Landing on the Moon and Mars is tricky. A lander headed to the Moon can go as fast as 24,816 miles (39,937 kilometers) per hour. Those on their way to Mars might go up to 13,000 miles (21,000 kilometers) per hour. To land gently, these spacecraft need to slow down before touching the surface! And if there are astronauts on board, the lander needs to keep them safe, too.

In this challenge, use what you know and what you can investigate about gravity, motion, forces and a target of your choosing (the Moon, Mars or beyond!) to design and build a lander that will protect two "astronauts" when they touch down. Just as engineers had to develop solutions for landing different kinds of vehicles on the Moon and Mars, you will follow the engineering design process to design and build a shock-absorbing system out of simple materials; and improve your design based on the results of your test landings.

› Educators, explore how to turn this into a lesson for students

Image showing the materials needed for the Astronaut Lander project


Composite image showing the Apollo 11 command module on the Moon.

1. Brainstorm

Consider how you will softly land your “astronauts” using the allowable materials.

  • What kind of shock absorber can you make from these materials to help soften a landing?
  • How will you make sure the lander doesn’t roll while falling through the air or tip over when it lands?

Image caption: In this composite image from 1969, astronaut Buzz Aldrin can be seen coming down a ladder from the mission's command module (or lander). Shortly after this series of images was taken, Buzz Aldrin became the second person to walk on the Moon. Image credit: NASA | › See more images from the Apollo 11 mission

Sketch of a lunar lander on graph paper with marshmallows, rubber bands and straws scattered around

2. Design a shock-absorbing system

Think about springs and cushions. The two regular marshmallows (your astronauts) must be inside the cup. Sketch your design. Note: The cup has to stay open – no lids!
Collage of images showing a person adding tape to a piece of cardboard, cutting a straw with scissors and holding marshmallows

3. Build the lander

Using your design as a guide, assemble your lander.
Sketch of a lunar lander on graph paper with red writing that reads, "NEW v. 2"

4. Test, evaluate and redesign

Drop your lander from a height of one foot (30 cm). If the "astronauts" bounce out or the lander tips over, figure out ways to improve your design. Study any problems and redesign. Then test again to see if your new design solved the problem.
Image of the Apollo 11 lunar module flying above the Moon with the Earth visible in the distance.

5. Take it higher

Drop your lander from progressively higher heights (two feet, three feet, etc.). As problems arise, study them and redesign. Then, test again.

Image caption: In this image from 1969, the Apollo 11 lunar module can be seen flying above the Moon after astronauts performed the first moonwalk. Earth is visible above the horizon of the Moon. Image credit: NASA | › See more images from the Apollo 11 mission

Scissors, cups, a pencil and other materials scattered on the ground. A text overlay reads #VirtualMoonshot

Share it!

Share your design with NASA! Snap a picture or video of your spacecraft and post it on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram using the hashtag #VirtualMoonshot. Be sure to get your parents' or guardians' permission before sharing your snaps online – or ask if they can post it for you.