Nigel wants to see if he can be the first New Zealander to make it into space. Along the way, he explores the fundamental physics of rocket science and demonstrates the often circuitous nature of science.

We made it to space, kind of. Obviously it would have been better to be up here in person, but somehow it almost seems more appropriate for the digital age because no one goes out any more. We just Skype each other.

Nigel Latta

Nigel Latta Blows Stuff Up
Watch Series 1/Episode 6: Space

Science ideas and concepts in Episode 6: Space

In between the drama and humour, Nigel introduces a number of important science concepts. This episode explores:

  • Newton’s third law of motion – for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction
  • thrust is the force that pushes a rocket
  • extra mass requires extra thrust
  • gravity is a force that attracts all objects towards each other
  • science investigation is often messy and circuitous – and failures are opportunities for learning.

Resources on the Science Learning Hub provide an in-depth – and safer – means to further explore these concepts. Check out the ideas and activities below or access the detailed unit plan about rockets, mass and thrust. It is a Word document – usable as it is or easily modified to suit student learning needs.

Fundamentals of rocket launches

Nigel explains that the science for rocket launches is the same – regardless of whether it’s a water bottle rocket, a lawn chair or an actual rocket.

Newton’s third law of motion states that, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. A rocket pushes gases (or liquid) from inside it in one direction, and this pushes the rocket in the opposite direction. Thrust is the force that pushes a rocket, and extra mass requires extra thrust.

Learn more about the fundamentals of rocket launches

The following articles explain the physics of rocket launches.

Rockets and thrust
Rockets and mass
Types of chemical rocket engines

Activity ideas

These activities explore forces, mass and thrust. They are suitable for mid primary level and above.
Effervescent canister rockets
Balloon car challenge
Water bottle rockets

While students plan and conduct the three activities above (film canister rockets, water bottle rockets and the balloon car challenge), discuss the unpredictable circumstances Nigel and his team faced and how the experiences shaped subsequent investigations. Draw parallels with the students’ own test runs and design modifications.


Nigel says, “The biggest problem when it comes to getting into space is gravity. It’s not particularly strong, but it is persistent.”

Gravity is a force that attracts all objects towards each other. Even people are attracted towards each other by gravity, but this force is so small that it is not noticeable. Gravity only becomes noticeable if one (or both) of the objects has a lot of mass, such as the Earth.

Learn more about gravity

Every object in the universe is attracted towards every other object by gravity. There is nowhere you can go in the universe to escape it. Read about gravity on Earth and gravity in space.

Gravity and satellite motion

Activity ideas

This activity uses two balls and a length of string to model gravity in space. It is suitable for upper primary level and above.
Scale model for satellite orbits

Students often hold alternative conceptions (or naïve views) about gravity. Use the following activity as a pre-test to establish student understanding. The teacher resource details student misconceptions and suggests teaching opportunities to address them.
Gravity and satellites: true or false?
Teacher resource – Alternative conceptions about gravity

Science investigation is often messy and circuitous

Nigel says, “I’ve come up with a plan that’s not only within budget but complete genius.” The plan involves a lawn chair and a rocket engine. The rocket was inexpensive to build and high in comic genius – but not at all practical.

Nature of science

This episode humorously demonstrates the real but the often messy, the iterative nature of science investigations and the learning that can occur from ‘failures’. Scientists often need to experiment over and over again to develop methods that give consistent results – and things don’t always go as planned, demonstrated by the Papa Bear bottle rocket, the lawn chair rocket and the balloon launch.

Useful links

Visit the New Zealand Rocketry Association website for videos, images and information about model rocketry. National Rocket Day (held every February) launches up to 60 rockets on the day.

Visit the Rocket Lab website to learn more about New Zealand’s role in space.

Use literacy resources from the School Journal to learn more about rockets.
Blast-off! Part 3 Number 1 1999
Bottles into rockets Part 3 Number 2 2003
Sky High School Journal Story Library Number 3 2012

Learn more about School Journal.


    Published 27 May 2015