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Adventures in Space Aeronautics with Primary Sources

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This post is written by Amara Alexander, the 2019-20 Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow at the Library of Congress.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy began a progressive expansion of the U.S. space program. Kennedy challenged the nation to land a person on the Moon by the close of the decade. Over the decades that followed, the progression from rockets to shuttle invited more astronauts to examine space and introduced new technologies.

The thermal protection system used on the space shuttle was devised to safeguard the craft from the extreme temperatures experienced while traveling through the atmosphere. Introduce students to some advances in space technology by examining primary sources.

Close-up oblique view of the forward and starboard sides of the Orbiter Discovery

Invite students to study the image of the Discovery space shuttle. Ask them:

  • Describe what you see.
  • What can you learn from examining this image?
  • What questions do you have about this image?

Encourage students to think about the shuttle’s exit and re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. What protection is needed to keep astronauts and the space shuttle safe? Prompt students to think how engineers and scientists might have equipped the craft for safety during missions. Encourage students to record observations, reflections, and questions using the Library’s Primary Source Analysis Tool.

Aerospace engineers have uniquely crafted lightweight insulated tiles to protect the spacecraft. Look closely at the image. What do you notice on the bottom of the shuttle? What materials might have been used to develop the heat protective shield? The thermal protection system developed by NASA scientists is a skin overlay that protects the aircraft from the friction of heat. The thermal protection system model resembles that of a thermal bottle in which contents inside the bottle are insulated from absorbing or losing heat. During the re-entry phase, the shuttle is protected from extreme temperatures caused by heat friction.

Introduce or review different types of heat transfer: radiation, convection and convection. Invite students to create a foldable to reinforce the types of heat transfers and the heat that is transferred in each situation. Facilitate conversations that cue student’s thinking on the type of transfers that would occur during the space shuttle launch and re-entry phases. What type of protection is needed to safeguard aircraft from heat as they exit and reenter the atmosphere? Challenge students to create a new thermal protection system.

Space exploration has allowed us to view pictures of celestial bodies in close range rather than from a telescope. NASA’s next mission is to land two American astronauts on the moon by 2024. Ask students to speculate on what improvements might be made to the thermal protective system. 



  1. I have no words to express this emotion…one request for my son’s email me or have NASA do so please. Orion ….slingshot..Hawkeye football you…I need some assistance none law but need to get community ie s
    To come together and stop with the non sense …y’all are amazing please help me reach my goal for legacies to leave my son’s or better yet for them.Ms lamberson

    Taught me and my uncle’s .I need collaborat ers and hopefully underst ing for the fact I’m trying h to help people …futuristic goals as y’all are

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