Build a Colony
Children ages 8 to 13 consider the requirements for human life beyond Earth's protection and work in teams to design and construct a model of a space colony out of craft materials.
What's the Point?
- Humans — and all organisms — have specific requirements to live.
- Space and the surfaces of the Moon and Mars are harsh environments for humans. The average temperatures are well below 0°F; there are high levels of solar radiation, which can damage body tissues; there is little or no atmosphere; and there are no sources of food or water.
- Earth provides the conditions, resources, and systems to provide the requirements of life.
- Because human needs remain the same, a self-contained habitat, such as a space colony, must provide the same elements as Earth.
- Providing and maintaining the conditions, resources, and systems required to support human life in space is a complex, challenging task.
For each group of three to four:
- 1 large piece of cardboard
For the group:
- A fictional story or article about space colonies from children’s books or issues of Discover Magazine, Scientific American, or National Geographic (optional)
- Chalkboard, dry erase board, easel or large piece of paper, with chalk or markers (optional)
- Colored pencils/markers
- Craft supplies such as: small boxes, aluminum foil, different-sized Styrofoam blocks, Saran Wrap of all colors, old CDs, pipe cleaners, toothpicks, wire, wire cutters, LEGO® toys with wheels (for rovers), tinsel, ribbon, fabric, gauze, straws, pencil top erasers, beads of various sizes, wooden spools, foil cupcake holders, wooden miniatures, buttons, bottle caps, plastic screen of different sizes, clay (use your imagination and best judgment for providing safe, fun materials!)
For the facilitator:
- Optional: Introduce space colonies by reading a fictional story or news article about space colonies.
- Discuss the basic requirements for life. Have the children brainstorm to come up with a list of things required for humans to live a comfortable life on Earth. If desired, write their suggestions on a board or on chart paper.
- What do you need to survive? In addition to their ideas about survival needs like food, water, shelter, and air, the children may also add human-specific items such as family, recreation/entertainment, communication, and transportation.
- How does Earth provide them with these in their daily lives? Earth's atmosphere provides air, and water cycles through the ground, air, oceans, and waterways. Farms and ranches, in addition to hunting, provide food. We build shelters from materials in our environment for protection against excessive ultraviolet radiation, extremes of temperature, and predators.
- Discuss the basic requirements of a space colony for supporting human life beyond Earth.
- What is the Moon or Mars like? The children may have many ideas.
Summarize that the three requirements for all Earth life are a source of energy, chemical nutrients, and water. Food is a term that encompasses both energy and chemical nutrients. An organism requires an environment that supplies these requirements on a continual basis. Not all life on Earth requires air to survive, but humans must have air to breathe.
The average temperatures are well below 0°F at night (although the Moon can also be very hot in the day); there are high levels of solar radiation, which can damage body tissues; there is little or no atmosphere; and there are no sources of food or water. However, both the Moon and Mars have gravity that will hold humans to their surfaces while they live and explore there.
- What will humans need to survive there?
- Air: Your space colony will need air. The modules will have to be enclosed or the entire living area must be inside a protective dome. Oxygen can be produced mechanically (from water or certain minerals) or by plants in a greenhouse.
- Food: What kinds of foods do humans need? (Consider the four food groups.) There are no grocery stores in space, and it is too expensive to send food from Earth. Crops can also be used to purify water and to produce oxygen. They could be grown in a greenhouse.
- Water: Colonies will need a great deal of water for many purposes, including drinking, washing, and watering plants. Where will you get the water? How will it be stored? A recycling facility may be needed.
- Energy: What energy source(s) will power the space colony? Will it be solar or nuclear? What about a back-up system?
- Equipment: What work will your colonists be doing? Will there be mining? Science laboratories? Telescopes?
- Living Quarters: Consider whether each colonist needs a private living space. Every square foot of the base requires more resources, but people are happier when they feel they have sufficient space and privacy.
- Communications: How will the colonists communicate with one another, including with explorers using a rover to travel a distance from the colony? How will they communicate with the Earth? On Earth, antennas are used to send and receive signals, and satellites are used to relay signals to other parts of the planet.
- Transportation: What kinds of trips will the crews need to make? How far will they need to go? Do the children have ideas about what to use for fuel?
- Recreation Facilities: On Earth, gravity pulls against us when we walk, run, and play ball and helps us stay strong! Astronauts on the International Space Station have no weight. They must exercise more than people on Earth — almost two hours everyday — to keep their muscles and bones from losing strength in space. Gravity is weaker on the Moon (one-sixth that of Earth) and on Mars (one-third that of Earth). How will the colonists exercise?
- Divide the children into groups of three to four and ask them to plan their colonies. Ask the children to how they will meet the basic requirements for food, shelter, electricity, communication, and entertainment with their designs.
- Habitation Modules – Living quarters that may include showers, private rooms, eating areas, etc.
- Laboratory Modules – Work quarters where the crew conducts experiments.
- Greenhouses – Used to grow food and contribute to the oxygen environment; also a way to use excess carbon dioxide.
- Solar Arrays – Used to collect and store electricity to power various systems and activities.
- Antennas – Used for communications back to Earth and with other spacecraft.
- Surface Rovers – Pressurized rovers for long trips and open rovers for short trips.
- Resource Utilization Facilities – Used to mine the resources of the Moon or planet for use in the base or for manufacturing propellant (fuel) for space ships.
- Docking Facilities – Used for supply ships.
- Escape System –Used in case of an emergency.
- Construct the space colonies! Have the children choose either the Moon or Mars as the location for their base. Alternatively, select the location for them. Provide each group with a large table and a piece of cardboard to represent the lunar or Mars terrain. Have children use the materials to design and construct a space habitat that can provide these requirements. Invite the groups to work individually or in teams on the different parts of the base. Each child should contribute one or more modules to the final design. Invite the children to discuss the scale of the modules so that they will relate to each other. For example, one inch equals one foot (or two), depending on the size of your table and base area cardboard. Everyone needs to construct his or her sections at the same scale. Have them label their habitats, denoting the function of each area.
Facilitator's Note: This discussion will help children focus on the elements they must ensure are included in their design. Let the children lead as much as possible. You want to avoid lecturing or being seen as the sole source of information. Limit the length of the discussion based on your time needs. However, make sure that children identify the major elements.
Their space colonies might include:
After the base is complete, have the teams present their part to the rest of the group, noting the dimensions, equipment, layout, purpose, etc.
- Do you think we should build a lunar base before we go to Mars? Why?
- Why should the building of a lunar base or a Mars base be an international project?
- What are some of the problems that crews living in space or on the Moon will have to face?
- What hardships will the first space colonists on Mars have to endure?
- If you were living in a space colony, what would you miss most about Earth?
- If you were born in a space colony, what would your life be like? How would it be different?
Optional: Take photos of each space colony and its designers! Create a display.