Launching a Rocket to the Moon

July 20, 2009 is the 40th anniversay of Neil Armstrong’s historic first steps on the surface of the Moon.  To celebrate one of America’s greatest technological triumphs, I’m teaching a course this summer to local middle-school students in which they will launch a virtual rocket from low-Earth orbit toward the Moon.  My primary goal is to get kids excited about math and science.

This blog will be about all things related to the course.  Some articles will be about the history of the Apollo program, some will be about the basic math and physics of launching a rocket into space, and some will be about our computer program.  Most of what I’ll write here will be for the kids and their parents.  But I will include a few things at a more advanced level for physics teachers and other professionals.


Some technical details:

  • We’re using VPython to create a real-time, interactive, 3-D animation.  Students will work directly with the code, although they won’t be starting from scratch.
  • We’ll use a Verlet (leapfrog) integrator to update the forces between the Earth, Moon, and rocket.  These are the only three objects in the system.
  • The rocket will launch from a low-Earth equatorial orbit (200 km) and enter a nearly circular orbit about the Moon, about 4,000 miles above the lunar surface.  After about eight orbits, the rocket will return to Earth.
  • The animation is drawn to the correct scale (except for the rocket), with the Moon’s orbit having the correct semi-major axis and eccentricity.
  • In the end, the model leaves out a lot of important details.  Physicists, graduate students, and NASA engineers are welcome to comment on the articles, but remember this is a computer program written by and for kids in middle school.

One Response to Launching a Rocket to the Moon

  1. Jannie says:

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