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Viewing Ideas

Before Watching

  1. Use Google Earth to simulate what satellites "see" from different distances from Earth. Prior to launching "spy" satellites, the United States and the USSR used high-altitude spy planes (such as the U2) and developed camera and telescope imaging technology to take images of ground facilities (see Spy Photos at for influential satellite photos from the past 40 years). Developers of the manned orbital laboratory (MOL) hoped to supply continuous reconnaissance.

    Have students take their own turn at being a spy by using Google Earth to inspect one of the following places:

    • your school parking lot (How many cars are in the faculty lot?)

    • your local airport (How many planes are visible?)

    • a large U.S. airport such as Logan in Boston, JFK in New York, or Dallas Ft-Worth (How many jets are visible?)

    • a naval yard or shipbuilding facility such as Bath Iron Works in Bath, Maine (How many ships are being built?)

    Have students take a screen shot and file a "spy" report about the site (note that while the photos students will be looking at are not real time, they do reveal what is going on at a specific site at a point in time). Can they spot other vehicles, fuel supplies, and hangars where weapons or planes could be stored?

  2. Have students create a time line. The International Space Station now orbiting Earth is a larger version of what the MOL astronauts would have used to spy on military installations in the Soviet Union. What were the steps that allowed the building of a permanent orbiting research facility?

    Have the class produce a space station time line. Assign one of the following people or events that were crucial to the development of rockets and space flight to each group. Have each group summarize on a 5 x 8-inch file card what the event was and why it was important. Have students download an image of the person or craft associated with the event and paste it on the other side of the card. Produce a time line (a string 7 meters long) that starts at 1900 and ends at 2007. Have student groups attach their cards at the appropriate place on the time line and have each read their card descriptions to the class.

    • Orville and Wilbur Wright make first power-driven flight (1903)

    • Robert Goddard creates the first working liquid-fuel rocket (1926)

    • Werner von Braun builds two rockets that rise vertically for more the than 2.4 kilometers (1934)

    • Chuck Yeager breaks the sound barrier in the Bell XS-1 (1947)

    • Major Arthur Murray sets altitude records of over 90,000 feet in the X1a aircraft (1954)

    • John Glenn becomes first man to orbit Earth (1962)

    • X-15 becomes first winged aircraft to attain velocities of Mach 4, 5, and 6 (circa 1957)

    • WAC Corporal rocket becomes first U.S. missile to penetrate outer space (1949)

    • Bell X-1A airplane achieves record altitude of 90,440 feet (1954)

    • Russians launched Sputnik 1 satellite into space (1957)

    • United States launches Explorer 1 satellite (1958)

    • Mercury space program (1959–63)

    • Gemini space program (1965–66)

    • Neil Armstrong becomes the first man to step on to the Moon (1969)

    • Apollo space program (1961–75)

    • Russian space station, Salyut (1971)

    • Almaz space station (secret spy station for USSR, 1971-78)

    • U.S. Skylab (1973–74)

    • Mir space station (USSR, 1986–99)

    • Begin assembly of International Space Station (ISS) in orbit (1986)

    • First crew enters ISS (2000)

After Watching

  1. Research satellite development. Sputnik I was the first satellite placed into orbit by the Soviets in 1957. There are now thousands of satellites in orbit around Earth. Organize your class into groups and assign each group one of the satellite types listed below. Each group should make a poster or multimedia presentation that describes:

    • general size, weight, structure, what instruments it uses

    • primary user (science, military, industry) and specific tasks

    • type of orbit and typical orbital path and height (see Links and Books for information on types of orbits)

    Encourage students to include graphics or models with their presentations.

    • Astronomical satellites
      satellites used for observation of distant planets, galaxies, and other outer space objects

    • Biosatellites
      satellites designed to carry living organisms, generally for scientific experimentation

    • Communications satellites
      satellites stationed in space for the purpose of telecommunications

    • Navigational satellites
      satellites that use radio time signals transmitted to enable mobile receivers on the ground to determine their exact location

    • Reconnaissance satellites
      Earth observation satellite or communications satellite deployed for military or intelligence applications

    • Earth observation satellites
      satellites intended for non-military uses such as environmental monitoring, meteorology, map making etc.

    • Space stations
      human-made structures that are designed for people to live on in outer space

    • Weather satellites
      satellites that primarily are used to monitor Earth's weather and climate

  2. Explore resolution. To demonstrate what resolution means and how important it is to see details, draw three, four, or five dots on a piece of paper. They should be about 2 mm in diameter and should be separated from each other by 4 to 5 mm, center to center. The dots will represent rocket launchers as seen from space. Tape the piece of paper in the front of the room. Have the entire class stand up and line up across the back the classroom (or do this activity in a hallway, gym, etc.). Tell students to imagine they are using a telescope from space to see rocket launchers. Here is an image (point to paper with dots). Ask, "How many rocket launchers do you see?" Students will see one large dot. Have students take one big step forward. This action is equivalent to either going closer to the ground with your spy telescope or increasing the resolution of your telescope.

    Repeat the process of students moving one large step and then trying to guess (or see) how many rocket launchers are on the paper. Students with keen eyesight will resolve the dots before others.

    To demonstrate how sharper, or more detailed, resolution also means that you can't see the bigger picture, download a dozen eye charts (find one at and tape them to a wall of the room so that the middle of the chart is close to eye level for most of the students. Cover them up. Have students stand right up to the chart and then uncover the charts. Have students write down what they see without moving their heads. Have students take a step back and write down what they see. Have students continue this process until they are able to see the full eye chart. Repeat the process with students who have not done it. Then discuss with the class the advantages and disadvantages of being able to see objects more closely.

  3. Understanding dimensions. In this program, one of the astronauts had to press his helmet down on his head to fit into the MOL capsule. There was not much room to move around in any of the early space vehicles. The MOL was to be a tube-shaped capsule about 22 meters long with a diameter of 3.05 meters. The actual cabin volume was projected to be only 11.3 meters3. How much space is this?

    Part I: Have students come up with a list of what they consider a small space to stand in at school or at home. (Some spaces students may mention: bathroom stalls, janitorial closets, hall closets, shower stalls.) Have students measure these spaces and compute the volume of space for each. Then have them compare this to the cabin volume that was in the MOL capsule. How many cabins would fit into the small space they measured?

    Part II: Compute the volume of your classroom. Compare the volume of your classroom with the size and volume of the ISS (statistics given below). How many classrooms volumes equal the present volume/working space in the International Space Station?

    International Space Station Statistics

    Current Mass (November 2007): 232,693 kg
    Mass on completion: 471,736 kg
    Length: 58.2 m along truss
    Width: 44.5 m
    Span of solar arrays: 73.15 m
    Height: 27.4 m
    Living volume: 424.75 m3 in a series of cylinders
    Atmospheric pressure: 101.3 kPa
    Perigee: 319.6 km
    Apogee: 346.9 km
    Orbit inclination: 51.63 degrees
    Typical orbit altitude: 333.3 km
    Average speed: 27,743.8 km/h
    Orbital period: 91.20 minutes
    Orbits per day: 15.79
    Days in orbit: 3281 (2007-11-14)
    Days occupied: 2570 (2007-11-14)

Links and Books


Features articles, interviews, interactive activities, and resources to accompany the program.

The Best Laid Plans: A History of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory
Summarizes the history of the MOL program.

The Cuban Missile Crisis
Provides details of the kind of evidence that precipitated the Cuban missile crisis and an aerial photo of missiles in Cuba.

Earth's Atmosphere
Provides details and diagrams of Earth's atmosphere and layers.

How Satellites Work
Explains how satellites work and how they are launched, and describes different types of satellite orbits and typical altitudes.

Stability and Control for the Manned Orbiting Laboratory
Features the original prospectus of the MOL in an article from the 1963 NASA archives.


Countdown: A History of Space Flight
by T. A. Heppenheimer. J. Wiley & Sons, 1997.
Provides a history of spaceflight.

Space 50
by Piers Bizany. Smithsonian Books in association with HarperCollins, 2006.
Features a history of spaceflight and a look into the future of space flight.

Viewing Ideas Author

Jeff Lockwood taught high school astronomy, physics, and Earth science for 28 years. He has authored numerous curriculum projects and has provided instruction on curriculum development and science teaching methods for more than a decade.

Teacher's Guide

Koch Foundation