The University of Texas at Austin
Mission to Mars

Mars Video Dilemma


The Mission to Mars dilemma is a 7:23-minute video (we currently have the video in laserdisc and digitized CD-ROM form) which prompts the students to generate some of the many problems that need to be solved if a human trip to Mars is to be attempted. The narrated video contains 164 scenes using existing NASA footage. The video opens with approximately 30 seconds of punchy, upbeat music with quick cuts leading to the following voice overlay: "Exploration is based on intense curiosity. The desire to know what's out there. The wonder of discovery...the fascination of finding something new that no one else has found before." The video concludes by stating the challenge that awaits the student:

"Your challenge is to think of different kinds of problems that would have to be solved in order to travel to Mars and back home again. This video contains many clues. Every image has a meaning, and some images have many meanings. Explore, discover, and find something new."
The images and narration were designed to prime the students to think about the key problems involved in the challenge of going to Mars and returning safely to Earth. The narration specifically challenges students to pose problems within the domain of planning a mission, but is not so specific that it inhibits problems that students might want to pose. Watching the Mission to Mars video suggests the wide variety of factors involved in planning and carrying out a mission to Mars.

Generating Research Questions: The problem-generation activity typically takes place over a period of three 50-minute classes or can be completed as a morning/afternoon activity. During the first period, the students view the video as a class and then individually pose as many problems as they can. The students then break up into small groups that take turns reviewing the video and posing additional problems upon seeing the video for the second time. Each group then synthesizes like problems to create a set of problems for the group. During the second period, each group sorts its problems into self-specified categories. Then the class categorizes all of the individual sets of problems into a master set of categories. During the final period, the class regroups around the master categories according to individual preference. Every attempt is made to give students their first choice, but we find having the students list their top three choices more practical. Students in each of the groups then use these problems to set a priority list of problems to solve during the entire Mission to Mars unit.

List of Questions Generated

The following is a list of typical questions that middle school children have asked in the past during the problem generation phase of the Mission to Mars unit. While your own students may pose other problems, we believe this list gives a good representation of what to expect.

Category Typical Student-Generated Questions
Onboard Resources
(Supply Officers)
1) How much water will we need?
2) How much food will we need?
3) Will we need special food?
4) How much air/oxygen will we need?
5) How long will we stay?
6) How often can we do laundry?
7) What are basic nutritional needs?
Spacecraft Environment
Preservation Team)
1) Can we recycle the water we use?
2) Can we reuse the oxygen we use?
3) How will we go to the bathroom?
4) What kind of equipment will we need to take?
Navigation and Propulsion
1) How long will we be in space?
2) What's the distance from Earth to Mars?
3) How will we get to Mars and back?
4) How much fuel will it take?
5) How long will we stay on mars?
6) How far is the asteroid belt from Mars?
7) What are the hazards? Can we make the trip safer?
8) Is there more than one way to get there?
Human Factors
(Medical Team)
1) Will the astronauts get along?
2) How many males and females should go?
3) Will we allow the astronauts to reproduce?
4) How do you go to the bathroom in space?
5) Do we have to be a specific height and weight?
6) Will we need to exercise?
7) How often will we communicate with Earth?
8) Are there diseases we can get on Mars?
9) What if someone gets real sick or dies?
Surface Exploration
(Away Team)
1) What will we use for shelter on Mars?
2) Will there be some sort of life on Mars?
3) How will we deal with the cold weather on Mars?
4) Can we start a fire on Mars?
5) Where should we land on Mars?
6) Can we get oxygen to breathe from the surface of Mars?
7) Can we get water from Mars?
8) Does Mars have seasons?
Spacecraft Design 1) What size ship do we need?
2) How much would the ship cost?
3) Will the ship survive the long trip?
4) Can the ship survive the asteroid belt?
5) Where will we sleep, eat, work, go to the bathroom?
6) How many pounds of stuff can we take?
7) Will we have enough fuel?
8) Should we take more than one ship?

Categories and Rationale

We have come up with six categories that have been used fairly successfully during implementation. At times it may be difficult to put a specific question within a specific category and there may be some overlap at times. For example, should "How much water will we need" be listed under "Onboard Resources" or "Human Factors"? Certainly, some questions will cause categorization problems, while others will be clearly delineated. "Will the spacecraft survive the long and possibly dangerous trip?" is clearly a Spacecraft Design question.
Onboard Resources:
Commonly referred to as the Supply Officers, this group is responsible for the quantity of resources the astronauts will need during the mission.

Environmental Preservation:
The primary purpose of this group is to ensure the environmental health of the spacecraft. The cabin must be essentially a "mini-Earth" with proper levels of nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide balanced and filtered.

Navigation & Propulsion:
Deciding which path to take to Mars is a complex task, and many variables must be taken into consideration. This group acts very much like the engineers of the team.

Human Factors
What effects will long-term space flight have on our crew? This group is primarily responsible for the physical and psychological health of the astronaut. The members of this group have a large amount of research to accomplish.

Surface Exploration:
The primary goal of the mission is to explore the planet Mars. Where should the landing be? What time of year should the landing occur? Are there places on Earth where training could take place to simulate conditions at the landing site on Mars?

Spacecraft Design:
What type of spacecraft will be needed for a successful trip to Mars? How much recreational room should there be? Students may find analogous situations with submarine design.
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