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Sputnik at 50

  • Key Stage 3
  • GCSE
  • Popular Activity
  • Topical

Type: Activity
Learning Strategy: Role play
Topic: Solar System

50 years ago the launch of Sputnik 1 heralded a new stage in human exploration and prompted the Space Race – which cost billions but brought with it innovation, excitement and new scientific knowledge.

In this activity students consider whether the cost of the space race can be justified, and whether future space exploration should be funded. They also learn how satellites stay in orbit.

N.B. The activity has now been corrected from the one originally published - see comments

11-16 How Science Works:
11-14 (2008 KS3) – applications and implications
1.2b Examining the ethical and moral implications of using and applying science

14-16 (KS4) – applications and implications of science
4b How and why decisions about science and technology are made,
including those that raise ethical issues, and about the social, economic and
environmental effects of such decisions.

Published: 9th October 2007
Reviews & Comments: 16

Learning objectives

Students will:
• Understand how objects remain in orbit around the Earth.
• Explore some of the technological advances, and the social and economic benefits and drawbacks, that arise from space exploration.

Try the activity

You will need Acrobat Reader installed to open the activity sheets.

11-14 (2008 KS3)
3.4b Astronomy and space science provide insight into the nature and observed motions of the Sun, Moon, stars planets and other celestial bodies.

GCSE specifications
AQA core P1b
13.7 What do we know about the Universe and how it continues to change?

Edexcel core
Topic 12 Space and its mysteries
• How we explore the universe and the benefits this can bring.
• explain the role of gravity in the solar system
• discuss the possible social and economic benefits of knowledge about the universe and the technological advances which might accrue from its exploration

Item P2f Exploring our Solar System
• When we look at the night sky, we can sometimes see the Moon, artificial satellites, planets in our Solar System and the billions of stars which make up the Universe. This item discusses the problems involved in visiting other parts of the Solar System.

OCR Twenty First Century
Module P1 The Earth in the Universe
P1.1 What do we know about the Earth and Space?

Running the activity

Page one shows the importance of the launch of Sputnik – the world's first artificial satellite, and the catalyst for the Space Race. The world – in particular the USA – was shocked that the Soviet Union was the first to manage such a feat, and genuinely fearful of the military consequences of the Space Age. The launch of Sputnik, and of the craft carrying Laika the dog a month later, prompted the "Sputnik Crisis". It led the US government to invest huge amounts in science education, establish NASA, and redouble it's own efforts in space. The first two websites below are relevant here.

Page two is a timeline of some notable events in space exploration and planned future expeditions. It leads to the task – what do students expect to happen in the next 50 years?

[Note: A more detailed timeline is given separately as an Excel file. Students may notice how fast the USA and USSR progressed in space exploration after 1957, and that the last manned mission to the moon was in 1972. There is no "official" end to the Space Race, but many people regard the first joint mission between the USA and USSR (Apollo-Soyuz Test Project) in 1975 as it's end.]

Page three shows how satellites remain in orbit. You might like to demonstrate swinging a ball on the end of a piece of string.

[Note: escape velocity applies to un-powered objects. Slower moving objects with enough fuel can still escape Earth's gravity. See the third website below.]

Use pages four and five together. Page five introduces four celebrities, each representing a view to consider when making decisions about scientific projects – in this case the question on page four: was the Space Race worth the cost? Can future space exploration be justified?

Get students to sort the evidence cards from page four to represent views A, B, C and D on page 5. Then ask them to plan their contributions to a panel discussion

News links

New York Times
Newspaper front page from 1957
Image to illustrate the size of Sputnik
An excellent Newton's Cannon game
Space Race timeline
new Scientist
Sputnik and its impact on society – includes links to other articles:
More on Sputnik and its impact, including links to the sound Sputnik transmitted
Fox News
Fox news for video clips (but you have to endure an advert first)

Reviews & Comments

Write your online review to share your feedback and classroom tips with other teachers. How well does it work, how engaging is it, how did you use it, and how could it be improved?

Sputnik at 50 review

Oct 11th, 2011

4 Star

Really good resource.
Links to images was particularly useful


Sputnik at 50 review

Apr 26th, 2011

5 Star

It was great for the kids to see how much Space travel had changed in such a short time!

Reviewer: Julie Rees

Sputnik at 50, pretty good. Kids find it a little dull.

Sep 21st, 2010

4 Star

I think its a good activity, but kids don't find the subject matter very interesting. I padded out the lesson with a history of the space race, used this acitity to think about the cost. Can be used for a single period at the most. Not a whole lesson activity at all.

Reviewer: Ross Worrall

gravity and space

Jan 31st, 2010

5 Star

excellent resources to use in different ways

Reviewer: Helen Biggs

gravity and space

Jan 31st, 2010

5 Star

excellent resources to use in different ways

Reviewer: Helen Biggs


Jan 20th, 2010

5 Star

I have downloaded many activities from upd8 as reference for writing my lesson plan previous years. Now I refer to it as reference for my student teacher to plan their microteaching. It's more than worth it!

Maryam Sulaiman
Chemistry excellent teacher

Reviewer: maryam Sulaiman


Jun 17th, 2009

4 Star

Useful for KS3 space topic.

Reviewer: Dianne Rickett


Mar 26th, 2009

5 Star

This was done with a year 9 class during the topic gravity and space - it followed on from them designing and making their own satellites, it was a good link and got them thinking about scientific developments.

Reviewer: Melissa Baines

good discussion

Dec 10th, 2008

4 Star

My Yr9 class really engaged with the possibilities for the future of the space race and came up with some great 1 minute speeches either for or against the space race. This is a good follow on activity after pupils have found out about our previous ideas about the solar system

Reviewer: Mehul Shah

Worked with Y9s

Nov 24th, 2008

5 Star

I downloaded a clip of Sputnik's launch from Googlevideo to complement this activity - the students loved it and wrote some interesting pieces on what they thought about the space race based around this activity.

Reviewer: Joanna Barnsley


Oct 20th, 2008

4 Star

My year 9 class really enjoyed this. We had a 4 way debate going on, with each group explaining thier ideas. An excellent task

Reviewer: jayna patel

Sputnik at 50

Sep 24th, 2008

5 Star

"y is there no work sheets on there to teach the class". I don't want to be part of the language police, but please try harder. As to what to teach, this is a great activity for giving students a wider view of the Space Race. Any suitable text book or a 5 minute Google search will give you what you want.

My year 9s will be much better prepared for their year 10 skills assessments. Thanks Tony and team.

Reviewer: Gary Matthews

solar sytem

Jul 3rd, 2008

2 Star

y is there no work sheets on there to teach the class

Reviewer: Fahima Bootwala


Oct 19th, 2007

4 Star

my students particularly enjoyed putting themselves in the place of celebrites and deciding where they stand on these issues

Reviewer: debra johnson

Sputnik at 50 review

Oct 13th, 2007

5 Star

Well done to Christopher for spotting that our team had a bad physics day. Apologies to alll. A corrected version is on its way.

For information, there are two errors on page 3:

1. The diagrams show two forces. There is only one - towards the centre. The other arrow, showing how the object moves if the central force were removed is not a force.

2. The statements below the pictures are false. If the forces were balanced, then from Newton's first law, the object would be in constant uniform motion in a straight line. It's not! To travel in a circle requires an UNBALANCED central (centripetal) force.

The offending sentence:
The balance of these two forces keeps the ball
travelling in a circle.

Reviewer: Tony Sherborne

Sputnik Misconception

Oct 12th, 2007

3 Star

Incorrect science when explaining how satellites orbit.
There is only one force. The horizontal motion is not a force.
Will be useful to show to pupils that even adults get it wrong!

Reviewer: christopher adams

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