the same Inventor’s Notebook template when they begin their work on their own invention to help get humans to Mars. As a class, choose one more product (i.e. pencil eraser) around the classroom and fill out the template in the Inventor’s Notebook, starting with step one: what problem was the invention trying to solve?

Steps of the invention process

For additional resources on the invention process, check out the “Where to Begin” handout from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Optional: Instead of using objects in the classroom to explain the invention process, use the moon landings instead! Using the following articles, discuss how the moon landings lead to many of the technologies that we take for granted today.

President Richard M. Nixon welcomes back to Earth the Apollo 11 astronauts, Commander Neil A. Armstrong, Command Module Pilot Michael Collins and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin Jr., who were within a compact quarantine unit in 1969 on board a U.S. military vessel. Photo by NASA.

Watch the video 

First, briefly identify Elon Musk (co-founder of PayPal and head of Tesla and SpaceX; can be a controversial individual, especially over Twitter) and his goal of a manned spaceflight to Mars (SpaceX successfully launched the world’s most powerful rocket from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Feb 6, 2018).

Watch the PBS NewsHour STEM Student Reporting Labs video below, which includes a student interview with the president of SpaceX and complete the discussion activity.

Watch the NewsHour video below and complete the discussion activity.  To help students follow along, turn on the closed captions function marked “CC” or use the transcript.

Discussion activity: Use a random name caller or some other method to ensure that everyone has a chance to participate. Students must either: answer the question, build on what a student before them said or offer a counterpoint to what another student said in response to a question. Questions to guide the discussion include (choose the ones that work best for your class):

  • What is SpaceX?
  • Who is Elon Musk?
  • Why go to Mars?
  • Should humans colonize the Red Planet? Why or why not?
  • How do you get to Mars?
  • What challenges are holding humans back from traveling to Mars?
  • What are some of the ethical concerns with humans going to Mars?
  • How can these goals help human progress?? In what ways might they hurt it?
  • Why was the Falcon Heavy launch historical?
  • How is SpaceX attempting to improve on what NASA has already accomplished?
  • Would you like to live on Mars one day? Why or why not?

Main activity – Mars invention challenge

Let your students know that they will have the chance to learn about an invention that has been created, or is in development, which will assist SpaceX in their mission to Mars. Students will present their inventions to the class and include any innovations they would like to suggest to the SpaceX folks.

To get started, read the NewsHour article, SpaceX launches the Falcon Heavy, the rocket that could go to Mars. Have students fill out the Inventor’s Notebook demonstrating how SpaceX scientists utilized specific steps of the invention process to build the Falcon Heavy rocket. Let them know they will be doing the same thing with their own invention.

A. First, model an example and include steps of the invention process that were used, likely just steps 1 and 2.

A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket climbs towards space after lifting off from historic launch pad 39-A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, Feb. 6, 2018. REUTERS/Joe Skipper

1. Choose a technology involved in spaceflight, such as booster rockets, and research the innovations SpaceX engineers have made to the device.

2. Explore the steps of the invention process. What problems did SpaceX identify? What challenges did they face along the way? Were there any negative repercussions from the new product?

3. Discuss some of the other solutions that were proposed. How was a final design selected? How was it tested and then redesigned? Be sure to emphasize that testing and redesign is an important step of the invention process. Lastly, how did SpaceX and Musk share the news of the launch with the public?

B. Students, your turn for lift-off!

1. Put students into groups of 2-3. Each group should briefly investigate different challenges involved in a manned mission to Mars. Let students know that given time constraints and feasibility issues, they will be not be completing every step of the invention process in this project. However, they will experience the challenges and excitement of discovering new areas of innovation and invention.

Note: If students want to design their own invention, by all means, encourage them to do so! They can work closely with you, your school’s technology teacher and an organization like the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office who can help them find contests in which they can enter their invention and even apply for a patent. In the U.S., there is no minimum age to get a patent. This six-year old did it in 1963!

2. Identify a problem:

  • Have each group decide on a Mars mission challenge that they would like to research further based on the model above.
  • Emphasize the importance of documentation and how it helps future scientists and engineers by making sure students fill out the Inventors Notebook handout. While these notes do not need to be in complete sentences/paragraph form, they should show students have carried out high-quality research. Collect these notes upon completion of project.
  • For groups who are having difficulty finding ideas, some focus areas could range from the long flight to Mars, setting up the initial Mars base, resupply missions and long-term habitation. Students should check out this piece from the Los Angeles Times or this piece on radiation exposure from NASA or this Forbes piece on what to eat on Mars. They should also re-read this article via NewsHour, which is full of different inventions that relate to or make up the Falcon Heavy rocket.
  • How do students know if they have found a solid invention that solves the problem? They should be able to answer these key questions:
      • What was the initial problem to be solved?
      • What invention solved it?
      • What were the constraints involved in designing the invention?
      • What innovations have been made to the invention over time?
      • Unintended negative consequences sometimes result from some well-intentioned inventions. Does your invention have potential unintended consequences (i.e. a negative environmental impact)? Is there anything you can think of now that could avoid these negative results from happening?
      • How was your product tested? (For example, current Mars habitat prototypes are being tested in extreme environments on Earth.) What were the outcomes?
      • How does this activity demonstrate how the invention process works? Could you not follow this process and still have a viable solution?
      • What innovations would you like to make on the existing invention and why?

C. Presentation – Share your Mars invention challenge

Presentation guidelines:

1. Students should present their invention to the class in no less than 2 but no more than 4 minutes.

2. Each member of the group should present at least two important pieces of information. To do this, students should divide up the key questions above. Remind students that this is an opportunity to work on their public-speaking skills. They may use notecards and should be sure to make eye contact with their audience.

3. Choose a sketch from one of the members of the group to share with the class (use the document camera or make a few copies to pass around).

4. Be prepared to answer questions from the class. If a group is not sure of the answer, ask them what they think they should do, i.e. let the class know that they are not sure but will find out.

5. Ask for feedback from the audience on what were strengths of the presentation and some areas for improvement.

6. Be sure each person in the group hands in their Inventor’s Notebook notes.

Now really share out! NewsHour Extra would love to see what your students came up with for the Mars invention challenge. Share any pictures, videos or key aspects of students’ Inventor’s Notebook with @NewsHourExtra using #PBSInvention, and we will send you a prize!

Extension activities

  • It’s a mash-up! Have different groups collaborate on how their Mars inventions would work together in order to show how different departments within an organization must work together. Emphasize that students may have to redesign their product in order for their modules to be compatible.
  • Beanie Babies in outer space? Yup! According to NewsHour’s Nsikan Akpan, “Cubesats, low-cost, bite-sized satellites inspired by the tubes used to hold Beanie Babies, were invented in 1999 as educational tools. Now, aerospace suppliers and governments across the globe see the tools as the future of space commercialization and deep space exploration.” To learn more, watch the video below and click here for the transcript. Can you think of a fun or even silly invention that ended up having real-world impact? (not that we don’t think fun and silly can’t have serious impact on the world!)

  • Have students research how NASA solved the problem of spaceflight first through the Apollo program, and then how they refined it during the shuttle program and International Space Station. This is also a good place to discuss how the invention process can help develop entirely new industries and create a variety of new jobs.

Clay Ninas is currently launching an engineering program at the high school level for Phenix City Schools in Phenix City, Alabama. He was director of Jefferson County Engineering Academy where he taught AP Physics and Physical Science as well as Introduction to Engineering Design and Principles of Engineering. Clay served as the head robotics coach and advisor for the Technology Student Association. His robotics teams participated in state competitions and won various awards, including 2016 BEST Robotics’ 2nd Place Website Design and 1st Place T-Shirt Design. Clay received his Master’s in secondary science education at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and completed his undergraduate degree in chemistry at Auburn University. He is a certified Project Lead The Way teacher. You can reach Clay via Twitter @MrNinasPC.

PBS NewsHour Classroom is always looking for ways to make our invention resources stronger. If you completed part or all of this lesson, we’d greatly appreciate it if you filled out this feedback form.