Bringing SpaceX Into the Inquiry Classroom
Inquiry-based learning is a powerful way to learn about the world. It’s also a great way to engage students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) topics, which have become more relevant in the classroom than ever. A SpaceX inquiry is a fun and relevant way to get students thinking about STEM in a practical, real-world way.
SpaceX is a company that offers an invaluable resource to teachers and students. Incorporating SpaceX into the classroom can teach students about innovation and problem-solving, core values, ethics, and the environment. It can also inspire students to think outside the box and solidify their understanding of scientific concepts and processes.
This post will provide some ideas for how to successfully incorporate SpaceX into your inquiry planning. This post may contain affiliate links. Please see our affiliate disclosure policy here.
SpaceX is a private aerospace manufacturer and space transportation company that was founded by Elon Musk back in 2002. He initially started the company after failing to purchase intercontinental ballistic missiles from Russia. Upon returning from the trip, he joined the Mars Society in Los Angeles, and, a year later, founded SpaceX in a warehouse in El Segundo, California.
Musk’s goal with SpaceX is founded upon his desire to build a future that’s better than the past. He envisions a company that can provide space transportation for people to colonize Mars, fulfilling his dream of facilitating a spacefaring civilization. Through this goal, SpaceX hopes to improve human life by creating an alternative habitat for humans, brought upon by the degradation of our natural resources and limited space on earth. Their simple vision statement is to “advance the future”.
Core Values at SpaceX
Something to consider about SpaceX is their set of core values. These are the values from which they build and sustain their company. At the start of an inquiry into SpaceX, ask your students to generate some questions about the company. Specifically, see if they ask questions related to what it’s like to work there. Some questions include:
- What qualifications and skills does SpaceX look for in potential employees?
- What is the work environment like at SpaceX?
- In what ways does SpaceX train or develop their employees?
- How does SpaceX foster innovation and creativity?
It might interest students to know that SpaceX recently hired a 14-year-old software engineer who said that SpaceX was “one of the rare companies that did not use my age as an arbitrary and outdated proxy for maturity and ability”. Knowing this, students might want to dive deeper into what SpaceX looks for in terms of qualifications and skills.
According to people who have worked for SpaceX, the company culture is intense. Commitment, dedication, and passion are required to be successful. The people who work there are ambitious, in part due to a culture of ambitious goal-setting and the pursuit of excellence.
Some of their core values actually overlap with the core values inherent in inquiry-based learning, such as:
- Collaboration: Being collaborative is important not just in the inquiry classroom, but in any working environment. According to Culture500, employees at SpaceX work well together within their team and across different parts of the organization. Classrooms that are characterized by reflection, consideration, and openness to new ideas are usually the ones where you’ll find highly collaborative students.
- Innovation: People who work for SpaceX need to be innovative. Being creative and passionate are traits that are incredibly valuable. Furthermore, being innovative at a company with an ambitious vision for the future is a key driver of progress. Innovation is something that is fostered in the inquiry classroom as well. Being naturally curious leads to excellent driving questions that fuel these traits.
- Adaptability: In any situation in life, people need to be adaptable. Whether something unexpected interrupts your schedule, or something doesn’t work as planned, we need to be able to adjust. At SpaceX, there have been many mistakes and problems; no company is immune to this. The important thing to remember is that it takes time and patience to become adaptable and approach problems with flexibility.
SpaceX and the Inquiry Process
A key feature of the inquiry process is that it focuses on the process of discovery. Unlike research, inquiry is more broad and unstructured, whereas research is more formulaic and narrow in scope. It tends to happen at a slower and more organic pace than research, and is also more multifaceted.
Suggested reading: Understanding the Difference Between Inquiry and Research
At SpaceX, failure is inevitable. However, for most science and technology companies, failure is generally the catalyst to success. Companies like Apple and Facebook have long approached failure from a “move fast and break things” or “fail early, fail fast, fail often” standpoint. While these slogans might be cliche, they serve as a reminder that failure is not a bad thing.
SpaceX has always viewed failure as a catalyst for innovation and improvement. For example, in their development process, engineers work quickly to design, build, and test their rockets in order to identify design failures. Instead of seeing them as failures, they are observed as learning opportunities from which to make improvements and try again. In fact, Garrett Reisman, a senior adviser to SpaceX, believes that “a large team working for years trying to get it perfect before you even try it” is less beneficial for everyone because it wastes time and money. Instead, taking risks in the development process is far more beneficial for everyone.
In the inquiry classroom, mistakes should be embraced. Creating a culture of continuous learning is important because learning is an ongoing process. When teachers frame learning in this way, students are more likely to take risks and try new things. Furthermore, they will feel confident in their ability to persevere in the face of difficulties. For teachers, it’s important to remind yourself that you don’t need to be an expert. When students ask questions, teachers have an amazing opportunity to model curiosity and continuous learning. When a student asks a question, instead of ignoring it or answering the best you can, simply acknowledge that you don’t know. Not knowing does not equate to failure. Everyone should always be learning!
Suggested reading: Creating an Authentic Inquiry Classroom
The graphic below shows the inquiry model can be applied to SpaceX:
SpaceX-Themed Inquiry Ideas
Grade 6 Science:
- assess the impact of space exploration on humans, society, and the environment
- demonstrate an understanding of the solar system, the phenomena that result from the movement of different bodies within it, and the technologies used in space exploration
Grade 7 Science:
- analyze various social, economic, and environmental impacts, including impacts related to climate change, of using non-renewable and renewable sources of energy
Grade 7 Geography:
- analyze some challenges and opportunities presented by the physical environment and ways in which people have responded to them
- use the geographic inquiry process to investigate the impact of natural events and/or human activities that change the physical environment, exploring the impact from a geographic perspective
Grade 8 Geography:
- demonstrate an understanding of significant patterns and trends related to human settlement and of ways in which human settlement affects the environment
Suggested reading: How to Use Scientific Inquiry in the Elementary Classroom
1. Examining the Environmental Impact of SpaceX Launches
This inquiry complements grade 6-8 curriculums, where the focus is on developing students’ ability to become environmentally responsible citizens. Using the social studies inquiry process to investigate the impact of failed launches on the environment is part of the “cause and consequence” concept as outlined in the curriculum. It’s also a great way to link in cross-curricular learning by reading about current events and developing critical thinking skills. Furthermore, learning about the environmental concerns surrounding failed launches corresponds with the policy framework for environmental education in Ontario (“Acting Today, Shaping Tomorrow”).
Possible inquiry questions include:
- What impact can human activities have on the natural environment?
- How do we find a balance between environmental responsibility and human needs/wants?
- What similarities are evident between the launches of SpaceX rockets and similar purposeful, but potentially harmful human tests?
- How can we create a plan of action to address an environmental issue of local, provincial/territorial, and/or national significance?
- Why might different groups react differently to the failed SpaceX launches?
- What environmental challenges are associated with these launches?
- How might these environmental impacts have social, political, or economic consequences?
Download more science and space inquiry questions here (PDF).
Students interested in pollution will take interest in this inquiry. Historically, rocket launches haven’t been given much attention because they happen so infrequently. However, anticipated growth in the frequency of launches brings the problem of pollution into focus.
It isn’t hard to find articles that talk about the impacts of rocket pollution. Everywhere you look, there are articles that talk about emissions, debris, and contributions to climate change. It’s important to remember that as of right now, we don’t really have any other feasible way to get to space – current technology is at a standstill for the time being.
Students who want to investigate the types of pollution created by a rocket launch should start with this website, which is written in very kid-friendly language. It provides a breakdown of the kind of pollution created during each stage of a rocket launch and what chemicals are emitted.
As this is a very real and current problem in the space exploration field, students have the chance to think critically about the issue and propose ideas. Knowing that this is a complex problem that is yet to be solved is a great motivator for students looking to contribute meaningfully.
Suggested articles for this inquiry:
- The pollution caused by rocket launches
- There’s no way to make space travel good for planet earth right now
According to the policy and science of rocket emissions, “debris accumulation in valuable orbits is widely acknowledged to present an existential risk to continuing space operations and industry growth”. In simple terms, space garbage is becoming a problem in regards to space exploration. Even since it was raised as a problem several years ago, international action has failed to nip the problem in the bud.
So, what exactly is space debris? Basically, it’s space garbage, which includes natural and man-made waste. Some examples include nonfunctional spacecraft, metallic fragments, pieces of machinery, dead satellites, and even tiny paint flecks. It is estimated that approximately 3,000 dead satellites and millions of small pieces of junk are currently floating around in space. All of this junk has accumulated as a result of our efforts to launch objects from Earth.
Even small pieces of junk have the potential to cause a lot of damage. Hundreds of maneuvers are performed each year to satellites in order to prevent collisions with space debris. Even an otherwise small collision can result in the destruction of important objects.
An inquiry into space debris is a good way for students to apply the same thinking processes used to tackle garbage and recycling problems on earth to outer space. How can we clean up this space junk? It might help if students start with this article about the RemoveDEBRIS mission, which aims to find the best way to capture space debris orbiting around earth.
Suggested articles for this SpaceX inquiry:
Threats to Protected Areas
While many articles about rocket pollution focus on climate change impacts, there are some that mention more localized effects. The construction and operation of rocket launch facilities, like the ones SpaceX operated in Florida, Texas, and California, can have wide-reaching impacts. For example, the construction of these facilities can lead to deforestation, habitat destruction, and the disturbance of local ecosystems.
The actual launching of these rockets has other consequences. In fact, the recent Starship launch that happened next to a wildlife refuge in Texas resulted in “concrete rain”. When the rocket lifted off, the rocket sent plumes of dust and reinforced concrete particles scattered around the site. In addition to the dust and concrete, pieces of metal shrapnel were hurled around too, resulting in damage to cars, windows, and nearby highways.
Covered in concrete rain in Port Isabel! pic.twitter.com/uy8Rl4pgFi— Doug Klotz (@SpaceMFG) April 20, 2023
Concrete rain after Starship launch— Domenico (@AvatarDomy) April 21, 2023
Credit SpaceX pic.twitter.com/v6zC8vbNi4
VR Cam caught some spectacular footage as #SuperHeavy rocked #SpaceX #Starbase this morning. I am floored at the amount of debris that was ejected. Waiting on Rover 2 damage assessment. Congratulations @elonmusk on pulling this historical launch! pic.twitter.com/6WKEXFqCGN— LabPadre (@LabPadre) April 20, 2023
The Kennedy Space Center, where SpaceX frequently launches rockets from, is situated right in the middle of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. It is one of the most diverse wildlife refuges in Florida, and is home to a number of threatened and endangered species, including marine life, coyotes, bald eagles, and many species of birds.
It seems odd that a space center would be located in the middle of a refuge like this. Students might choose to pursue an inquiry about the advantages and disadvantages of having a space center located in a wildlife refuge. As a class, examine a large map of the area and brainstorm a list of the pros and cons for building a space center there.
Using scenario-based learning, students can create a map of an ideal rocket launch area. Students can explain what features they’d include in the vicinity of their space center – water, trees, animals, etc. From there, students provide a rationale for their plans and utilize existing research and land use surveys to modify their plans according to environmental concerns.
Suggested articles for this SpaceX inquiry:
- Conservationists sue over “shortcut” environmental review for Starship launch
- Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge
Impacts on Migratory Species
One specific problem with the SpaceX launches is its impact on the population of migratory seabirds. In particular, the American Bird Conservancy has reported declining population levels of many birds in Boca Chica, Texas – a place where many migratory birds come to lay eggs in the spring. Many of the birds mentioned are on the Endangered Species list, such as the Piping Plover, the Red Knot, and the Aplomado Falcon.
Students interested in animals might like to investigate the impacts of rocket launches on the surrounding wildlife such as birds, mammals, and marine life. They might also be interested in reading the environmental assessment conducted by the FAA recently. In the report, the FAA mandates that SpaceX comply with dozens of actions to reduce its environmental impact on the Gulf Coast in Texas, which is a known biodiversity hotspot. More about the report here.
Suggested articles for this SpaceX inquiry:
- SpaceX launch expected to further damage bird habitat
- SpaceX’s Harm to Wildlife in Texas Set to Continue, Due to FAA Decision
2. SpaceX Missions Inquiry
For some students, exploring an individual SpaceX launch might be more appealing. With an inquiry like this, they can incorporate topics like design, statistics, and comparing historical data. There are a few different paths students can take:
For students who are interested in doing a deep dive into a specific SpaceX launch, this inquiry is perfect for them. With an inquiry like this, students choose from a variety of past launches (there have been nearly 250) and conduct an investigation. While they will undoubtedly want to focus on different aspects, their overall structure might look something like this:
1. Provide an overview of SpaceX: This step will help students understand the goals of the company, how SpaceX is impacting current space exploration efforts, and what their overall missions and objectives are.
2. Gather information: Encourage students to read articles, academic papers, SpaceX website information, and industry reports to get an overall sense of things like launch sites, procedures, and protocol. This will help students fill in the gaps and prepare them to generate focused inquiry questions.
3. Formulate inquiry questions: By this point, students have a foundation of knowledge. From here, students can focus further research to guide their investigation.
4. Collect and analyze data: Once the inquiry questions are set, students begin collecting and analyzing data. To do this successfully, they will need to interpret their findings, look for patterns, and perhaps construct a timeline or draw comparisons to more deeply understand the information.
5. Draw conclusions: Upon analyzing their data, students can draw conclusions and relate their findings back to their original driving question. Did their research answer their questions? What are the implications of this information?
6. Present the information: Students can be creative in how they choose to present their information. The format of their presentation depends on many factors, such as:
- What information was gathered, and in what format
- Who the audience is
- What the student feels would be the most effective
- The particular learning or sharing style(s) of each student
- Which format will best represent the work I’ve done
- Which format will best demonstrate my learning
Comparison of Missions
Most students are probably familiar with the adage “practice makes perfect”. In this inquiry, students choose two or more missions or launches and compare them based on a variety of factors. To start, students can brainstorm inquiry questions about the evolution of SpaceX launches over time, slowly narrowing their questions into more specific ones to investigate. Some questions include:
- What types of missions has SpaceX undertaken?
- How diverse is the SpaceX launch portfolio?
- What major milestones has SpaceX had in the past year,5 years, etc.?
- What role has SpaceX played in the space exploration field?
Students can also use ChatGPT to help them generate some questions. We’ve written an extensive overview of how to use ChatGPT in the inquiry classroom if you need to incorporate it into your planning.
Areas for Research
While conducting research to make these comparisons, students will come across some unfamiliar terms. For example, the terms “payload”, “booster”, or understanding the difference between a resupply mission and a crewed mission might come up. To address this, it’s a good idea to provide an overview of these terms or conduct a fact-finding session with students to provide exposure to these words prior to the inquiry.
3. Rocket design
This is a science-heavy inquiry with the potential to touch on many components of the science curriculum from grades 5-8. With the investigation of rocket design, students will build on and extend their understanding of:
- the impacts of forces acting on structures and ways to mitigate these impacts
- the effects of forces from natural phenomena on structures
- internal and external forces and the consequences of these forces
- how various species protect themselves from the harmful effects of these forces
- how protective equipment can be used in these kinds of situations
- the impact of space exploration on humans, society, and the environment
- how our social, emotional, and physiological needs are met in space
There are plenty of other ways this inquiry weaves into the science curriculum for grades 5-8. For now, let’s focus on how to structure and facilitate this inquiry. First, a working knowledge of basic forces and motions is essential. Taking time to teach the basic principles of thrust, drag, and gravity is a good place to start. A mini inquiry can take place where students investigate how these forces affect the slight and trajectory of rockets.
Rocket launcher kits are a fun way to learn about these forces in-class – here are a few options:
Exploring Newton’s laws of motion and how they apply to rockets is a natural next step. Discuss more concepts such as inertia, action and reaction, and have students play around with things like catapults, springboards, and other objects that demonstrate these forces.
Once students have a foundation of understanding, split them into groups to explore different types of rockets. These include solid-fuel rockets, liquid-fuel rockets, and hybrid rockets. Good classroom strategies for this include the jigsaw method and concept sketches. In the jigsaw method, students split into groups to focus on learning one sub-topic, then report back to their home groups. With concept sketches, students use drawings and short labels to explain something.
With their understanding of forces and types of rockets secured, students can then explore the components of a rocket, including the nose cone, body, fins, and engines. Encourage students to investigate the purposes of these components and how they contribute to the stability and performance of the rocket overall. A whole-class approach or small groups works well for this. Students can draw and label their own rocket using their understanding of its components and functions, and even use recycled materials to assemble a prototype.
Students who enjoy the research side of rocket design can continue their investigation by investigating the concept of a rocket’s payload and the different types of missions rockets can undertake. Encourage students to consider the challenges with specific types of missions. For example, how does radiation, gravity, and the presence of hostile or closed environments impact spaceflight? NASA has outlined other hazards on their website, found here.
This inquiry would be most successful with a component about the future of rocketry. Engage students in a discussion about the future of rocket design and how SpaceX innovates and contributes to rocket design and technology. For instance, explore how SpaceX has developed the Falcon 9 from reusable rocket parts, and how they are revolutionizing access to outer space.
Suggested articles for this SpaceX inquiry:
- 7 Different Types of Rockets Based on Propulsion and Usage
- What Are the Different Kinds of Rockets?
- Extension – Rocket Propulsion Test Activity (grade 9/10 level)
4. Ethical Concerns of Humans on Mars
In this final inquiry idea, students explore the ethics surrounding habitation on Mars. This question appeals to students of all ages not only because it’s cool to imagine life on another planet, but also because it’s quickly becoming a foreseeable reality. It is something that students will likely see in their lifetimes. SpaceX’s plans to colonize Mars bring up legitimate and concerning questions. For example, if humans can’t manage the Earth responsibly, should we be expanding into space? Are humans ready to colonize Mars? Is it morally permissible to allow humans to colonize a planet with harsh conditions?
To conduct an inquiry like this, students can be arranged in a variety of ways:
Whole-class inquiry: The whole class explores the question “What are the potential ethical concerns associated with human colonization on Mars?”. Students then break into small groups to collect information through the form of a literature review, interviews, and surveys. Research is compiled and sorted by group members based on its relevance and reliability, and submitted to the class for discussion. Groups can also conduct interviews with their parents, friends, or experts in the fields of space exploration, environmental science, psychology, and ethics. Information from those interviews is compiled and submitted to the class for listening and discussion. Surveys can also be used to gather data on public opinions and attitudes regarding the ethical concerns of human colonization on Mars.
Small groups: Students work in groups of 4-6 and use scenario-based learning to explore the possibility of living on Mars. To start, students generate scenarios that depict various ethical dilemmas that may arise. For example, having a limited supply of oxygen, or the discovery of Indigenous life on Mars. Students work together to ensure the scenarios are clear and include enough context for other groups to discuss and debate. Encourage them to analyze the dilemmas, consider different perspectives, and discuss the pros and cons of each course of action. Help students stay on track by focusing them on the ethical principles that guide the decisions they make in each hypothetical scenario.
Individual: Students work independently to explore the ethical problems associated with the exploration or colonization of Mars. For example, who will oversee the planet’s development? What lessons have we learned from life on Earth that we can apply? Students need to use critical thinking to consider the ethical implications of their decisions. They need to consider the short- and long-term impacts of their choices. For example, if SpaceX sends people to a hostile environment with limited resources, how does this impact their right to liberty, security, education, and so on? How will SpaceX mitigate the negative environmental impacts of sending people to space?
Suggested resources for this SpaceX inquiry:
SpaceX has been at the forefront of space industry innovation. They have had several remarkable achievements, and have played a huge role in advancing commercial spaceflight. However, despite the positive accomplishments they’ve had, there are concerns about its impacts on the environment as well as the ethics of a private company with such bold objectives.
Hopefully the inquiry ideas above have given you a starting point from which to conduct your own investigation into the various areas of interest surrounding SpaceX and space exploration as a whole. If you have any other ideas or resources to add, please leave a comment below, or head over to Instagram to join the conversation.
Further Reading and Resources:
- Elon Musk’s Space Dream Almost Killed Tesla
- Mars Activities Booklet (PDF)
- Glow-in-the-Dark Solar System Wall Stickers
- Life on Mars? Hands-on Science Activities (PDF)
- Space Exploration Wall Stickers for the Classroom