Virtual Field Trips Take Students Inside NASA’s Commercial Crew Program

By Danielle Sempsrott
NASA’s Kennedy Space Center

As NASA begins a new era of space exploration – returning to the Moon and eventually on to Mars – education in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects is increasingly important to the future of our nation’s space program. 

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) plays an integral role in the agency’s deep space exploration goals as it works with commercial partners to launch astronauts to the International Space Station from U.S. soil on American-built rockets and spacecraft.

In an effort to inspire the next generation of explorers, NASA’s NextGen STEM CCP project is introducing immersive technology into classrooms to share the story of groundbreaking innovation coming from this government-industry partnership.

One such technology uses virtual field trips to take students along on a journey into the heart of CCP—visiting the NASA centers where the program first began, and the Boeing and SpaceX facilities where next-generation, human-rated spacecraft and rockets are being developed and tested for flight.

“The goal was to use technology to take students and educators to places they probably will never get to see first-hand. We want to excite and inspire with something experiential,” said Joshua Santora, a NASA public affairs officer who conceptualized and developed the tours.

Through 360-degree video and virtual reality technology, students can get a behind-the-scenes look at NASA and commercial partner facilities without leaving the classroom. Teachers can run one video to 30 sets of virtual reality goggles – a class set – centering an entire lesson on space exploration, or they can allow students to choose from a library of videos, making it an individualized experience.

“These field trips are really nice because they allow teachers to bring NASA to their students and explore places they wouldn’t have physical access to otherwise,” said Brianna Parsons, an intern with NASA’s Internship and Fellowship Program in Kennedy Space Center’s communication and public engagement department.

Field trip tour “stops” feature the inside of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon crew capsules, the NASA and provider facilities where astronauts train, and launch pads where commercial crew flights will lift off to the space station.

These videos can play on any device that can download and use virtual reality – even iPhones. For those who are prone to motion sickness, Google Expedition is another form of virtual reality technology being utilized that contains static images rather than videos and features different points of interest for a more controlled experience.

“The technological leaps and bounds from mine, to my kids’ to today’s youth is very cool,” said Denise Coleman, NASA’s NextGen STEM CCP project manager at Kennedy. “I see the passion within NASA, within the educators and within those who want to help the educators. We just have to make sure we instill that same passion in the kids.”

The virtual field trips and mobile app are part of a larger effort by the agency’s Office of STEM Engagement (OSTEM) to educate students and teachers about NASA missions and research while providing resources for teachers to engage students in authentic STEM experiences. The NextGen STEM program focuses on four themes: Small Steps to Giant LeapsCCPMoon to Mars and STEM on Station – each of which offer unique K-12 educational materials developed for hands-on lessons.

“Engaging students in STEM activities might get them thinking or will help turn that switch on that this is something they’re interested in,” said Jen Hudgins, an education specialist with Paragon TEC at Kennedy. “We need those hands-on careers, even more-so now as NASA prepares for human spaceflight missions that will take us farther than we’ve ever gone before.”

To access the CCP virtual field trips, click here.

Live demonstrations of the virtual field trips also will appear in a series of webcasts each Monday at 2 p.m. Eastern Standard Time beginning Oct. 28 through Dec. 9 at https://go.nasa.gov/DEEP.

For more information on the full suite of NextGen STEM educational resources, visit: https://www.nasa.gov/stem/nextgenstem/index.html.