Engineering Design Challenge: Spacecraft Structures
A graphic showing rocket thrusters

Featured Lesson(s)

Engineering Design Challenges: Spacecraft Structures Educator Guide



Essential Question

Which design features are most effective in transmitting the force of launching a 1-kilogram mass (rocket) by means of a lever without damaging the thrust structure, and what made the design features effective?


NASA engineers along with their partners in private industry design and develop launch vehicles to transport cargo, satellites, equipment and human explorers to space. This activity focuses on the Ares rocket, a prototype recently tested by NASA for carrying people and scientific experiments into space.


This Engineering Design Challenge connects students with the work of NASA engineers by engaging them in a similar design challenge of their own. With some simple and inexpensive materials, you, the teacher, can lead an exciting activity focusing on a specific problem that NASA engineers must solve and the process they use to solve it. During this activity, students design, build, test and revise their own solutions to problems that share fundamental science and engineering issues with the challenges facing NASA engineers.


The challenge is to build a model thrust structure (the portion of the structure that attaches the engine to the rest of the spacecraft) that is as light as possible, yet strong enough to withstand the load of a "launch to orbit" three times. Students first determine the amount of force needed to launch a model rocket to an altitude of 1 meter, which represents low Earth orbit. Then they design, build and test their own structure designs. They revise their designs over several design sessions, trying to maintain or increase the strength and reduce the weight of their structure. They document their designs with sketches and written descriptions. As a culmination, students compile their results onto a poster and present them to the class.

Additional Resources

  Classroom Resources:


  Related NASA Now Events:

  Connection to NASA:

  Extension Activities:

Professional Development

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Lesson Information

Subject(s) Covered:

 Physical Science

Topic(s) Covered:

 • Engineering • Transfer of Energy • Force • Mass • Newton's Laws of Motion

Activity Type:

 Inquiry-based challenge

Grade Level:


Instructional Objective:

 Students develop the abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry, use the engineering design process to distinguish between effective and ineffective design features, and experiment with construction techniques to understand structures and forces.

Time to Complete the Activity:

 Three to four 45 minute classes

  Materials Needed:

  • Craft sticks
  • Dowels
  • Hot-melt glue and glue guns
  • Corrugated cardboard
  • 35-mm film canisters
  • 1-liter soda bottles
  • 2-liter soda bottles
  • Sand (11-23 kg or 25-50 pounds)
  • Sturdy cloth bag for the sand
  • Brass tubing
  • Packaging tape
  • 4-ounce paper cups
  • Ring stand
  • Plywood
  • Hinge
  • Flat head wood screws
  • Wooden 2x4
  • Safety glasses
  • Cardboard cutter
  • Rulers
  • Meter stick
  • Drill
  • Screw driver

   National Content Standards:



  • 21st Century Outcome: Learning and Innovation Skills
  • 21st Century Element: Communication and Collaboration
  • 21st Century Skill: Collaborate with Others


  • 21st Century Outcome: Learning and Innovation Skills
  • 21st Century Element: Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
  • 21st Century Skill: Solve Problems


  • Science Content Area: Physical science
  • Science Standards:
    • Motions and forces
    • Transfer of energy


  • Science Content Area: Science and technology
  • Science Standard: Abilities of technological design


  • Science Content Area: Science as inquiry
  • Science Standard: Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry


  • Technology Content Area: Design
  • Technology Standards:
    • Students will develop an understanding of engineering design.
    • Students will develop an understanding of the role of troubleshooting, research and development, invention and innovation, and experimentation in problem solving.