Traveling to Mars

Ship entering orbit-m

Ares Voyager entering orbit around Mars. The Orion Capsule (with blue solar panels) docks with the habitat (white cylinder). The landing craft is on the left.

I taught STEAM (physical sciences, technology, engineering, digital and traditional arts, and mathematics) classes at American Academy of Innovation in South Jordan, Utah during the 2016-17 school year (which was the first year of operation). The charter and mission of the school is to ignite a passion for learning in students through project-based learning (PBL). I have done many projects in my own classrooms (as you can see from reading my blog posts), but this is the first time I was at a school that has a school-wide PBL emphasis.

Initial sketch

Original student concept sketch for the Mars mission space habitat.

At the start of the school year, as we learned more about what PBL involves, we talked as a faculty on what sorts of projects we would want to implement. We thought, as a new school, we should start gradually and train the students on how to learn through projects. We also knew we would need to implement at least one school-wide project this first year to “get our feet wet” so to speak and have a foundation on which to build for future years.

Top view-ship-s

Top view of the Ares Voyager spaceship assembly. The Orion capsule (with blue solar panels) is docked with the Docking Module. The main inflatable habitat is the white cylinder, with fuel, air, and water tanks in gold. The VASIMR drive is on the left. The pieces were modeled by my students, and I assembled, textured, and animated them.

We identified four possible subjects for our project, and at the start of our second term we put the four ideas to a student vote. One of the important aspects of project-based learning is that students should have a voice and choices in the projects they work on and how they approach those projects. Of the four ideas, the one that received the highest votes by far was the theme of Mars exploration.


Now I swear I didn’t influence the vote. I kept the language neutral for the descriptions we sent to the students. I do have to admit that I might have “sweetened the well” by using the example of Mars exploration as a possible project in the open house meetings we had during the summer. But of course, given my background, I was excited that this would be our first overall project.

Hab video title

AAI Mars space habitat video title frame

The next step was to get the students up to speed on Mars and its exploration history. We modified our schedule, shortening Friday classes from one hour to 45 minutes to fit in an extra Mars period. The teachers designed a series of seminars to last for four weeks at the end of the semester, and students signed up for which ones they wanted to attend. I’ll talk about these seminars in more detail in my next post.

Jason narrating

Jason narrating the video in front of a green screen, with an image of Mars added behind him. This is of a river channel running north from Argyre Planitia.

Knowing that there were no guarantees that we would be successful, I wanted to “hedge our bets” a bit by creating some small-scale projects in my classes first semester that could be used as examples for the second semester groups. My 7-8 grade astronomy students decided to participate in a contest for a 2-minute video describing a space habitat that astronauts could live in as they travel from Earth to Mars. This contest was sponsored by Lockheed Martin, which is building the Orion capsule and the habitat it will dock with.

Ryan narrates Orion launch

Ryan narrating the Orion launch and docking animation sequence.

We started by planning out what the habitat would look like. Students divided up into teams, and the designers sketched the spaceship parts and the habitat inside and out. Each team had a different part or system of the ship, such as the VASIMR drive; the fuel, air, and water tanks; the recycling system; the main habitat; the docking modules; the Orion capsule; and the Mars lander. As these teams were researching what these parts might look like and finalizing their designs, I taught the basics of 3D modeling in Daz3D Bryce to our modeling group. Meanwhile, the writers were gathering information from the research and design teams and creating a final script. One student created a 3D space scene to place the spaceship in, including an Earth, nebulas, stars, and Mars.

Jezero and Hargrave-labels

Jezero Crater, one of the three finalists for the Mars 2020 rover landing site.

The student-built pieces of the spaceship were saved in separate files, then merged together and textures added. We decided to name the spaceship/habitat the Ares Voyager. Because of the time involved, I took the final 3D file and created a series of animations and rendered them out. The first showed the Orion capsule orbiting Earth. The second showed it moving to a higher orbit and docking with the Mars spaceship. The third showed the spaceship with Orion firing up its main engines and leaving Earth orbit. The fourth showed it spinning around to fire its engines as retrorockets to slow down into Mars orbit.

Jezero Crater-labels

Jezero Crater closeup with features labeled. This image was rendered using Mar MOLA data from the Mars Global Surveyor probe.

While I was rendering out these animations at home, the scriptwriters finished their scripts and two students, Ryan and Jason, became our narrators. We rigged up a green screen and lit it carefully. Ryan and Jason recorded our script, with several takes for each paragraph. We also began the process of video editing. That was as far as we had time for first semester, and we didn’t get far enough to enter the video into the contest, but that’s OK. The point was to collaborate on a great project and learn about Mars exploration in advance of the main project.

Orbits diagram

Planet orbit diagram. I did the orbits to scale, with correct orbital periods.

Over the following two months I continued to work on this project, creating some additional animations showing the orbits and how a space mission would launch for Mars, stay there for about 18 months, and then return. The orbits dictate that the mission would be 30 months long.


Now I have completed the editing process and have posted the final video on my YouTube channel at:

It is a bit longer than the original target of two minutes, and has a few glitches that still need ironing out, but I hope you enjoy it. Considering the students knew nothing about 3D modeling and very little about Mars missions or orbits, they did a fantastic job.

Path to Mars-green dot

Ryan narrating the spaceship’s path, shown as the green arc and dot. Here the ship leaves Earth, slows down, and moves out to Mars’ orbit. Earth overtakes and moves ahead of the ship. The halfway point occurs during inferior conjunction, or oppostion, when the Sun, Earth, and Mars are aligned. The entire journey takes 6-8 months using conventional rockets, shorter for a VASIMR drive.

To learn about the orbits, I also had the students do a human orrery activity where I laid out ropes into circles that were the right proportional diameters, marked off with tape to represent every two weeks of a planet’s orbit. I first saw this activity at a workshop at Goddard Space Flight Center in 2015 for my MAVEN Educator Ambassador program. I’ll write about this in a future post. Once they were lined up, I called out two weeks at a time and had them move forward around the rope circles. It soon became obvious that Mercury is the fastest planet and Mars lagged far behind.

Whole ship w labels-s

A render of the entire ship with labels. The ship would go into orbit around Mars and the astronauts would take the landing craft (right) down to the surface.

Then I demonstrated how a space probe or human mission would have to travel. It must launch when Earth is overtaking Mars in order to minimize the time in transit when the astronauts are most vulnerable to solar flares and radiation. This occurs about three months before inferior conjunction. The astronauts will travel 6-8 months to get to Mars. The spaceship must overtake Mars from behind and reach a point in space where Mars will be at the right time to intersect it. Then the astronauts must wait at Mars until Earth overtakes Mars again before they can start the 6-8 month journey back. If we can develop a faster method of getting to Mars instead of traditional chemical rockets (such as a hydrogen plasma-based VASIMR drive), we could get to Mars in three months, stay a month, and return without having to wait for the planets to align again, perhaps 7-8 months total instead of 30 months with chemical rockets.

Path to Mars

Our video playing on YouTube. Just search for “David Black mars habitat” in the YouTube search engine.

I videotaped the exercise, knowing I would need it for my plan to create a video documentary of the whole Mars project. There were more activities we did in my classes first semester, such as building a Mars colony sculpture out of junk, which I have already written about.

About davidvblack

I teach courses in multimedia, 3D animation, Earth science, physics, biology, 8th grade science, chemistry, astronomy, engineering design, STEAM, and computer science in Utah. I've won numerous awards as an educator and am a frequent presenter at state and national educator conferences. I am part of the Teachers for Global Classrooms program through the U.S. Department of State and traveled to Indonesia in the summer of 2017 as an education ambassador. I learned of the Indonesian education system and taught classes in astronomy and chemistry at a high school near Banjarmasin in southern Borneo. I am passionate about STEAM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics); science history; photography; graphic design; 3D animation; and video production. This Spaced-Out Classroom blog is for sharing lessons and activities my students have done in astronomy. The Elements Unearthed project ( will combine my interests to document the discovery, history, sources, uses, mining, refining, and hazards of the chemical elements.
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1 Response to Traveling to Mars

  1. I do believe that humanity is making significant strides forward and we are getting closer to putting humans on the surface of Mars. Much research has been completed and we can execute on plans. People like Elon Must, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson will get it done in different ways. I can not wait!

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