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Exploring Space Missions

Sending astronauts into space is complex and risky. This activity will help students evaluate the pros and cons of piloted and unpiloted space missions by simulating four different types of space exploration. 

We require a lot of resources (air, water, food) and maintenance (rest, exercise) to keep us alive and healthy. Weightlessness means that our muscles and bones will deteriorate in space. Exposure to radiation poses health risks to us as well. Despite these challenges, there have been more than 500 humans in space—20 of whom have gone as far as the moon and 12 of whom have walked on the moon’s surface. 

Unmanned space missions send technology into space instead of humans. Although developing the technology might be costly, once it’s launched, a satellite or a probe doesn’t need food and water to keep it working. For example, the Hubble Space Telescope (a satellite which orbits the Earth) was launched in 1990 and still continues to send us images and data of things we could not detect from inside of the Earth’s atmosphere. Rovers spend long periods of time exploring the lunar and Martian surface, sending back data we can safely examine from Earth.

We can give our technology a one-way ticket, too. Probes are spacecraft we send towards planets, asteroids and comets, without expecting them to come home again. They send us information from places that are too far for humans to travel and places where humans could not survive. 


  • Investigate and compare the benefits of manned and unmanned space exploration.


  • Per Group:
    1 set of Mission Assignment Sheets
    1 Mission Recording Sheet
    1 pencil
    1 blindfold

  • For the Mystery Planet:
    1 planet body (large globe, ball, balloon ball or round papier mâché planet (pre-crafted))
    various items to stick to planet (e.g. Lifesavers, plastic bugs, miniature toy vehicles, sparkly pom-poms)
    Velcro® squares or strong tape
    1m string (to hang the planet) or stool (to sit the planet upon)

Key Questions

  • What is the main benefit of the planetary flyby mission versus Earth-based observation?
  • What was the main difference between the unpiloted flyby mission (with visual data) and the piloted spacecraft mission? Do you learn more by sending an astronaut into space than by sending automated probes?
  • What kinds of risks do astronauts take by going into space?
  • It costs over ten times more to send astronauts into space than unpiloted spacecraft. Do you think it is worth it?

What To Do


  1. Create an interesting mystery planet for the students to explore by using a large ball, globe or by making a round papier mâché planet. Using Velcro® squares or rolled up sticky tape, attach interesting objects to it. You can make it somewhat silly or you can make it more realistic, depending on the objects you attach for the students to interpret.
  2. Set up the mystery planet on the far side of a gymnasium or playing field, where students can barely see the planet and its details.

Part 1: Missions

  1. Break into groups of 4–6 and as a class, read through the first mission and clarify any questions (missions supplied below).
  2. Work with your group to complete the mission and record any notes.
    Teacher Tip: it helps to give the groups a set time in which to complete the mission.
  3. Discuss your experience with the class. What information were you/weren’t you able to gather using this method of space exploration? Volunteer some of your interpretations or inferences about the mystery planet, based on your observations.
  4. Read, do, record and discuss each subsequent mission.

Part 2: Discussion

  1. After completing all missions, discuss the pros and cons of piloted versus unpiloted flight.
  2. Did your opinions change as a result of doing this activity and why?


  • Research some of the rover expeditions to Mars. How many rovers have been sent to Mars and what types of information are we learning from them?
  • Explore the implications of space tourism in the space exploration industry. What progress has been made for private space flights and what effects will it have?

Other Resources

Canadian Space Agency | Junior Astronauts
These activities are designed for youth in grades 6 to 9. They  focus on three streams—science and technology, fitness and nutrition, and communications and teamwork.

NASA | For educators | Train like an astronaut 

Knowledge Network | Space Kids