Artist concept of NASA's Space Launch System (SLS)

Illustration of the heavy lifiting activity


Students construct balloon-powered rockets to launch the greatest payload possible to the classroom ceiling. Student teams receive identical parts with which they construct their rockets. Drinking straws guide balloon rockets up strings suspended from the ceiling. Teams compete to launch the greatest number of paper clips to "space" (the ceiling).



  • Prepare your classroom by setting up “launch pads” consisting of pieces of fishing line or string suspended from the ceiling (one line per team of students). If your classroom has a suspended ceiling, use binder clips or clothespins and attach them to the metal frame supporting the ceiling tiles. Tie the fishing line to the clip or pins. Make sure the line is long enough to reach the floor. Provide open working space around each launch pad.

  • Explain how the straw is used for guiding the rockets. The fishing line or string is fed through the straw and one or more balloons are attached to it with masking tape. When the balloon is released, the straw will ride up the line. Stress that it is very important for students to hold the lower end of the line to the floor. If there is slack in the line or if the lower end of the line is free, the rocket will waffle about and not reach the ceiling.

  • If you have balloon pumps, demonstrate how they are used to inflate the balloons.

  • Avoid providing too much information for the students. This is an exercise in creativity, skill, and problem solving. Simply explain the activity, how to use the straws for stability, and tell them that they can use any or all of the parts in their supply kits to build and fly their rockets.The supply kits contain three balloons. Remind students that they only get three balloons.


NASA’s Space Launch System, or SLS, is an advanced launch vehicle for a new era of exploration beyond Earth’s orbit into deep space. SLS, the world’s most powerful rocket, will launch astronauts in the agency’s Orion spacecraft on missions to an asteroid and eventually to Mars, while opening new possibilities for other payloads including robotic scientific missions to places like Mars, Saturn and Jupiter.

Offering the highest-ever payload mass and volume capability and energy to speed missions through space, SLS will be the most powerful rocket in history and is designed to be flexible and evolvable, to meet a variety of crew and cargo mission needs.

In 2013, NASA completed the preliminary design of the SLS and moved into production of the launch vehicle. Engineers continue to make rapid progress aimed toward delivering the first SLS rocket to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for its first launch.

For more information about the SLS program, visit:


  1. Divide your students into teams of three. Explain the project to them.
    “NASA is looking for creative ideas for launching heavy payloads into orbit. Payloads include parts and supplies for the International Space Station and spacecraft that will carry humans to the moon and Mars. NASA is also interested in rockets that can transport large fuel tanks that will be used to power deep space rockets. You are challenged to build the most efficient heavy-lift rocket from the same set of materials. The team that is able to lift the greatest payload into space (the ceiling) is the winner.”

  2. Provide each team with an identical kit of materials. Tell them that any or all of these materials can be used for their rockets.

  3. Review the launching procedure. Explain how the straw guides the rocket up the fishing line or string and that the line must beheld snug to the floor for the launch. Remind the teams that they only get three balloons.They can launch as many times as they want to but should try to improve how many paperclips they can successfully lift.

  4. Draw a chart on the board for teams to record their results (i.e., the number of paperclips that reach the ceiling).

Tip: If you wish to do so, provide one extra balloon to each team as a replacement in case of a mishap (pop!) or as a fourth rocket for their cluster. Make a small coupon for the extra balloon and put it in the parts bag. The coupons will help you keep track of which teams have already requested an extra balloon.

Tip: Occasionally, a balloon will have a tiny pinhole that will prevent it from being inflated or from holding air very long. Keep a small supply of replacement balloons.


  • Why is NASA supportive of commercial space companies?
    NASA’s space efforts are aimed at expanding our horizons in space. Although their space rockets are easily capable of launching communications, weather, and Earth resources satellites, NASA continually looks beyond. NASA explores, and when it pioneers a new technology, it seeks to turn over continued development to U.S.commercial interests. That way, NASA can focus on and advance to the next new horizon. NASA’s current new horizons include the first permanent bases on the moon and the first human expeditions to Mars. These are demanding challenges. When they are met, commercial space companies will follow, permitting NASA to move on to even greater challenges.

  • Why is it important to construct efficient heavy-lift vehicles?
    Traveling into space is a very difficult and expensive endeavor. Huge rockets and tremendous amounts of propellants are required to accomplish the job. With some rockets, launch costs were approximately $20,000 per kilogram of payload delivered into Earth orbit. If that cost were to continue, imagine staying at a space hotel where it would cost about $10,000 for a half liter bottle of drinking water! Improving heavy-lift rockets(lighter rocket structures, more propellant efficient engines, etc.) will enable us to accomplish much more in space at far more reasonable costs!


  • Have each team describe their design to the class:

  • How many balloons did they use?

  • How many paper clips did their rocket carry to the ceiling?

  • How did they attach the paperclips to the balloon?

  • What problems did they encounter?

  • How did they solve those problems?

  • Write a summary of your launch vehicle using correct science and technology terms (e.g.,lift, payload, mass, thrust).


  • Challenge students to design a two-stage rocket. The lower balloon “fires” before the upper balloon. The upper balloon carries the payload to the ceiling.