Computer model of the Rosetta space probe

The launch and return of spacecraft, from the Apollo to the Shuttle, is a monumental engineering triumph. The space program has greatly expanded the world’s knowledge base. The technological advancement by engineers in energy, communications, materials, structures, and computers, have made space travel possible.
— Fun and Exciting Facts About Engineering

How high is Space? (video 2:37) – Space is defined by the point at which the Earth’s atmosphere ends, and the vacuum of space takes over.

  • first official definition of space – from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (the predecessor to NASA) – the point where atmospheric pressure was less than one pound per square foot. This was the altitude that airplane control surfaces could no longer be used, and corresponded to roughly 50 miles, or 81 kilometers.
  • astronaut – Any NASA test pilot or astronaut who crosses 50 miles, or 81 kilometers altitude is awarded their astronaut wings.
  • Karman Line – The aerospace engineer Theodore von Kármán calculated that above an altitude of 100 km, the atmosphere would be so thin that an aircraft would need to be traveling at orbital velocity to derive any lift.

Spacecraft – a vessel that can safely move people and cargo outside the Earth’s atmosphere, through space to other planetary bodies, space stations, or orbits. Spacecraft which are launched from the surface of a planet are called launch vehicles and usually take-off from launch pads at spaceports.


  • Most spacecraft today are propelled by rocket motors, which shoot hot gases and fire opposite to the direction of travel.
  • Spacecraft which do not need to escape from strong gravity may use ion thrusters or other more efficient methods.

Exploring the Universe (video 2:58) – video field trip to NASA JPL in Pasadena, California. Check out the view from Mission Control, learn about the journey of Voyager I. rRght now there are 24 spacecraft traveling throughout our universe studying the planets and stars and of course looking for signs of life. At Mission Control at NASAS Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California all of those spacecraft are talking to us everyday – sending back pictures and data right here for scientists to examine.

Voyager I – The farthest man made object ever to leave earth is Voyager I. Sent into space 35 years ago, it is the only spacecraft ever to have left our solar system. Voyager not only sends information back to us about the universe, it also carries a message, a message for any other forms of intelligent life it may meet.

Engineering ideas

  • atmosphere, rocket, ion thruster

Do It
Challenges for you to work on…

  • Quest for a comet – space scientists explore comets with robotic spacecraft, such as the Rosetta mission. It will study the comet nucleus for an extended time. It will drop a small lander on the nucleus and orbit for two years. Both orbiter and lander carry many scientific instruments to learn about the comet and how it changes as it approaches the Sun. You can see these challenges for yourself when you play “Comet Quest”.