Modeling and Dimensional Thinking

The creativity tools that we are exploring this unit are modeling and dimensional thinking.  The basic premise behind these tools is that you are pulling back or pushing into something to make connections and find meaning that might not be overtly obvious when viewing the topic in a more traditional manner.

When looking at space, there are a lot of different ways that you can explore using modeling and dimensional thinking.  One might look at the fractals created by the orbits of celestial bodies around each other that are repeated from our earth/moon relationship all the way out to a galaxy level.  One might look at the chronology of space flight and how our current flying machines relate to the first rockets of the Chinese created in the third century.  One might also look at cross sectional representations of the different planets to understand how the gas giants developed in such a different manner than the terrestrial planets such as earth.  I chose to go a different route.

Orbits are a pretty well understood idea in space science.  An orbit is the path one object takes around another object.  However, when we talk about orbits, we rarely talk about the different types of orbits and the fact that the distance between two satellites and the object they orbit can be very different.  The fact is that there is a huge difference between Alan Shephard’s flight as the first American man in space at 101 miles and Yuri Gagarin’s flight as the first man in space at 203 miles.  Thinking about this differential led me to create an infographic showing the differences in distance traveled for different astronauts in the manned space program.


To create this visual, I took a representative flight from each of the four major space flight initiatives that we have had in the United States – the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle programs – and compared their distance visually in an infographic.  I am hoping to be able to use this information to better help students understand that being in orbit means different things for different missions, and that each astronaut would have a different experience based on what their mission parameters are.   I would like that discussion to be a launchpad for a wider discussion on the different purposes for satellites, why they might be at different altitudes, follow different orbital paths and the possible consequences of us launching too many satellites into earth orbit.

This visual represents our focus of modeling and dimensional thinking because it takes the 3D concept of orbit and puts into a 2D format to enhance understanding of the different orbital altitudes used in the space program – a concept that is not readily visible using the 3D model of live space flight.