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Commemorate final shuttle launch with an experiment to try at home

This article appeared in the July 15, 2011 edition of the Davis Enterprise.

By Susan Hartzman
Special to the Enterprise

On July 8, the space shuttle Atlantis launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on a twelve day mission to the International Space Center. Recently NASA announced that this will be the last mission for the space shuttle program.

Atlantis was NASA’s fourth operational space shuttle, and made its first flight on October 3, 1985. Previous missions for Atlantis include sending probes to Venus and Jupiter and serving as the final shuttle servicing mission for the Hubble Space Telescope. The final space flight is the 33rd mission for Atlantis and the 135th mission overall for a NASA space shuttle.

As NASA administrator Charles Bolden explained in a speech he delivered last Friday, the final shuttle launch last week does not mean an end to human exploration and investigation in space. "We are not ending human space flight, we are recommitting ourselves to it and taking the necessary -- and difficult -- steps today to ensure America's pre-eminence in human space flight for years to come."

Though the decision to end its shuttle program is unfortunate, NASA has plans for bigger things to come in the future. Missions to Mars, advanced life support systems and research into safer, environmentally friendly air travel are all in the works. Among future goals, NASA is currently developing plans to build a heavy-lift rocket that will be capable of carrying crews beyond low-Earth orbit.

To make your own rockets that are safe to use at home, follow these simple instructions. Take an empty film canister and fill it partway full with water. Drop an antacid tablet such as Alka-Seltzer into the canister, put the lid on quickly and place lid side down on the ground. Step a few feet away from the rocket (to prevent injury) and watch it fly!

This homemade rocket works the same way in principle as the real rockets used by NASA. Both use a system of propulsion to push off the ground at a high speed, though in the case of the Alka-Seltzer rockets the propellant is the build-up of carbon dioxide gas inside the film canister rather than the combustion of rocket fuels.

This is an example of Sir Isaac Newton’s third law, which states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.  In this case the action is the fuel moving out the back of the rocket and the reaction is the rocket moving forward.

To turn this project into a true experiment, try testing out how different variables will affect the rocket’s launch. Does more or less water make the rocket go higher? Will breaking the antacid tablet into smaller pieces affect the speed of the launch? Think of other factors that you think could potentially change the flight of your rocket and design your own experiment.

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