ALEX Lesson Plan

Rocket Activity: Heavy Lifting

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  This lesson provided by:  
Author:Cynthia Thomas
System: Trussville City
School: Trussville City Board Of Education
The event this resource created for:NASA
  General Lesson Information  
Lesson Plan ID: 34372


Rocket Activity: Heavy Lifting


Raising heavy payloads to orbit is challenging.  Rockets require powerful engines and massive amounts of propellants. NASA is looking for creative ideas for launching heavy lift vehicles to deliver supplies to Mars.  Student teams receive identical parts to build rockets. The team that is able to lift the greatest payload into space (the ceiling) is the winner.

This lesson was created as part of the 2016 NASA STEM Standards of Practice Project, a collaboration between the Alabama State Department of Education and NASA Marshall Space Flight Center.

 Associated Standards and Objectives 
Content Standard(s):
SC2015 (2015)
Grade: 9-12
1 ) Investigate and analyze, based on evidence obtained through observation or experimental design, the motion of an object using both graphical and mathematical models (e.g., creating or interpreting graphs of position, velocity, and acceleration versus time graphs for one- and two-dimensional motion; solving problems using kinematic equations for the case of constant acceleration) that may include descriptors such as position, distance traveled, displacement, speed, velocity, and acceleration.

SC2015 (2015)
Grade: 9-12
2 ) Identify external forces in a system and apply Newton's laws graphically by using models such as free-body diagrams to explain how the motion of an object is affected, ranging from simple to complex, and including circular motion.

a. Use mathematical computations to derive simple equations of motion for various systems using Newton's second law.

b. Use mathematical computations to explain the nature of forces (e.g., tension, friction, normal) related to Newton's second and third laws.

Local/National Standards:

Scientific and Engineering Practices:

  • Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering)
  • Developing and using models
  • Planning and carrying out investigations
  • Analyzing and interpreting data
  • Using mathematics and computational thinking
  • Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering)
  • Engaging in argument from evidence
  • Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

Crosscutting Concepts:

  • Patterns
  • Cause and effect: mechanisms and explanation
  • Scale, proportion, and quantity
  • Systems and system models

Primary Learning Objective(s):

Learning Targets:

I can design and construct a balloon powered rocket to launch the greatest payload possible to the classroom ceiling.

When analyzing the forces acting on an object:

  • I can draw and label a force diagram for the object
  • I can recognize that balanced forces always result in constant velocity (including v = 0) and unbalanced forces always cause an acceleration in the same direction as the Fnet.

I can apply F=mg to calculate the gravitational force on an object with mass m in a gravitational field of strength g in the context of the effects of a net force on objects and systems.

I can predict the motion of an object subject to forces exerted by several objects using an application of Newton’s second law in a variety of physical situations with acceleration in one dimension.

I can construct explanations of physical situations involving the interaction of bodies using Newton’s third law and the representation of action-reaction pairs of forces.

Video Analysis Extension Activity:
I can re-express a free-body diagram representation into a mathematical representation and solve the mathematical representation for the acceleration of the object.

Additional Learning Objective(s):

 Preparation Information 

Total Duration:

61 to 90 Minutes

Materials and Resources:

  • large binder clips (one per launch pad)
  • fishing line or smooth string
  • long balloons (if students are allowed to "cluster" the engines) or round balloons (if single engines are preferred)
  • 3 oz paper cup
  • straight drinking straws
  • 50 small paper clips
  • sandwich size plastic bag
  • masking tape
  • balloon hand pumps
  • wooden spring-type clothespin (option)

Launch Pad:  

  • Tie fishing line to binder clip or clothespin.  If your classroom has a suspended ceiling, use binder clips or clothespins to attach fishing line to the metal frame supporting the ceiling tiles.  
  • Make sure the line is long enough to reach the floor. 
  • The fishing line or string is fed through the straw then taped to the floor or to a weight in order to keep the line tight (you do not want line to sag).
  • When the balloon is released, the straw will ride up the line. 

 Video Analysis Extension Activity:

  • Cell Phone, iPad or video camera
  • Logger Pro software or video physics app for iPhone or Android

Technology Resources Needed:

Newton in Space Video:  In this 'Liftoff to Learning' series video, astronauts (Charles Veach, Gregory Harbaugh, Donald McMonagle, Michael Coats, L. Blaine Hammond, Guion Bluford, Richard Hieb) from the STS-39 Mission use physical experiments and computer animation to explain how weightlessness and gravity affects everything and everyone onboard the Space Shuttle. The physics behind the differences between weight and mass, and the concepts of 'free fall,' are demonstrated along with explanations and experiments of Sir Isaac Newton's three laws of motion.


What Does the Future Hold for Heavy Lift Launch Vehicles?
NASA has a new plan for the future of space exploration. The new plan will eventually lead to human exploration of Mars. Many steps will be needed in order to get there. New technologies will have to be developed. NASA is working on a new Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle. The new vehicle will apply many of the ideas NASA has discovered about rockets. It will also use brand new technologies. Engineers are working to figure out the best way to prepare to explore the solar system.

What Comes Next
In a few years, space travelers will embark on a wide range of space missions near Earth and farther into the solar system. NASA's new Space Launch System rocket will take them there. A modular, heavy-lift launch vehicle that can be configured in different ways for different missions, the SLS rocket will carry astronauts into orbit, as well as massive payloads destined for distant places. NASA's SLS heavy-lift rocket is being developed alongside many commercial rockets and spacecraft to open the solar system for exploration.

How Rockets Work
This section of the Rockets Educator Guide explains Newton's Laws of Motion, which support the basic principles of rocketry.

Applying Newton's Laws:
This document focuses on how rockets work, including the rocket engines and their propellants.


Rocket Activity:  Heavy Lifting pdf

 1. Provide each team with an identical kit of materials. Tell them that any or all of these materials can be used for their rockets.

2. Review the launching procedure. Explain how the straw guides the rocket up the fishing line or string and that the line must be held snug to the floor for the launch.

Remind the teams that they only get three balloons. They can launch as many times as they want to but should try to improve how many paper clips they can successfully lift.

4. Draw a chart on the board for teams to record their results (e.g., the number of paper clips that reach the ceiling).

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Assessment Strategies

Brainstorm Ideas:  Each team should submit at least 3 design alternatives.  List advantages and disadvantages of each design.

Design Schematic:   Have each team draw and label their final design. 

Engineering Notebook:

  • Description:  Write a summary of your launch vehicle using correct science and technology terms (e.g., lift, payload, mass, thrust). In your summary be specific:  How many balloons did they use?
  • Create a Free Body Diagram and label all the forces acting on your launch vehicle.
  • Results:  How many paperclips did their rocket carry to the ceiling? How did they attach the paperclips to the balloon? What problems did they encounter? How did they solve those problems? Use Newton's laws of motion to describe the performance of your  launch vehicle.


Challenge students to design a two-stage rocket. The lower balloon “fires” before the upper balloon. The upper balloon carries the payload to the ceiling.

Video Analysis software can be used to determine the velocity and acceleration of the rocket.  Students can analyze the data to determine whether the rocket can support a heavier payload.



View the Special Education resources for instructional guidance in providing modifications and adaptations for students with significant cognitive disabilities who qualify for the Alabama Alternate Assessment.