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Lesson Plan Booster: Building the Starship Enterprise 

"I don't think the human race will survive the next thousand years, unless we spread into space. There are too many accidents that can befall life on a single planet. But I'm an optimist. We will reach out to the stars."         

--Stephen Hawking, renowned British theoretical physicist

Humans yearned to reach the stars long before scientists began testing rockets to reach outer space during the 1940s. Visionary mathematicians and scientists were figuring out the core facets of space travel as far back as the early 1600s. While today's spaceships hardly look like the sleek designs we see in most of science fiction, tomorrow’s might. On the site Build the Enterprise, an engineer who goes by the name "BTE Dan" has compiled every possibly detail for constructing the first generation of "Star Trek's" Starship Enterprise. 

starship enterprise His proposal suggests that it could be done within 20 years. This version of the Enterprise would beat the first incarnation in the "Star Trek" fictional universe by 213 years.

BTE Dan’s petition to the federal government to build a real-life Enterprise went unanswered; with only 7,200 signatures, it failed to meet the then-25,000 signature requirement to be considered by the White House. Still, it's worth exploring the question of whether a real-life Enterprise could still be within our reach.

Grade level:  7-12

Student learning objectives:  Through a detailed explanation of the technology from "Star Trek," this student discussion guide explores existing modern technology as it relates to the possibility of building a real-life Starship Enterprise. Students will develop a comprehensive understanding of the history of space flight, learning about scientific and mathematical visionaries, actual space travel and where it's going in the future.

Students will conclude by forming an opinion regarding the feasibility of constructing the Starship Enterprise (within the timeframe suggested by engineer BTE Dan of Build the Enterprise). Then students will use evidence they've collected to defend their positions. 

Preparation:  First, create visual aids for students’ research. The links in the scientist timeline below may contain images, or you can find photos of the scientists with any search engine. Print out the images and arrange them on your front board according to the timeline. 

Part 1 - The Foundations of Space Travel

Divide students into small groups and provide each group with one of the scientists featured in the photo timeline. Have kids research the scientist's primary contributions to space travel. Ask them to present their findings to the class and describe why that contribution to space travel was instrumental in man reaching the moon. 

Johannes Kepler was a German mathematician who discovered the equations for orbiting planets & satellites in 1609, providing the three fundamental laws of planetary motion. Today's scientists use his equations for calculating the orbits for satellites and planets. 

Isaac Newton was an English scientist and mathematician who established the basic laws of force, motion, and gravity. In the course of establishing these laws in 1687, Newton also invented calculus. His incredible scientific and mathematical contributions were all done to support Kepler's equations, providing evidence that the force of gravity is behind the planets' orbits.  

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was a Russian school teacher who discovered all of the basic equations for rocketry in 1903. He did it without ever launching a rocket. Romantically enough, he drew inspiration from science fiction, including Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon. In addition to drawing rocket designs, he figured out that liquid-fueled rockets built in multiple stages were need for space travel, and that oxygen and hydrogen would be the most powerful fuels to use. Fittingly, he predicted exactly how the Saturn V rocket would operate for the first manned moon landing. 

Robert Goddard was an American scientist known to the world as the father of modern rocketry. Goddard also developed the theory of rocketry, and did so without the knowledge of Tsiolkovsky. The major difference is that he designed, built and flew rockets. In 1926 he launched the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket. He registered over 200 patents while developing the entirety of modern rocket technology in the process of his experiments. Goddard also was influenced by Jules Verne. 

Hermann Oberth was another fan of Jules Verne, and Oberth independently determined the same rocketry principles discovered by Tsiolkovsky and Goddard. This German rocket scientist published "The Rocket Into Interplanetary Space" in 1929. The highly influential book was acclaimed internationally, convincing the world that the rocket was something that could be used as a space vehicle.

Wernher Von Braun, another German rocket scientist, worked with Hermann Oberth to develop and launch the German V2 rocket (then known as the A-4 rocket) with their team of scientists and engineers in 1942. The V2 was the first rocket to reach the edge of space. After World War II, Von Braun led the U.S. Development of Military and Space Exploration Rockets and was crucial to developing the Saturn rockets, the only series of rockets that have successfully left the pad on every launch.

Part 2 - Space Flights Past and Future  

Have students work with their groups to write their own timelines covering the following major events: 

  • October 4, 1957:  The Soviet Union sent the satellite Sputnik 1 into space.  
  • November 3, 1957:  The Soviet Union launched another satellite known as the Sputnik 2, which carried a dog in low Earth orbit for seven days. 
  • April 12, 1961:  The Soviet Union launched Vostok 1, carrying Yuri Gagarin.  
  • February 20, 1962:  John Glenn achieved his first orbital flight.
  • July 20, 1969:  Neil Armstrong and his crew landed the Apollo 11 safely on the moon. 

The groups should include a paragraph of research for each timeline date. Have each group discuss its thoughts on the progress of space travel leading up to the Apollo 11 landing. Briefly discuss the politics of the Cold War in relation to the Space Race, and then round out the discussion by reflecting on the progress of space travel from 1609 to 1969.

Afterwards, take some time to explain where the future of space travel is heading. Make sure to include China's announcement to have a 60-ton multi-module space station in orbit by 2020 and NASA's plans for the Space Launch System, which is slated for its first developmental flight at the end of 2017. 

Part 3 - "Star Trek" Technology in the Real World 

"Star Trek" is known for its reach into the real world of technology. Below are key pieces of technology from "Star Trek" that you can discuss with your class. 

CommunicatorsCell phones are standard today, but they were once the stuff of science fiction fantasy.

The Enterprise’s on-board computer:  Currently, navigational systems, piloting functions and voice commands are the features of the Enterprise's on-board computer that we have seen used most. 

Matter-antimatter powerAntimatter has been created in microscopic quantities and is being studied to advance physics knowledge. 

Tricorders:  While we're very far from the tricorder, we do have sonar, radar, energetic particle detectors, magnetic resonance imaging and many more variations of sensors and scanners. 

Phasers:  The U.S. Army has phaser-like stun weapons and laser weapons, which have made strong advancements over the course of their development.

After presenting this list of existing "Star Trek" technologies, have students briefly research each one.

Introducing the discussion to students:

"Star Trek's" high-tech science is everywhere. Truly, the series has brought fiction into the world of reality, and given "Star Trek's" special place in the hearts of many scientists and engineers, one can't help but wonder if within the next few centuries, our world might look like the one inhabited by Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock.

Now that we've reviewed the real history of space flight and the actual technology related to some of "Star Trek's" fictional gadgets, let's make some predictions regarding what could actually happen with BTE Dan's proposal to build the Enterprise.

Options for student discussion questions:

  1. Consider each event from the "Foundations of Space Travel" and "Space Flights Past and Future" timelines. How did these events build on each other in order to ultimately get human beings on the moon?
  2. In what ways could scientists improve the technology elements we discussed? What are the possible applications, if any, of these technologies in terms of future space flight? How would/could these technologies be used to advance space travel? Use your imaginations to predict where you think these types of technology will go in the future.
  3. [Together with students, visit the Build the Enterprise site, which covers nearly every aspect of its possible construction.] Ask students: Based on your review of the science, design and technology behind BTE Dan's version of the Enterprise, how likely is it that the Starship Enterprise could be constructed within the 20-year suggested timeframe?

    NOTE:  If this seems too challenging for your students and you want to give them a bit of a “head start” on forming their opinions, you might direct them to this article, in which scientists and engineers weigh in: Could We Build Star Trek’s Starship Enterprise?

    Based on what we learned, what evidence can you present to support your opinion?

    NOTE: You might ask students to form two large groups based on their opinions (even out the groups if they're too disproportionate).
  4. [If the class formed two large groups] Which group (Enterprise is feasible in 20 years, or Enterprise is not feasible in 20 years) do you think won the "debate"? Why?
  5. Consider NASA's plans for the Space Launch System, which is slated for its first developmental flight at the end of 2017. What other kinds of developments do you predict in terms of U.S. space exploration? What about for space exploration globally?

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Article by Jason Cunningham, EducationWorld Social Media Editor
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