Five students in sweatshirts and collared shirts pose for a selfie with Ms. Risbrough and JPL education specialist Brandon Rodriguez, all wearing masks.

A Los Angeles math teacher gets students engaged with connections to science and exploring the human side of math, such as how leaders inspire change in their communities.

Katherine Risbrough has been teaching high school math for almost 10 years. She began her teaching career in the Hickory Hill community of Memphis, Tennessee, where she taught everything from Algebra 1 to Calculus and served as a math coach for the district. Five years ago, she came to Los Angeles to teach Integrated Math and Calculus at Synergy Quantum Academy High School.

Outside of math, Ms. Risbrough is also a superfan of college football and never misses a game at her alma mater, the University of Southern California. Her fandom for making the game is rivaled only by her love of Harry Potter, having been to every midnight book and movie release.

I caught up with Ms. Risbrough to find out how she gets students excited about math, and I learned about a new strategy she used this past year: bridging math and science by teaming up with the AP Physics teacher. Her cross-discipline curriculum focused on helping students make connections between subjects and got them engaged as they returned from more than a year of remote learning.

Math can be intimidating for students and it can be difficult to keep them engaged. How do you get your students excited about math?

A student at a desk holds open a worksheet while Ms. Risbrough leans over and points to a section of the worksheet.

Ms. Risbrough works with one of her calculus students. Image courtesy: Katherine Risbrough | + Expand image

Sometimes it's easier said than done, but math needs to be as hands-on and discussion-based as possible. We use a lot of the calc-medic curriculum, which is application and discovery first followed by a whole class discussion to share ideas and cement new learning. When students have to speak and defend a hypothesis or an argument, they are practicing mathematical reasoning, which is a skill they can take into all STEM coursework. I avoid lectures as much as possible. We also do a lot of flipped classroom learning (videos at home and practice in class), group work, use technology, and do activities that get students moving around the classroom.

I believe that learning mathematics should be a collaborative, exploratory process and that every student already has the skills necessary to become a successful mathematician. It’s my job to give them opportunities to show off and strengthen those skills, so that they can be just as successful with or without me present to help them.

This year you’ve introduced some interesting projects to make your class more interdisciplinary. Tell me a bit more about that.

I’ve really focused on keeping the math contextualized by being sure the content is interdisciplinary. For example, over half of my AP Calculus students are also taking AP Physics. This year, in particular, I was sure to coordinate with the physics teacher to see how we could align our curriculum in kinematics with what we were doing with integrals and derivatives. This began with students doing JPL’s additive velocity lesson in their physics class to set the stage for how calculus ties together acceleration, velocity, and displacement.

Both classes are so challenging for students, but when they see how strategies in one class can help lift them in another, it’s almost as if they are getting to see two different strategies to solve the same problem. Designing challenges that could be solved with both physics and math gave the students an ability to approach problems from either side. At first, they were pretty intimidated to see their two most challenging classes teaming up, but the end result was some incredible student projects and dramatic improvement in their ability to graph out relationships.

I also kick off new units by making connections to students' own life or even their future careers. They need to know the “why” beyond just, “because you’ll be tested on it.” We try to talk about STEM historical figures and current leaders (specifically mathematicians and scientists of color) as often as possible. For example, I use clips from the movies "October Sky" and "Hidden Figures" to set the stage and then lead into projects about rocket trajectories and elliptical orbits.

Pieces of paper with math terms such as 'graph' and 'function' printed on them are taped to a desk. Lines and arrows drawn with marker connect that various pieces of paper and notes are written off to the side.

Students in Ms. Risbrough's class map out language and processes to better understand shapes and limits in functions. Image courtesy: Katherine Risbrough | + Expand image

This year, in calculus, we started the year with the idea of “Agents of Change” and looked at thought leaders such as veteran astronaut Ellen Ochoa and climate scientist Nicole Hernandez Hammer and how their work relates to “instant rates of change” and “average rates of change” in calculus. Then, I had students think about moments of change in their life, and how that instant can be carried forward to a make a long term change in their careers and communities.

Coming back from COVID-19 and more than a year of remote instruction, how are your students adjusting to being back in the classroom?

Our students missed out on so many social and academic opportunities because of COVID, but they aren’t letting that stop them. The biggest struggle was starting off the school year and getting back into routines. Because of the demographics of our students, there have been more absences than usual, as many of our students help support their family at home. Many parents struggled to keep work through the pandemic, and a lot of my students work outside of school or take care of their siblings. The effects of caring for their families while still trying to focus on applying to college has really taken a toll on students.

I’m fortunate that so many kids are comfortable and open sharing feelings of increased anxiety, responsibility, or worry over the past two years. I believe it's important that my classroom and our group first and foremost be an escape from that space rather than an added stress. Their success in math – even a rigorous AP math class with a breakneck pace – comes from me being there for them as a person first and a teacher second. We focus so much on “catching them up” that we forget to take some time for them to process all they have had to manage.

A group of five students with long dark hair stand next to each other and Ms. Risbrough looking at a whiteboard with graphs drawn on it.

AP Calculus students graph out kinematics as examples of integrals and derivatives. Image courtesy: Katherine Risbrough | + Expand image

As we move toward graduation, what is one story of success that you will take away from this year?

Honestly, it's the success of my students. They have jumped into AP Calculus after 1.5 years of distance learning and the social-emotional learning burdens of Covid, and have done amazing work. They are thoughtful, persistent, and often learning multiple grades worth of skills within one calculus lesson. I guess I'm a small piece of that, but all that I've really done is give them space to explore, discuss, and learn. It's what they've done with that space that has been the best thing to watch!

Looking for ways to bring NASA STEM into your classroom or already have a great idea? The Education Office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory serves educators in the greater Los Angeles area. Contact us at

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TAGS: Teachers, School, Classroom, Instruction, K-12, High School, Math, Calculus, Physics, Algebra, Lessons, Resources

  • Brandon Rodriguez

A small piece of the ISS is visible in the top corner of this view looking down from space station over Earth. A large cloud of dust takes half the view over Earth's surface.

A data map overlaid on the globe shows thick swirls of dust traveling from West Africa, across the Atlantic Ocean and all the way to the Caribbean and Southern U.S.

Learn about the role that dust plays in Earth's climate, why scientists are interested in studying dust from space, and how to engage students in the science with STEM resources from JPL.

A NASA instrument launching to the International Space Station in early summer will explore how dust impacts global temperatures, cloud formation, and the health of our oceans. The Earth Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation, or EMIT, will be the first instrument of its kind, collecting measurements from space of some of the most arid regions on Earth to understand the composition of soils that generate dust and the larger role dust plays in climate change.

Read on to find out how the instrument works and why scientists are hoping to learn more about the composition of dust. Then, explore how to bring the science into your classroom with related climate lessons that bridge physical sciences with engineering practices.

Why It’s Important

Scientists have long studied the movements of dust. The fact that dust storms can carry tiny particles great distances was reported in the scientific literature nearly two centuries ago by none other than Charles Darwin as he sailed across the Atlantic on the HMS Beagle. What still remains a mystery all these years later is what that dust is made of, how it moves, and how that affects the health of our planet.

For example, we now know that dust deposited on snow speeds up snow melt even more than increased air temperature. That is to say, that dust traveling to cold places can cause increased snow melt.

Sharp mountain peaks are covered in splotches of snow with a fine coating of dust visible on top of the snow.

A coating of dust on snow speeds the pace of snowmelt in the spring. Credit: NASA | + Expand image

Dust can affect air temperatures as well. For example, dust with more iron absorbs light and can cause the air to warm, while dust with less iron reflects light and is responsible for local cooling. Iron in dust can also act as a fertilizer for plankton in oceans, supplying them with nutrients needed for growth and reproduction.

A plume of dust eminates from over the Copper River in Alaska, spreading out as this series of overhead satellite images progresses.

A plume of dust is shown emanating from over Alaska's Copper River in October 2016 in these images captured by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer, or MODIS, instrument on NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites. Dust storms play a key role in fueling phytoplankton blooms by delivering iron to the Gulf of Alaska. Credit: NASA | › Full image and caption

Floating dust potentially alters the composition of clouds and how quickly or slowly they form, which can ultimately impact weather patterns, including the formation of hurricanes. That’s because clouds need particles to act as seeds around which droplets of moisture in the atmosphere can form. This process of coalescing water particles, called nucleation, is one factor in how clouds form.

An overhead view of a swirl of clouds mixed with a streak of dust like a swirl of milk froth in a cappuccino

A swirl of dust mixes with the clouds in a low-pressure storm over the Gobi desert between Mongolia and China. This image was captured by the MODIS instrument on the Terra satellite in May 2019. Credit: NASA | › Full image and caption

Thanks to EMIT, we’ll take the first steps in understanding how the movements of dust particles contribute to local and global changes in climate by producing “mineral maps”. These mineral maps will reveal differences in the chemical makeup of dust, providing essential information to help us model the way dust can transform Earth’s climate.

› Learn more about what EMIT will do from JPL News

How It Works

NASA has been exploring how dust moves across the globe by combining on-the-ground field studies with cutting-edge technology.

Dr. Olga Kalashnikova, an aerosol scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a co-investigator for EMIT, has been using satellite data to study atmospheric mineral dust for many years, including tracking the movements of dust and investigating trends in the frequency of dust storms.

As Dr. Kalashnikova describes, “From the ground, we can see what types of dusts are lifted into the atmosphere by dust storms on a local scale, but with EMIT, we can understand how they differ and where they originally came from.”

EMIT is the first instrument designed to observe a key part of the mineral dust cycle from space, allowing scientists to track different dust compositions on a global scale, instead of in just one region at a time. To understand dust’s impact on Earth’s climate, scientists will use EMIT to answer key questions, including:

  • How does dust uplifted in the atmosphere alter global temperatures?
  • What role do dusts play in fertilizing our oceans when they are deposited?
  • How do dust particles in the atmosphere affect cloud nucleation; the process by which clouds are ‘seeded’ and begin to coalesce into larger clouds?
A picture of the EMIT instrument, shaped like a small megaphone, is overlaid on an picture of the International Space Station flying above Earth.

The EMIT instrument will fly aboard the International Space Station, which orbits Earth about once every 90 minutes, completing about 16 orbits per day. Credit: NASA | + Expand image

To achieve its objectives, EMIT will spend 12 months collecting what are called “hyperspectral images” of some of the most arid regions of our planet selected by scientists and engineers as areas of high dust mobility, such as Northern Africa, the Middle East, and the American Southwest.

These images are measurements of light reflected from the Earth below, calibrated to the distinct patterns, or spectra, of light we see when certain minerals are present. The EMIT team has identified 10 minerals that are most common, including gypsum, hematite, and kaolinite.

Bands of satellite images looking at a seciton of Earth are highlighted in different colors to reveal different concentrations of minerals.

This example spectra shows how scientists will be able to identify different concentrations of minerals and elements in data collected by EMIT. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

Why are these minerals important? One key reason is the presence or absence of the element iron, found in some minerals but not others.

Dr. Bethany Ehlmann is a planetary scientist and co-investigator for the EMIT project at Caltech and explains that when it comes to heating, “a little bit of iron goes a long way.” Iron in minerals absorbs visible and infrared light, meaning that even if only a small amount is present, it will result in a much warmer dust particle. Large amounts of warm dust in our atmosphere may have an impact on temperatures globally since those dust particles radiate heat as they travel, sometimes as far as across oceans!

Collecting images from space is, of course, no easy task, especially when trying to look only at the ground below. Yet it does allow scientists to get a global picture that's not possible to capture from the ground. Field studies allow us to take individual samples from tiny places of interest, but from space, we can scan the entire planet in remote places where no scientist can visit.

Of course, there are some complications in trying to study the light reflected off the surface of Earth, such as interference from clouds. To prevent this problem, the EMIT team plans to collect data at each location several times to ensure that the images aren’t being obscured by clouds between the instrument and the minerals we’re looking for.

The data collected by EMIT will provide a map of the compositions of dust from dry, desert environments all over the world, but the team involved won’t stop there. Knowing more about what the dust is made of sets the stage for a broader understanding of a few more of the complex processes that make up our global climate cycle. Upon completion of this study, EMIT's mineral maps will support further campaigns to complete our global dust picture. For example, NASA hopes to couple the data from EMIT with targeted field campaigns, in which scientists can collect wind-blown dust from the ground to learn more about where dust particles move over time and answer questions about what types of dust are on the go.

Furthermore, missions such as the Multiangle Imager for Aerosols, or MAIA, will allow us to better understand the effects of these dust particles on air-quality and public health.

Teach it

Studying Earth’s climate is a complex puzzle, consisting of many trackable features. These can range from sea level to particles in our atmosphere, but each makes a contribution to measuring the health of our planet. Bring EMIT and NASA Earth Science into your classroom with these lessons, articles, and activities to better understand how we’re exploring climate change.

Educator Guides

Student Activities



TAGS: Earth, climate, geology, weather, EMIT, Teachers, Classroom, Lessons, Earth Science, Climate Change, Dust, Global Warming, Educators, K-12, Teachable Moments

  • Brandon Rodriguez

Scenes from Jackie Prosser's fourth-grade classroom including a door poster commemorating Dorothy Vaughan, a poster with the words Dare Mighty Things glued to it, a yellow lab surrounded by NASA posters, and Miss Prosser with two other teachers all wearin

This fourth-grade teacher is finding creative ways to get her students back into the flow of classroom learning with the help of STEAM education resources from JPL.

Jackie Prosser is a fourth-grade teacher in Fairfield, California, finishing her second year as a classroom teacher. She is a recent graduate of the University of California, Riverside, where she simultaneously received her teaching credential and her master's in education. This was where I was fortunate enough to meet Miss Prosser, through a collaboration between the Education Office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and UCR designed to help new teachers incorporate STEM into their future classrooms. She and her cohort immediately struck me as passionate future teachers already exploring unique ways to bring space science into their teaching.

But it's been a challenging transition for Miss Prosser and teachers like her who started their careers amid a pandemic. She began her student-teaching in person only to find that she would have to switch to teaching remotely just four months into the job. Now, she's back in the classroom but facing new challenges getting students up to speed academically while reacquainting them with the social aspects of in-person learning.

I caught up with her to find out how she's managing the transition and developing creative ways to support the individual needs of her students and, at the same time, incorporating science and art into her curriculum with the help of STEAM resources from the JPL Education Office.

What made you want to become an elementary school teacher?

Originally, I became a teacher because I love to see that moment of light when a concept finally clicks in a kid’s mind. I am still a teacher (even after the craziest two years ever) because every kid deserves someone to fight for them, and I know I can be that person for at least 32 kids a year.

I love to teach young kids especially for two reasons. The first is their honesty; no one will tell you exactly like it is like a nine-year-old will. The second is that I love the excitement kids have for learning at this age.

It has been a bumpy couple years, especially this past school year when it was unclear if we would be remote again or back in the classroom. How has it been coming back from remote learning?

Coming back from remote learning has been an incredible challenge, but we’ve come a long way since the beginning of the year. Students really struggled being back in a highly structured environment. It was very hard to balance meeting the individual needs of each student and getting them used to the structure and expectations of the classroom.

My fourth graders were online for the last part of second grade and a vast majority of third grade. This is when students really start to solve conflicts and regulate their emotions with less support from adults. I have seen a lot more problems with emotion regulation and conflict among my students this year than in years past.

There is a lot of pressure on teachers right now to make up for all the learning loss and for students being behind on grade-level standards. But I don’t think enough people talk about how much joy and social interaction they also lost during remote learning. Teachers are also feeling the pressure of that. I want to help my students be the very best versions of themselves and being happy and comfortable with themselves is a huge part of that.

Description in caption.

A student looks at a page from the NASA Solar System Exploration website. Image courtesy: Jackie Prosser | + Expand image

How do you structure your class to get students back in the flow of a school setting?

I use a lot of manipulatives in my math lessons and try to make their learning as hands-on as possible. I also teach math in small groups to be able to better meet the individual needs of my students. I have one group with me learning the lesson, one group doing their independent practice of the skill, and one group on their computers. Then, the students switch until each group has done each activity.

You’re a big fan of science and came to several JPL Education workshops while you were still in school yourself. Are there JPL Education resources that you have found particularly impactful for your students?

I have always loved teaching science. It is so often left behind or pushed aside. I think a lot of time that happens because teachers feel like they do not have enough background knowledge to teach high-quality science lessons or they think that the lessons will add to the already enormous workload teachers have. My district does not have an adopted or prescribed curriculum for teachers to follow, so we have a lot of freedom for when and how to make the time for STEAM.

The education resources [from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory] have made it so easy for me to teach and get kids excited about science, and my kids absolutely love them. Our favorites always seem to be Make a Paper Mars Helicopter and Art and the Cosmic Connection.

Description in caption.

A student holds a paper Mars helicopter. Image courtesy: Jackie Prosser | + Expand image

I also am part of my district’s science pilot program. It has been so cool to be able to decide what curriculum to pilot and watch my students test it out and give feedback on their learning. Last year, I had the amazing opportunity to teach science for two elementary schools’ summer programs. My partner teacher and I got to create the curriculum for them, and we pulled a ton of lessons from the JPL Education website. It was by far the most fun I have ever had at a job.

Despite being a new teacher, you’ve already seen so much. How have you navigated the changing landscape?

I have an amazing network of teachers supporting me at every turn. My grade-level team and my friends from my credential program are some of the most amazing people and educators I have ever met. There is no way I would be able to get through the more difficult aspects of teaching without them.

I am also coaching the boys soccer team, directing the school’s "Lion King Jr." play, contributing to the science pilot program, and serving on the social committee for teachers and staff. I love using these different roles to make connections with not just my students, but also students from all grades.

Looking for ways to bring NASA STEM into your classroom or already have a great idea? The Education Office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory serves educators in the greater Los Angeles area. Contact us at

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TAGS: Teachers, School, Remote School, Classroom, Instruction, K-12, Fourth Grade, STEAM, Science, Math, Art, UC Riverside, resources, lessons

  • Brandon Rodriguez

In the cleanroom at Northrop Grumman, a technician inspects the bellows between the hexagonal sections that make up the large honeycomb-shaped mirror on the Webb telescope.

Get a look into the science and engineering behind the largest and most powerful space telescope ever built while exploring ways to engage learners in the mission.

NASA is launching the largest, most powerful space telescope ever. The James Webb Space Telescope will look back at some of the earliest stages of the universe, gather views of early star and galaxy formation, and provide insights into the formation of planetary systems, including our own solar system.

Read on to learn more about what the space-based observatory will do, how it works, and how to engage learners in the science and engineering behind the mission.

What It Will Do

The James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST, was developed through a partnership between NASA and the European and Canadian space agencies. It will build upon and extend the discoveries made by the Hubble Space Telescope to help unravel mysteries of the universe. First, let's delve into what scientists hope to learn with the Webb telescope.

A look at the James Webb Space Telescope, its mission and the incredible technological challenge this mission presents. | Watch on YouTube

How Galaxies Evolve

What the first galaxies looked like and when they formed is not known, and the Webb telescope is designed to help scientists learn more about that early period of the universe. To better understand what the Webb telescope will study, it’s helpful to know what happened in the early universe, before the first stars formed.

The universe, time, and space all began about 13.8 billion years ago with the Big Bang. For the first few hundred-thousand years, the universe was a hot, dense flood of protons, electrons, and neutrons, the tiny particles that make up atoms. As the universe cooled, protons and neutrons combined into ionized hydrogen and helium, which had a positive charge, and eventually attracted all those negatively charged electrons. This process, known as recombination, occurred about 240,000 to 300,000 years after the Big Bang.

An ellipse is filled with speckled dark blue, green, and small yellow and red splotches.

This image shows the temperature fluctuations (shown as color differences) in the cosmic microwave background from a time when the universe was less than 400,000 years old. The image was captured by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, or WMAP, which spent nine years, from 2001 to 2010, collecting data on the early universe. Credit: NASA | › Full image and caption | + Expand image

Light that previously couldn’t travel without being scattered by the dense ionized plasma of early particles could now travel freely. The very first form of light we can look back and see comes from this time and is known as the cosmic microwave background radiation. It is essentially a map of temperature fluctuations across the universe left behind from the Big Bang. The fluxuations give clues about the origin of galaxies and the large-scale structure of galaxies. There were still no stars in the universe at this time, so the next several hundred million years are known as the cosmic dark ages.

Current theory predicts that the earliest stars were big – 30 to 300 times the size of our Sun – and burned quickly, ending in supernova explosions after just a few million years. (For comparison, our Sun has a lifespan of about 10 billion years and will not go supernova.) Observing these luminous supernovae is one of the few ways scientists could study the earliest stars. That is vital to understanding the formation of objects such as the first galaxies.

By using the Webb telescope to compare the earliest galaxies with those of today, scientists hope to understand how they form, what gives them their shape, how chemical elements are distributed across galaxies, how central black holes influence their galaxies, and what happens when galaxies collide.

Learn how the James Webb Space Telescope's ability to look farther into space than ever before will bring newborn galaxies into view. | Watch on YouTube

How Stars and Planetary Systems Form

Stars and their planetary systems form within massive clouds of dust and gas. It's impossible to see into these clouds with visible light, so the Webb telescope is equipped with science instruments that use infrared light to peer into the hearts of stellar nurseries. When viewing these nurseries in the mid-infrared – as the Webb telescope is designed to do – the dust outside the dense star forming regions glows and can be studied directly. This will allow astronomers to observe the details of how stars are born and investigate why most stars form in groups as well as how planetary systems begin and evolve.

Plumes of red stellar dust shoot out from the top and bottom of a bright central disk.

This mosaic image is the sharpest wide-angle view ever obtained of the starburst galaxy, Messier 82 (M82). The galaxy is remarkable for its bright blue disk, webs of shredded clouds and fiery-looking plumes of glowing hydrogen blasting out of its central regions.Throughout the galaxy's center, young stars are being born 10 times faster than they are inside our entire Milky Way Galaxy. Credit: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA); Acknowledgment: J. Gallagher (University of Wisconsin), M. Mountain (STScI), and P. Puxley (National Science Foundation) | › Full image and caption | + Expand image

How Exoplanets and Our Solar System Evolve

Collage of futuristic posters depicting explorers on various exoplanets.

As we make more discoveries about exoplanets, artists at NASA are imagining what future explorers might encounter on these faraway worlds as part of the Exoplanet Travel Bureau poster series. Credit: NASA | › View and download the posters | + Expand image

The first planet outside our solar system, or exoplanet, was discovered in 1992. Since then, scientists have found thousands more exoplanets and estimate that there are hundreds of billions in the Milky Way galaxy alone. There are many waiting to be discovered and there is more to learn about the exoplanets themselves, such as what makes up their atmospheres and what their weather and seasons may be like. The Webb telescope will help scientists do just that.

In our own solar system, the Webb telescope will study planets and other objects to help us learn more about our solar neighborhood. It will be able to complement studies of Mars being carried out by orbiters, landers, and rovers by searching for molecules that may be signs of past or present life. It is powerful enough to identify and characterize icy comets in the far reaches of our solar system. And it can be used to study places like Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune while there are no active missions at those planets.

How It Works

The Webb telescope has unique capabilities enabled by the way it views the universe, its size, and the new technologies aboard. Here's how it works.

Peering Into the Infrared

To see ancient, distant galaxies, the Webb telescope was built with instruments sensitive to light in the near- and mid-infrared wavelengths.

Light leaving these galaxies can take billions of years to reach Earth, so when we see these objects, we’re actually seeing what they looked like in the past. The farther something is from Earth, the farther back in time it is when we observe it. So when we look at light that left objects 13.5 billion years ago, we're seeing what happened in the early universe.

A sideways funnel that fans out at one end encapsulates an illustration of the history of the universe starting with the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago through the first stars, the development of galaxies, and accelerated expansion.

An illustrated timeline of the universe. Credit: WMAP | + Expand image

As light from distant objects travels to Earth, the universe continues to expand, something it’s been doing since the Big Bang. The waves that make up the light get stretched as the universe expands. You can see this effect in action by making an ink mark on a rubber band and observing how the mark stretches out when you pull on the rubber band.

Light waves get stretched as the universe expands similar to how this ink mark stretches out as the elastic is pulled. Get students modeling and exploring this effect with this standards-aligned math lesson. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

What this means for light coming from distant galaxies is that the visible lightwaves you would be able to see with your eyes get stretched out so far that the longer wavelengths shift from visible light into infrared. Scientists refer to this phenomenon as redshift – and the farther away an object is, the more redshift it undergoes.

Webb telescope’s infrared sensing equipment will give scientists the chance to study some of the earliest stars that exploded in supernova events, creating the elements necessary to build planets and form life.

Gathering Light

The first stars were massive, their life cycles ending in supernova explosions. The light from these explosions has traveled so far that it is incredibly dim. This is due to the inverse square law. You experience this effect when a room appears to get darker as you move away from a light source.

To see such dim light, the Webb telescope needs to be extremely sensitive. A telescope’s sensitivity, or its ability to detect faint signals, is related to the size of the mirror it uses to gather light. On the Webb telescope, 18 hexagonal mirrors combine to form a massive primary mirror that is 21 feet (6.5 meters) across.

A technician in a white smock stands up in a gap between several large hexagonal mirrors forming a honeycomb shape.

A technician inspects the Webb telescope's honeycomb-shaped mirror. The telescope's primary mirror is 21 feet (6.5 meters) across and is made up of 18 smaller hexagonal mirrors that must fold for launch and unfurl after the telescope reaches its orbit in space. Credit: NASA/MSFC/David Higginbotham/Emmett Given | › Full image and caption | + Expand image

Compared with the Hubble Space Telescope’s eight-foot (2.4 meter) diameter mirror, this gives the Webb telescope more than six times the surface area to collect those distant particles of light known as photons. Hubble’s famous Ultra Deep Field observation captured images of incredibly faint, distant galaxies by pointing at a seemingly empty spot in space for 16 days, but the Webb telescope will be able to make a similar observation in just seven hours.

Colorful spirals, disks, and stars of various sizes and shapes appear against the blackness of space like sprinkles on a cake.

This image, called the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, shows 28 of the more than 500 young galaxies that existed when the universe was less than 1 billion years old. Credit: NASA, ESA, R. Bouwens and G. Illingworth (University of California, Santa Cruz) | › Full image and caption | + Expand image

Keeping Cool

The Webb Telescope gathers its scientific data as infrared light. To detect the faint signals of objects billions of light years away, the instruments inside the telescope have to be kept very cold, otherwise those infrared signals could get lost in the heat of the telescope. Engineers accounted for this with a couple of systems designed to get the instruments cold and keep them cold.

The Webb telescope's orbit around the Sun – sitting about 1 million miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth at Lagrange point 2 – keeps the spacecraft pretty far from our planet's heat, but even that’s not enough. To further reduce the temperature on the instruments, the spacecraft will unfurl a tennis-court-size sunshield that will block light and heat from the Sun, Earth, and Moon using five layers of specially coated material. Each layer blocks incoming heat, and the heat that does make it through is redirected out of the sides of the sunshield. Additionally, the vacuum between each layer provides insulation.

Technicians in white smocks stand on lifts looking at JWST's fully deployed sunshield in the cleanroom at Northrup Gruman. The five layers of the kite-shaped sunshield extend out around JWST's folded honeycomb-shaped mirror.

The sunshield is made up of five layers of specially coated material designed to block the Webb telescope's sensitive instruments from incoming heat from the Sun, Earth, and Moon. This photo, taken in the cleanroom at Northrop Grumman in Southern California in December 2020, shows the sunshield fully deployed and tensioned as it will be in space. Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn | › Full image and caption | + Expand image

The sunshield is so effective that the temperatures on the Sun-facing side of the telescope could be hot enough to boil water, while on the side closest to the instruments, the temperature could be as low as -394 F (-237 C, 36 K).

That’s cold enough for the near-infrared instruments to operate, but the Mid-Infrared Instrument, or MIRI, needs to be even colder. To bring down the temperature of MIRI, the Webb telescope is equipped with a special cryocooler that pumps chilled helium to the instrument to reduce its operating temperature to about -448 F (-267 C, 6 K).

Spotting Exoplanets

The Webb telescope will search for exoplanets using two different methods.

Using the transit method, the Webb telescope will look for the regular pattern of dimming that occurs when an exoplanet transits its star, or passes between the star and the telescope. The amount of dimming can tell scientists a lot about the passing exoplanet, such as the size of the planet and its distance from the star.

This animation shows how the transit method is used to hunt for planets outside our solar system. When exoplanets transit their parent star, the Webb telescope (like the Kepler space telescope, depicted here) will be able to detect the dip in the star’s brightness, providing scientists with key information about the transiting exoplanet. Students can see this technique in action with this transit math problem. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

The second method the Webb telescope will use to search for exoplanets is direct imaging – capturing actual images of planets beyond our solar system. To enable direct imaging of exoplanets, the Webb telescope is equipped with a coronagraph. Just like you might use your hand to block a bright light, a coronagraph blocks starlight from reaching a telescope’s instruments, allowing a dim exoplanet orbiting a star to be seen.

Wispy solar flares from the Sun can be seen jutting out from a solid central circle.

This “coronagraph” image taken by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, or SOHO, shows dim features around our Sun. Similarly, direct images of exoplanets captured by the Webb telescope will reveal details normally washed out by the brightness of stars. Credit: ESA&NASA/SOHO | › Full image and caption | + Expand image

The Webb telescope can uncover even more using spectroscopy. Light from a star produces a spectrum, which displays the intensity of light at different wavelengths. When a planet transits its star, some of the light from the star will pass through the planet's atmosphere before reaching the Webb telescope. Since all elements and molecules, such as methane and water, absorb energy at specific wavelengths, spectra from light that has passed through a planet’s atmosphere may contain dark lines known as absorption lines that tell scientists if there are certain elements present.

This infographic shows the electromagnetic spectrum and how various wavelengths are used for different applications, such as infrared for remote controls.

By looking at the unique spectrum produced when the light from a star shines through the atmosphere of a transiting exoplanet, scientists can learn whether certain elements are present on that planet. Credit: NASA | + Expand image

Using direct imaging and spectroscopy, scientists can learn even more about an exoplanet, including its color, seasons, rotation, weather, and vegetation if it exists.

All this could lead scientists to the ultimate exoplanet discovery: an Earth-size planet with an atmosphere like ours in its star’s habitable zone – a place where liquid water could exist.

Setting Up in Space

The Webb telescope will launch from French Guiana on top of an Ariane 5 rocket, a massive rocket capable of lifting the telescope, which weighs nearly 14,000 pounds (6,200 kilograms), to its destination.

The telescope's large mirror and giant sunshield are too big to fit inside the 18-foot (5.4-meter) wide rocket fairing, which protects the spacecraft during launch. To overcome this challenge, engineers designed the telescope's mirror and sunshield to fold for launch.

Two sides of the mirror assembly fold back for launch, allowing them to fit inside the fairing. The sunshield, which is 69.5 feet (21 meters) long and 46.5 feet (14 meters) wide, is carefully folded 12 times like origami so that it's narrow enough for launch. These are just two examples of several folding mechanisms needed to fit the massive telescope in its rocket for launch.

It will take about a month for the Webb telescope to reach its destination and unfurl its mirrors and sunshield. Scientists need another five months to cool down the instruments to their operating temperatures and align the mirrors correctly.

Approximately six months after launch, checkouts should be complete, and the telescope will begin its first science campaign and science operations.

Learn more and follow along with the mission from launch and unfolding to science observations and discovery announcements on the James Webb Space Telescope website.

Teach It

Check out these resources to bring the real-life STEM behind the mission into your teaching with lesson guides for educators, projects and slideshows for students, and more.

Educator Guides

Student Activities

Articles for Students

Videos for Students

Resources for Educators and Parents


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NASA's Universe of Learning materials are based upon work supported by NASA under award number NNX16AC65A to the Space Telescope Science Institute, working in partnership with Caltech/IPAC, Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

TAGS: JWST, James Webb Space Telescope, electromagnetic spectrum, exoplanets, universe, solar system, big bang, cosmology, astronomy, star formation, galaxy, galaxies, telescope, life, technology, MIRI, Mars, Engineering, Teaching, Education, Classroom, Science

  • Lyle Tavernier

A screengrab from a web meeting shows a small window with Jayme Wisdom speaking to students and a picture of students attaching a balloon to a string.

Jayme Wisdom has been teaching for 15 years at the Vaughn Charter System in Pacoima, California. She has taught eighth-grade science for most of her career but switched to high school biology for the first time this year.

Ms. Wisdom has long utilized NASA and JPL educational resources, finding creative ways to adapt lessons to meet her students’ needs and exposing them to STEM careers.

A self-described professional nerd, she doesn't shy away from her love of all things Star Trek and Star Wars (and stands firm in her refusal to pick which is superior). While presenting during a recent JPL Education workshop, she shared how she continues to get her students excited about science – both in the classroom and remotely – during the COVID era.

What unique challenges do you face engaging or addressing the needs of your students?

Many of the students I teach face challenges including poverty, homelessness, and learning English as a second language. This year, in particular, has been extremely difficult for all of us dealing with the pandemic and distance learning. As a teacher, I have had to find ways to make sure that my students are engaged in scientific inquiry and have access to resources and materials while learning remotely. This begins and ends with a conscious effort to acknowledge that kids are struggling with this online format and carving out time in every single class to provide the socio-emotional support they have come to expect from a classroom environment. Before we dive into content, this means making time for check-ins and updates. In any in-person classroom, we carve out time to get to know each other, and being online should not diminish that. Of course, as we all learned this year, easier said than done.

Social isolation is another factor that contributes to the challenges of distance learning. Even though students see their peers virtually, it is often difficult for them to open up and talk as freely as they would if they were in a physical classroom. So I have had to find ways to make sure that my students are comfortable with engaging in a virtual setting by allowing them opportunities to talk and collaborate with each other online.

Using breakout sessions was difficult at first, because the students were very self-conscious about speaking to each other on screen and were reluctant to share ideas. So every day, we spent the first few minutes in each class just talking to each other through text-based chat to get them socializing and feeling more comfortable with this new way of interacting. Now they are more comfortable engaging in scientific inquiry with each other and have meaningful discussions to expand their learning. It is not the same as having them physically perform labs together in class but things are definitely improving.

Another challenge has been providing all of my students with access to resources and materials that allow them to simulate a laboratory experience at home. I have been pleasantly surprised at the wealth of resources I have available to me as a teacher to provide virtual labs and activities to my students. Whether it is virtual demonstrations and simulations or scientific investigations that require simple materials that students can find around the house, we have been very resourceful so we can give students the best experience possible through distance learning. Promoting lab science with home supplies has been instrumental in student engagement, as they really get to explore in their own context, expressing themselves creatively with what they have at their disposal instead of being provided the materials.

How have you used lessons from NASA and JPL to keep students engaged while teaching in person and remotely?

I have always been fascinated by outer space and have loved sci-fi TV shows and movies since I was very young. So as a teacher, I was so excited to discover ways to use my love of astronomy to engage my students.

When I discovered NASA and JPL's resources and lessons, I went through them like a kid in a candy store. I found so many different activities that I could adapt to use in my own classroom. Over the past few years, I have used several JPL Education lessons and modified and extended them for my students.

Three students in gray sweatshirts huddle around a cardboard rover, placing tape across its center.

While remote instruction has had its challenges, Ms. Windsom found that getting students to strike up conversations via chat at the start of class made students more willing to collaborate and share their designs for projects usually done in the classroom, like these cardboard rovers. Image courtesy: Shirley Yong and Malak Kawtharani | + Expand image

For example, I took JPL's Touchdown lesson and allowed students to create their own planetary lander using materials they could find around their home. I challenged them to create a way to quantify how much impact the touchdown would have on the "astronauts" in their lander. Some students used balls of play dough as their astronauts, and quantified the impact by measuring the dents made in the play dough by paper clips that they had placed on the "seats" of their lander.

Another example was when I combined the Soda-Straw Rocket and Stomp Rockets lessons. I had my students create a straw-stomp rocket to investigate how changing the angle of the rocket launch could have an effect on the distance the rocket traveled.

My students also had the opportunity to participate in engineering activities with JPL and college students from Pasadena City College. The impact that this had on my students was profound and long-lasting. It was inspiring for my students to hear from NASA scientists and student role-models who encouraged them to pursue careers in science, engineering, and technology.

Students look on, some holding their ears, as Ms. Wisdom holds a large red balloon while NASA/JPL Education Specialist Brandon Rodriguez lights a match underneath it as part of the Global Warming Demonstration.

Ms. Wisdom says that pesentations from STEM professionals go a long way toward engaging students, so she has made them a fixture in her classes – whether in person or remote. Image courtesy: Shirley Yong and Malak Kawtharani | + Expand image

How have students reacted to these lessons?

The biggest payoff for me was seeing students envision themselves as NASA scientists. They learned to collaborate with each other, learn from each other, and challenge each other. They were able to experience every step of the engineering process firsthand. They were actively involved in designing, building, and testing their rockets and landers. They could also gather information from watching other students revise and improve their designs. Learning from each other was so much fun for them. As a teacher, watching my students strengthen their critical thinking, practical engineering, and problem-solving skills is one of the best parts of my job.

You switched from teaching middle school to teaching high school this year. How are you thinking about incorporating NASA resources into lessons for older students?

Growing up, I loved how the technology that I saw in the sci-fi shows I watched as a kid eventually made its way into our reality. I am always amazed at how NASA scientists push the boundaries of technology development and are only limited by the scope of their imagination.

As a high school biology teacher, I'm looking forward to having my students examine the ways that space technology is being used to help humans improve the health of the planet. Investigating climate change and the ecological impact humans have on the environment is so important. Looking at how NASA gathers data to better understand climate change is especially critical at this time because my students' generation is going to play a pivotal role in developing technologies for improving life on Earth. I'm looking forward to continuing to use JPL Education resources to help my students prepare for that challenge.

Looking for ways to bring NASA STEM into your classroom or already have a great idea? The Education Office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory serves educators in the greater Los Angeles area. Contact us at

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TAGS: Teaching, Teachers, K-12, Middle School, High School, Remote Instruction, Classroom, Lessons, Educators, Workshops, Professional Development

  • Brandon Rodriguez

Collage of images showing Toluca Lake Elementary's fifth-grade teachers and students working on projects

Over the past four years in the Education Office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, I have had the good fortune to work with amazing educators and their students across Southern California. While it's not always possible to visit schools in person, there are sometimes projects and curricula so unique that a visit is too hard to pass up. That was the case when the fifth-grade staff at Toluca Lake Elementary School in Los Angeles reached out to me. This team of teachers has long been implementing exciting science activities and programs not just for their students, but also for parents and the community at large. The team – made up of Dennis Hagensmith, Rick Lee and Hamilton Wyatt – shared some of their background with us, as well as tips for getting young students excited about science in and out of the classroom.

Tell us about your background. How long have you been teaching?

Hagensmith: I've been teaching for 32 years total, with 29 of them at Toluca Lake Elementary. I began my teaching career in a split fourth- and fifth-grade classroom and moved to sixth grade for several years. But I have spent most of my career working with fifth graders.

Lee: This is my seventh year teaching and my fourth year teaching fifth grade. I have also taught kindergarten and second grade. Although there are aspects of teaching primary grades that I miss, fifth grade is my favorite of the three because the standards students are working toward are so comprehensive. It keeps me interested and excited about learning along with my students.

Wyatt: I have taught for almost three years. Before that, I was a teacher's assistant and instructional aid for three years.

How do you use resources from NASA in the classroom?

Hagensmith: I have used NASA resources to create hands-on lessons measuring the relative size of our solar system, to prepare a salad demonstrating the Sun's mass, to make bracelets with colored beads matching the chemical composition of the cosmos and assemble handmade telescopes.

Lee: Dennis and I recently attended an oceanography workshop put on by JPL that involved learning from teachers and researchers who had just completed cruises aboard the Exploration Vessel Nautilus. We were inspired to include similar activities leading up to and during an already-planned after-school screening of [the Netflix documentary] "Chasing Coral." The lesson complements other JPL lessons related to sea-level rise and global climate change.

Rodriguez, Lee and Hagensmith stand on a concrete doc with a ship in the water behind them

JPL's Educator Professional Development Coordinator Brandon Rodriguez stands with Lee and Hagensmith during a September 2019 educator workshop that connected participants with researchers aboard the Nautilus research vessel for a talk on oceanography. Image Courtesy: Brandon Rodriguez | + Expand image

Wyatt: Many of the JPL resources aren't just about science – they are generally thought-provoking activities. I use many of the activities pertaining to art because my students this year are artistically talented and curious.

How do you address the specific needs of your students and get the community involved in their education?

Hagensmith: Teaching in a low-income area, it is imperative that we find ways to make our families feel welcome and encourage academic excellence. Our goal is to create a school culture in which all realize their potential and make the most of their education. To that goal, we host a variety of parent and community nights each year, including Night of the Arts, Family Science Night, Family Reading Night, family writing workshops and Family Pi Night. The most popular of all of these is our annual Family Astronomy Night and Star Party. The evening always kicks off with a presentation from a visiting scientist, then families participate in a number of hands-on workshops. The most popular activity is often the telescopes provided by the Burbank Sidewalk Astronomers taking aim at various celestial objects.

This idea for the family events came about back in 2010 when I took a class at JPL with scientist Bonnie Burrati. The class inspired me to take steps to enhance my science instruction. We became a NASA partner school and began utilizing lessons from the NASA-JPL Education website. As a result of these lessons, two of our students – Ali Freas and Caitline Molina – were awarded a trip to NASA's Johnson Space Center in 2012 to participate in the Student Science Symposium. That year, we also presented NASA's "Space School Musical" at our annual Night of the Arts. I began doing the star party sometime around that era. Originally, it was just parents from my class and one guest presenter. As the years went by, we were able to recruit more teachers to host workshops and get speakers from JPL and UCLA. Last year, we had nearly 200 guests at the star party.

Lee: I really try to maximize the impact of field trips. Students bring study guides and circulate through the tour, working as investigators searching for information and formulating their own conclusions about the topic we're exploring. This approach is useful for focusing student attention on key concepts at a wide range of locations. Recently, we visited the ecosystems and Space Shuttle Endeavour exhibits at the California Science Center, we've seen art at the Getty and Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and we've built cultural understanding at Los Angeles Plaza and the California African American Museum.

Wyatt: Many students that come to me struggle with social-emotional skills and really need a jump-start on how to express themselves without feeling overwhelmed or picked on by other students. It is very important to me to begin by engaging with my students in a way that communicates that they can feel safe, comforted and empowered when they are in my class. All students have the ability to express themselves and still be strong scholars. I strive to help my students find that sweet spot in my classroom.

One thing teachers struggle with, especially in primary grades, is making science cross-curricular. How have you brought science into the everyday lesson?

Hagensmith: Part of my success as a teacher has come from letting students direct their own assessments. I believe students need to see that learning isn't done in isolation. Subjects are connected with one another and with real-world applications. Each activity is preceded by lessons providing a context for students' learning. For example, after reading a book, students may create a diorama, write a review for the school newspaper, dress as one of the characters and get interviewed by peers, make a presentation and so forth. This provides a vehicle for students to build upon their unique skills and interests.

Lee: I've found success especially with topics related to the environment. I completed the National Geographic Educator Certification program last year, and that experience made a huge impact on me personally and professionally. I highly recommend it to all educators. National Geographic resources, combined with those offered by NASA-JPL, are guaranteed to create highly engaging, cooperative learning opportunities for students across all disciplines.

Looking for ways to bring NASA STEM into your classroom or already have a great idea? The Education Office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory serves educators in the greater Los Angeles area. Contact us at

TAGS: K-12 Education, Teachers, Educators, Resources, Lessons, Classroom, STEM, Professional Development

  • Brandon Rodriguez

Buzz Aldrin stands on the moon in his puffy, white spacesuit next to an American flag waving in the wind. The command module casts a long, dark shadow nearby.

In the News

This year marks the 50th anniversary of humans landing on the Moon. Now NASA is headed to the Moon once again, using it as a proving ground for a future human mission to Mars. Use this opportunity to get students excited about Earth's natural satellite, the amazing feats accomplished 50 years ago and plans for future exploration.

How They Did It

When NASA was founded in 1958, scientists were unsure whether the human body could even survive orbiting Earth. Space is a demanding environment. Depending on where in space you are, it can lack adequate air for breathing, be very cold or hot, and have dangerous levels of radiation. Additionally, the physics of space travel make everything inside a space capsule feel weightless even while it's hurtling through space. Floating around inside a protective spacecraft may sound fun, and it is, but it also can have detrimental effects on the human body. Plus, it can be dangerous with the hostile environment of space lurking on the other side of a thin metal shell.

In 1959, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory began the Ranger project, a mission designed to impact the Moon – in other words, make a planned crash landing. During its descent, the spacecraft would take pictures that could be sent back to Earth and studied in detail. These days, aiming to merely impact a large solar system body sounds rudimentary. But back then, engineering capabilities and course-of-travel, or trajectory, mathematics were being developed for the first time. A successful impact would be a major scientific and mathematical accomplishment. In fact, it took until July 1964 to achieve the monumental task, with Ranger 7 becoming the first U.S. spacecraft to impact the near side of the Moon, capturing and returning images during its descent.

Side-by-side images of a model of the Ranger 7 spacecraft in color and a black and white image of the Moon taken by Ranger 7.

These side-by-side images show a model of the Ranger 7 spacecraft (left) and an image the spacecraft took of the Moon (right) before it impacted the surface. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | › + Expand image

After the successful Ranger 7 mission, two more Ranger missions were sent to the Moon. Then, it was time to land softly. For this task, JPL partnered with Hughes Aircraft Corporation to design and operate the Surveyor missions between 1966 and 1968. Each of the seven Surveyor landers were equipped with a television camera – with later landers carried scientific instruments, too – aimed at obtaining up-close lunar surface data to assess the Moon's suitability for a human landing. The Surveyors also demonstrated in-flight maneuvers and in-flight and surface-communications capabilities.

Side-by-side image of an astronaut next to the Surveyor 7 lander and a mosaic of images from Surveyor 3

These side-by-side images show Apollo 12 Commander Charles Conrad Jr. posing with the Surveyor 7 spacecraft on the Moon (left) and a mosaic of images taken by Surveyor 3 on the lunar surface (right). Image credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech | › + Expand image

In 1958, at the same time JPL was developing the technological capabilities to get to the Moon, NASA began the Mercury program to see if it was possible for humans to function in space. The success of the single-passenger Mercury missions, with six successful flights that placed two astronauts into suborbital flight and four astronauts into Earth orbit, kicked off the era of U.S. human spaceflight.

Cutaway illustration of the Mercury capsule with a single astronaut inside.

The success of the single-passenger Mercury capsule, shown in this illustrated diagram, proved that humans could live and work in space, paving the way for future human exploration. Image credit: NASA | › Full image and caption

In 1963, NASA's Gemini program proved that a larger capsule containing two humans could orbit Earth, allowing astronauts to work together to accomplish science in orbit for long-duration missions (up to two weeks in space) and laying the groundwork for a human mission to the Moon. With the Gemini program, scientists and engineers learned how spacecraft could rendezvous and dock while in orbit around Earth. They were also able to perfect re-entry and landing methods and began to better understand the effects of longer space flights on astronauts. After the successful Gemini missions, it was time to send humans to the Moon.

Cutaway illustration of the Gemini spacecraft with two astronauts inside.

The Gemini spacecraft, shown in this illustrated cutaway, paved the way for the Apollo missions. Image credit: NASA | › Full image and caption

The Apollo program officially began in 1963 after President John F. Kennedy directed NASA in September of 1962 to place humans on the Moon by the end of the decade. This was a formidable task as no hardware existed at the time that would accomplish the feat. NASA needed to build a giant rocket, a crew capsule and a lunar lander. And each component needed to function flawlessly.

Rapid progress was made, involving numerous NASA and contractor facilities and hundreds of thousands of workers. A crew capsule was designed, built and tested for spaceflight and landing in water by the NASA contractor North American Aviation, which eventually became part of Boeing. A lunar lander was developed by the Grumman Corporation. Though much of the astronaut training took place at or near the Manned Spacecraft Center, now known as NASA’s Johnson Space Center, in Texas, astronauts practiced lunar landings here on Earth using simulators at NASA's Dryden (now Armstrong) Flight Research Center in California and at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia. The enormous Saturn V rocket was a marvel of complexity. Its first stage was developed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. The upper-stage development was managed by the Lewis Flight Propulsion Center, now known as NASA's Glenn Research Center, in Ohio in partnership with North American Aviation and Douglas Aircraft Corporation, while Boeing integrated the whole vehicle. The engines were tested at what is now NASA's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, and the rocket was transported in pieces by water for assembly at Cape Kennedy, now NASA's Kennedy Space Center, in Florida. As the Saturn V was being developed and tested, NASA also developed a smaller, interim vehicle known as the Saturn I and started using it to test Apollo hardware. A Saturn I first flew the Apollo command module design in 1964.

Unfortunately, one crewed test of the Apollo command module turned tragic in February 1967, when a fire erupted in the capsule and killed all three astronauts who had been designated as the prime crew for what became known as Apollo 1. The command module design was altered in response, delaying the first crewed Apollo launch by 21 months. In the meantime, NASA flew several uncrewed Apollo missions to test the Saturn V. The first crewed Apollo launch became Apollo 7, flown on a Saturn IB, and proved that the redesigned command module would support its crew while remaining in Earth orbit. Next, Earth-Moon trajectories were calculated for this large capsule, and the Saturn V powered Apollo 8 set off for the Moon, proving that the calculations were accurate, orbiting the Moon was feasible and a safe return to Earth was possible. Apollo 8 also provided the first TV broadcast from lunar orbit. The next few Apollo missions further proved the technology and allowed humans to practice procedures that would be needed for an eventual Moon landing.

On July 16, 1969, a Saturn V rocket launched three astronauts to the Moon on Apollo 11 from Cape Kennedy. The Apollo 11 spacecraft had three parts: a command module, called "Columbia," with a cabin for the three astronauts; a service module that provided propulsion, electricity, oxygen and water; and a lunar module, "Eagle," that provided descent to the lunar surface and ascent back to the command and service modules.

Collage of three images showing the lunar module during its descent to the Moon, on the lunar surface and during its ascent.

In this image collage, the Apollo 11 lunar module is shown on its descent to the Moon (left), on the lunar surface as Buzz Aldrin descends the stairs (middle), and on its ascent back to the command module (right). Image credit: NASA | › View full image collection

On July 20, while astronaut and command module pilot Michael Collins orbited the Moon, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed Eagle on the Moon and set foot on the surface, accomplishing a first for humankind. They collected regolith (surface "dirt") and rock samples, set up experiments, planted an American flag and left behind medallions honoring the Apollo 1 crew and a plaque that read, "We came in peace for all mankind."

Collage of images showing Buzz Aldrin doing various activities on the Moon.

This collage of images from the Apollo 11 Moon landing shows Buzz Aldrin posing for a photo on the Moon (left), and setting up the solar wind and seismic experiments (middle). The image on the right shows the plaque the team placed on Moon to commemorate the historic event. Image credit: NASA | › View full image collection

After 21.5 hours on the lunar surface, Armstrong and Aldrin rejoined Collins in the Columbia command module and, on July 21, headed back to Earth. On July 24, after jettisoning the service module, Columbia entered Earth's atmosphere. With its heat shield facing forward to protect the astronauts from the extreme friction heating outside the capsule, the craft slowed and a series of parachutes deployed. The module splashed down in the South Pacific Ocean, 380 kilometers (210 nautical miles) south of Johnston Atoll. Because scientists were uncertain about contamination from the Moon, the astronauts donned biological-isolation garments delivered by divers from the recovery ship, the aircraft carrier the USS Hornet. The astronauts boarded a life raft and then the USS Hornet, where the outside of their biological-isolation suits were washed down with disinfectant. To be sure no contamination was brought back to Earth from the Moon, the astronauts were quarantined until Aug. 10, at which point scientists determined the risk was low that biological contaminants or microbes had returned with the astronauts. Columbia was also disinfected and is now part of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

On the left, a capsule floats in the ocean while astronauts sit in a raft in a gray suits. On the right, the three astronauts smile while looking out of a small window and while Nixon faces them with a microphone in front of him.

These side-by-side images show the Apollo 11 astronauts leaving the capsule in their biological isolation garments after successfully splashing down in the South Pacific Ocean (left). At right, President Richard M. Nixon welcomes the Apollo 11 astronauts, (left to right) Neil A. Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin, while they peer through the window of the Mobile Quarantine Facility aboard the USS Hornet. Image credit: NASA | › View full image collection

The Apollo program continued with six more missions to the Moon over the next three years. Astronauts placed seismometers to measure "moonquakes" and other science instruments on the lunar surface, performed science experiments, drove a carlike moon buggy on the surface, planted additional flags and returned more lunar samples to Earth for study.

Why It's Important

Apollo started out as a demonstration of America's technological, economic and political prowess, which it accomplished with the first Moon landing. But the Apollo missions accomplished even more in the realm of science and engineering.

Some of the earliest beneficiaries of Apollo research were Earth scientists. The Apollo 7 and 9 missions, which stayed in Earth orbit, took photographs of Earth in different wavelengths of light, highlighting things that might not be seen on the ground, like diseased trees and crops. This research led directly to the joint NASA-U.S. Geological Survey Landsat program, which has been studying Earth's resources from space for more than 45 years.

Samples returned from the Moon continue to be studied by scientists around the world. As new tools and techniques are developed, scientists can learn even more about our Moon, discovering clues to our planet's origins and the formation of the solar system. Additionally, educators can be certified to borrow lunar samples for use in their classrooms.

The Apollo 11 astronauts crowd around a lunar sample contained in a protective case.

The Apollo 11 astronauts take a closer look at a sample they brought back from the Moon. Image credit: NASA | › View full image collection

Perhaps the most important scientific finding came from comparing similarities in the composition of lunar and terrestrial rocks and then noting differences in the amount of specific substances. This suggested a new theory of the Moon's formation: that it accreted from debris ejected from Earth by a collision with a Mars-size object early in our planet's 4.5-billion-year history.

The 12 astronauts who walked on the Moon are the best-known faces of the Apollo program, but in numbers, they were also the smallest part of the program. About 400,000 men and women worked on Apollo, building the vehicles, calculating trajectories, even making and packing food for the crews. Many of them worked on solving a deceptively simple question: "How do we guide astronauts to the Moon and back safely?" Some built the spacecraft to carry humans to the Moon, enable surface operations and safely return astronauts to Earth. Others built the rockets that would launch these advanced spacecraft. In doing all this, NASA engineers and scientists helped lead the computing revolution from transistors to integrated circuits, the forebears to the microchip. An integrated circuit – a miniaturized electronic circuit that is used in nearly all electronic equipment today – is lighter weight, smaller and able to function on less power than the older transistors and capacitors. To suit the needs of the space capsule, NASA developed integrated circuits for use in the capsule's onboard computers. Additionally, computing advancements provided NASA with software that worked exactly as it was supposed to every time. That software lead to the development of the systems used today in retail credit-card swipe devices.

Some lesser-known benefits of the Apollo program include the technologies that commercial industries would then further advance to benefit humans right here on Earth. These "spinoffs" include technology that improved kidney dialysis, modernized athletic shoes, improved home insulation, advanced commercial and residential water filtration, and developed the freeze-drying technique for preserving foods.

Apollo was succeeded by missions that have continued to build a human presence in space and advance technologies on Earth. Hardware developed for Apollo was used to build America's first Earth-orbiting space station, Skylab. After Skylab, during the Apollo-Soyuz test project, American and Soviet spacecraft docked together, laying the groundwork for international cooperation in human spaceflight. American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts worked together aboard the Soviet space station Mir, performing science experiments and learning about long-term space travel's effects on the human body. Eventually, the U.S. and Russia, along with 13 other nations, partnered to build and operate the International Space Station, a world-class science laboratory orbiting 400 kilometers (250 miles) above Earth, making a complete orbit every 90 minutes.

Graphic showing a possible configuration for the future lunar gateway

Although the configuration is not final, this infographic shows the current lineup of parts comprising the lunar Gateway. Image credit: NASA | › Full image and caption

And the innovations continue today. NASA is planning the Artemis mission to put humans on the Moon again in 2024 with innovative new technologies and the intent of establishing a permanent human presence. Working in tandem with commercial and international partners, NASA will develop the Space Launch System launch vehicle, Orion crew capsule, a new lunar lander and other operations hardware. The lunar Gateway – a small spaceship that will orbit the Moon and include living quarters for astronauts, a lab for science, and research and ports for visiting spacecraft – will provide access to more of the lunar surface than ever before. While at the Moon, astronauts will research ways to use lunar resources for survival and further technological development. The lessons and discoveries from Artemis will eventually pave a path for a future human mission to Mars.

Teach It

Use these standards-aligned lessons to help students learn more about Earth's only natural satellite:

As students head out for the summer, get them excited to learn more about the Moon and human exploration using these student projects:

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TAGS: K-12 Education, Teachers, Educators, Classroom, Engineering, Science, Students, Projects, Moon, Apollo, Summer

  • Ota Lutz