Fifty Years in Space: Using Biographical Reference Tools

Presented by: Lisa Herman

Subject Area(s):

Grade Level(s):


Students will use biographical reference tools to research famous cosmonauts and astronauts who will be celebrated during the upcoming centennial of flight. This lesson is interactive in that students work together to derive information about a famous historical figure and record information on model rockets to be showcased in the school. Students also access approved Internet websites for images of rocket ships or cosmo/astronauts to accompany their models.

Goals & Objectives:

Instructional Goal:


Learning Objective:


Motivational Goals:


Encyclopedias, Dictionary of Biography, Computers with access to Internet, Printer/Paper, Rocket Props, Paper Spacecrafts, Pens, Bulletin Board set up with Fifty Years in Space title and sky/cloud/moon/planet background.


Day 1:

  1. Inform students that they will be engaging in a lesson about the Fifty Years in Space. Start out by asking students what they know about space travel – if they know when it began, who was the first one in space. 
  2. Show them some shots of Laika and other test animals. Ask them what they think about using animals. 
  3. Ask them if they think it would be “cool” to go up in space and/ or if they would be scared or nervous. 
  4. Do they know the names of any early cosmo/astronauts.  If someone says “Neil Armstrong“ – GREAT! – if not, ask who was the first on the moon – show the book, One Big Step – a Biography of Neil Armstrong, by Brown and begin reading it.
  5. When finished discuss what they think about space travel, preparations for it and HW: find the name of any other cosmo/astronauts. 


Day 2, part one:

  1. Let students know that today's activity will allow them to learn some interesting facts about an astronaut. Pair students and distribute one paper spacecraft comprising the name of an astronaut (see Paper Rockets JPEG) to each team.
  2. Explain that students will use encyclopedias and/or the Dictionary of Biography (to which they have been introduced previously) to find 2 pieces of information about the assigned astronaut.
  3. Students will write these 2-3 pieces of information on the wings of the paper rocket given to them. In other words, students write the year on one side and the contribution on the other, the name of the spacecraft and the year on the other two sides. Make sure students know that you only expect a sentence or fragment which fits on the side of the spacecraft, about what they feel is the astronaut's (or the particular mission’s) most important contribution.

    Example:  In May 1961, Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American in space.

  4. Last, inform students that if they collect these two pieces of required information and write it on their rocket ships, that they can go to the computer terminals and reference the Pathfinder located at the terminal to locate an image of their astronaut or the kind of spacecraft flown by the astronaut (or both). The image isn't required but students can look for one if they finish early. Let students know how much time they will have to gather the information and if appropriate, the image.


Day 2, part 2:

  1. Model using both reference tools and the Internet to locate the required information and image. Point to props so that students get the idea that the images of the spacecraft will vary widely (see Space Props JPEG). Reinforce location of reference tools in the library.
  2. Hand out index cards for them to write any other notes that they think might be fun to remember: training time, weight of clothes, favorite foods, time in space.
  3. Students begin activity.
  4. Reinforce when you expect them to be finished with collecting their information.  


Day 2, part 3:

  1. Circulate for questions during the activity.


Day 2, part 4:

  1. When group comes back together, go around the room and ask students to read their astronaut and the information they found. They can also hold up their image if they located one.
  2. Students must pay attention to what the other teams learned as they will be asked to write down which aviator was most important and why, in their opinion.
  3. This information should be handed in with the students' planes and images.



  1. As a recap, ask students about the kinds of information that can be found in these reference tools. Ask them what they can't find in these resources.
  2. Point to or reference the biography section of the library where students can find even more in-depth information about famous people including those in the fields of athletics, dance or other areas of interest to the students.
  3. Inform students that the space images Pathfinder will be available on the library website for students who are interested in learning more about space travel and exploration.
  4. Point to or mention the bulletin board where you will showcase the students' rocket ships and images.


This lesson involves two forms of assessment:

First, students are required to find two - four pieces of information and hand in paper rockets including this information.

Second, students are required to listen to other students' findings and record which astronaut they believe to be the most important and why. This information is also to be handed in.

An aside discussion can be raised: the notions of sacrifice and bravery in the face of the unknown, training for space versus other activities (i.e. like sports).

Supporting Files: