Lights, Camera,
Blast Off: Kids Explore
Space with NASA


Space Camp, Space Buddies, Star Wars, Star Trek, Wall-E, and more recently Mars Needs Moms. Kids have always been fascinated with space-related movies. They have seen astronauts and robots in "reel life," but how often do they get an opportunity to meet them in real life? On August 17, 2011, the dream world of hundreds of kids connected with the real world at NASA's What's Your Favorite Space event, held at the Eventi Hotel in New York City, NY.

The one-day event, an effort by NASA to inspire kids in engineering and space and learn what NASA does besides the space shuttle, featured demos, videos, interactive exhibits, 3-D virtual experiences, and hands-on activities exploring the final frontier. "We wanted the event to focus not only on what NASA is doing next [after the space shuttle program], but also to inspire the next generation to participate in what NASA is doing next," said Sheri Beam of NASA's Langley Research Center, Langley, VA.

The crew from the final space shuttle mission: Christopher J. Ferguson, commander; Douglas G. Hurley, pilot; and Sandra H. Magnus and Rex J. Walheim, mission specialists, appeared at the beginning of the event, as did Elmo from Sesame Street, which recently filmed an episode at Kennedy Space Center, FL. Later, the kids lined up to have photographs signed by Commander Christopher and Pilot Hurley. The excitement to meet real astronauts was evident on the faces of kids. A six-year-old named Sid walked out proudly when Commander Christopher gave him a NASA sticker, similar to the mission badge on his own space suit that he wore on Atlantis (STS-135). "You wear it on the arm, not chest," the first-grader told his mother.

A Mini Space Station

Not only did the kids meet astronauts, but they also created imaginary spud pilots using potatoes. The staff of ASME had the kids design spacesuits for potatoes using a variety of materials including bubble wrap, aluminum foil, rubber bands, threads, and tape, and then tested them for safety by dropping hard and pointed objects on the space spuds. At NASA Stennis Space Center's Astro Camp corner, children used materials like balloons, fishing line, and plastic cups to mimic rocket launchings.

Elmo and STS-135 Commander Chris J. Ferguson

Elmo and STS-135 Commander Chris J. Ferguson.
Photo courtesy of NASA/Sean Smith

Astro Camp representatives also engaged kids by giving demonstrations about how astronauts eat, walk, and sleep in outer space. The children got a chance to see NASA artifacts including a spacesuit, sleeping bag, gloves, tools, a food tray, and even goggles that astronauts use in space. They also played at being astronauts themselves in Moonbase Alpha, a 3-D multiplayer online simulation game, and built their own LEGO spaceships and rovers.

"Learning science should never be boring," said the father of a five-year-old boy while watching him build a LEGO spacecraft. "Events like this bring science and engineering down on a level where kids understand these subjects and get inspired to study them," he added.

"There is a lot of interesting engineering stuff to do and see. My favorite parts were testing the 'spuds' spacesuits we made, and getting a test ride in the human-powered vehicle," said an eight-year old named Luke.

Robots in Action

Besides the outer space experience, kids got a first-hand experience controlling MindStorm robots to pick up small objects from the ground. NYU Polytechnic also had an iPhone-controlled robot rolling around, which grabbed the attention of several girls and boys, who tried maneuvering the minibot's robotic arm using an iPhone to pick up a plastic cup from the ground.

Thousands visited the event.

Thousands visited the event.
Photo courtesy of NASA/Sean Smith

Two teams from the 2011 FIRST Robotics Competition (teams 11 and 369) were also on hand, and showcased their custom-built robots on the center stage. Their demos were followed by questions from a curious audience about how they built and moved the robotic arm that picked up colorful triangle, circle, and square pieces from the stage and hung them on poles to make the FIRST logo. The teams also deployed mini-bots to climb vertical poles, which was followed by loud applause from the audience consisting of kids of all ages, even toddlers.

The mother of a high-school girl from one of the FIRST Robotics teams found the event highly interactive. "The NASA stuff is very cool. Such out-of-school engagement with science and engineering in a relaxed atmosphere makes learning more fun," she said.

"I think this is a great event," said Peter Metzdorf, principal engineer, Gas Reliability Plan, National Grid. "My son is interested in robotics and space, but when he really gets to see stuff like this, he realizes this is a lot more than just an idea," he said. "It's easy to inspire kids by activities like this."

It seems NASA successfully engaged the students at this first-of-its-kind educational event in New York City. When asked Metzdorf's 14-year-old son Kraig: What inspires you here? He said: "What doesn't?"

The NASA stuff is very cool. Such out-of-school engagement with science and engineering in a relaxed atmosphere makes learning more fun.

Mother of a high-school girl


August 2011

by Chitra Sethi, Managing Editor,