Rocket Science 101 is a free, interactive NASA iPad app app that lets children build and launch virtual space missions using rockets used by NASA and its commercial partners. Its approach is more experiential than educational: Rather than explaining about Rocket propulsion and design (which might be a bit advanced for many kids in its intended 7-11 age group), it lets the children choose and assemble a virtual spacecraft and launch it into orbit. It may be a bit simplistic for older children, and even on missions to Mars or Jupiter, your rocket doesn’t fly any farther than Earth orbit, but it’s still fun and informative. And once you’ve launched your mission, a link takes you to video showing the actual launch.
Design and Features
Rocket Science 101 is simple to use and to navigate. When you launch the app, a screen displaying the app’s logo briefly appears, followed by a page that asks you to “choose your skill [level].” The three levels, or sections, offered are Have Fun, Challenge Yourself, and Rocket “Scientist.” Within a section, navigation is self-explanatory, with basic written instructions and arrows pointing your way. On the top of the screen are Back, Home, and Help buttons. The Help function shows you how to use your fingers to tap, swipe, drag, or pinch your way around the screen, and provides a link to credits. NASA’s Launch Services Program was involved in the app’s creation.
Rocket Science 101 is compatible with the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch. I tested it using an Apple iPad Air 2 running iOS 10.2.
T Minus 10 Seconds and Counting
The first section, called Have Fun, lets budding young astronauts select, assemble, and launch a virtual rocket, first by selecting a rocket, dragging its components from a thumbnail bar at the screen’s right edge to their proper positions within the rocket, and then “launching” their creations and following their flight into Earth orbit. The rockets include the Atlas V, used in many NASA deep-space missions, as well as models from the space agency’s new commercial partners: SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and the Antares from Orbital ATK. Five are conventional rockets while the sixth, the Pegasus, is carried aloft beneath a modified airliner and dropped at 39,000 feet, after which it fires its engines. I was a little disappointed that some “classical” rockets used in crewed missions such as Apollo’s Saturn V and the Space Shuttle were not included. (The Atlas V may eventually be used for crewed missions to the International Space Station.)
This first level is rather forgiving: There are no more than four parts to place in any rocket, and if you place a part anywhere near where it’s supposed to go, it will pop into place. If you can’t be bothered with dragging the parts, pressing an Auto Build button in a yellow box at the top of the screen will add a part, and you can keep on pressing it until the rocket is complete. Once it is ready, a green Launch button appears to the rocket’s left, at the bottom of the screen. Pressing it has predictable results: After a 10-second countdown, your creation will take to the virtual skies of your iPad’s screen, climbing vertically and then tilting towards the horizontal as it approaches orbit, with panels being jettisoned and stages falling away at designated times. Once the flight is complete, you can replay it, or by hitting a Launch Video button, view a YouTube video of the actual launch (which will take you out of the app).
The second section, Challenge Yourself, lets you fly a historical (virtual) mission by selecting a spacecraft and booster rocket, and then assembling the craft by dragging parts of the rocket into their proper place in a cutaway view of the rocket. If you put a part in the wrong place, it will be rejected, and you’ll have to drag and try to place it again. Each time you highlight a part, a brief textual description of it and its function appears in the screen’s upper left corner. That’s really the sum of Rocket Science 101’s education; it doesn’t systematically discuss how rockets work, as you might expect from the title.
The app includes 10 missions, both well known (the Kepler planet-hunting telescope, Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), which landed the Curiosity rover on the Red Planet, and the Juno mission that’s currently orbiting Jupiter) and obscure (IBEX and NuStar). It also includes SpaceX’s Dragon and Orbital ATK’s Cygnus unmanned resupply missions to the International Space Station. They are powered by the same booster rockets we saw in the first section.
I tried several of these missions, including my favorite, Kepler. One disappointing thing is that even with the deep-space and planetary missions, these virtual missions don’t go any farther than Earth orbit. Another thing is that most of the launches seem very similar, and they could easily get monotonous. A saving grace is that, once again, you can view the real launch video on YouTube.
The third section, Rocket Scientist, is similar to the second—even including the same missions—but now you have to assemble the rocket from 15 parts, some familiar, but a few of them obscure (think spin table or extended air-lit nozzle), even to many adult space geeks. Fortunately, tapping each part brings up a textual description of what it does. If you do get stumped on a part’s location, you can employ the Auto Build mode discussed earlier.
Rocket Science 101 isn’t really a course on rocket science in that it doesn’t teach how rockets work, although it provides brief descriptions of their components. Perhaps befitting the young audience for which it is intended, it’s more of an interactive playground that lets children assemble spacecraft from virtual parts and launch them into orbit. There is enough of a sameness to most of the launches they may get tiresome after a while, and even the Juno Jupiter mission and the Mars Science Laboratory don’t go any farther than Earth’s orbit. That said, this free NASA app should be a fun, experiential introduction to rocketry for children, and it provides links to videos of the actual launches.