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The Space Program Is the Ultimate Problem-Based Learning

Putting students in authentic situations to develop solutions

The film First Man has recently come through theatres and tells the story of how Neil Armstrong became the first man on the moon. Of course, this event is the very ending of the movie. Prior to this are all of the things that had to come before this great accomplishment could be achieved. The most eye-opening thing for me was in seeing all of the failures of the mission. There is failure by Armstrong when he is test-piloting a plane. Failure as the astronauts are subjected to a device where they are spun in all sorts of directions and have to make it stable before passing out, often times throwing up at the end (that would not be good in a space helmet).

The tragedy of the crew of Apollo 1 dying in a fire was certainly not a success. There was the time Armstrong was testing the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle and had to eject moments before it would have killed him. It seems like there are far more failures than there are successes. But then that’s the point of it all, isn’t it? Like Armstrong himself says in the movie, “We need to fail. We need to fail down here, so we don’t fail up there.” A failure up there results in lives being lost. A failure down here is a learning opportunity.

That is the beauty of problem-solving. You get to make lots of attempts until you succeed. This goes for a scientist who is trying all sorts of different combinations until he comes upon the one that will make his experiment a success, to the kid playing video games and gets stuck on a challenging level, trying and failing over and over and over until finally moving on to the next level.

The space program, in general, was all about problem-solving. In the movie Hidden Figures, the people behind the scenes had to mathematically figure out how to get John Glenn into orbit and back down. They actually had to invent math in order to make this possible. All three of the main characters have to problem solve in order to succeed. Mary identifies a flaw in the heat shield. Dorothy sees that she and her team are going to soon be replaced by computers, so she learns to program them to make herself relevant. Katherine figures out the final landing coordinates that will enable NASA to find where he is landing.

Or Apollo 13, where the astronauts and folks at NASA have to figure out how to bring a defective spacecraft back to Earth without killing the crew on board. One of my favorite scenes from that movie is when they discover that the carbon dioxide level is becoming high and they have to figure out a way to adapt a filter to a pump, literally having to make a square peg fit into a round hole, using only the equipment on board. This problem solving continues later when the people on the ground have to figure out how to power up the module without using too much energy that will be needed to get them home.  Ken Mattingly goes through the sequence many times, failing with each attempt, before finally landing on the successful sequence. Gene Krantz, the flight director of the mission, at one point says to his crew “failure is not an option.” What he is overlooking is the fact that the people on the Earth had to fail several times before giving the final instructions to the astronauts. Without that process, they don’t come home.

This sort of authentic problem solving is powerful because people are not just solving random problems that once shared, will simply be pitched or discarded. These are solutions that solve a real problem and advance our understanding of space travel. We need to do more of this in the classroom. We need to be putting students in authentic situations and having them develop a solution.

The most amazing thing about all of this is that in most cases, the folks working at the space program didn’t know what the hell they were doing. No one had ever been to space before. No one had walked on the moon. How do you problem-solve for something you are not even sure you know the answer to? That is the challenge for preparing our students for the real world. We no longer know what jobs/careers are going to be available to them once they enter the workforce. How do we prepare them for jobs that don’t exist? We teach them how to problem solve anything, and they can apply it to whatever situation they find themselves in.

Even the fictional The Martian, about a man who gets abandoned on Mars, is all about problem-solving. In it, our hero must overcome several problems from how he is going to have enough food and water to survive, to how to contact mission control and let them know he is still alive. This carries over to real life as Elon Musk is trying to figure out how we can send people to Mars. He even has the problem solving all mapped out in his presentation that can be found here https://www.spacex.com/sites/spacex/files/making_life_multiplanetary-2017.pdf.

The space race was the ultimate problem-based learning. All we knew was we wanted to get to the moon before the Soviets. We had no idea how to do this though. We had to make it up as we went along, failing several times before making a final decision where there was very little room for error. Previous to taking on this endeavor, no one had ever been in space. And yet in a ten year period, we put a man into space, we had someone orbit around the planet, and we landed on the moon. Just think what we could accomplish if we put these sort of resources and brilliant minds together to try to solve a real-world problem.

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