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Liftoff to Learning: Toys in Space 2

Video Title: Toys In Space 2
Video Length: 37:49
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This program demonstrates the actions of a variety of children's toys in microgravity for classroom comparison with the actions of similar toys on Earth.

Science Standards:
Physical Science
- Position and motion of objects
- Properties of objects and materials
Unifying Concepts and Processes
-Change, constancy, and measurement


 - Evidence, models, and exploration
Science and Technology
-Understanding about science and technology
-Abilities of technological design

Subjects: Toys in microgravity

Science Process Skills:
Collecting Data
Interpreting Data
Controlling Variables
Defining Operationally

Table of Contents


Motion toys are effective tools for helping children learn science and mathematics. Scientific and mathematical principles make these toys work. For example, wind-up toys convert stored potential energy in their springs into kinetic energy as the springs unwind. Gravity often plays an important role in the actions of toys, but how would the same toys function in an environment where the effects of gravity are not felt? The Space Shuttle provides such a setting so students can discover the answer to this question.

A Space Shuttle orbiting around Earth is in a state of freefall which eliminates the local effects of gravity, making objects inside appear to float. NASA refers to this environment as microgravity. Videotapes of toys in microgravity enable students to see subtle actions that gravity masks on the surface of Earth.

Dr. Carolyn Sumners of the Houston Museum of Natural Science, Houston, Texas, recognized the appeal of using toys in space. She assembled a small group of toys and placed them onboard Space Shuttle mission 51-D that flew in April of 1985. During the flight, crew members unstowed the toys and experimented with them. Their experiments were videotaped and have been used as an effective teaching tool in thousands of schools.

Because of this success, a second group of toys was flown on the STS-54 mission in January 1993. Dr. Sumners, working with a multi-grade and subject area educational advisory group, selected the toys from hundreds of possibilities. This videotape is the record of the actions of those toys in microgravity.

Teaching Strategy

The Toys In Space II flight was conceived as an experiment in which the Shuttle crew members and the student viewers of the videotape would be co-investigators. Students begin the experiment by investigating how selected toys function on Earth.

To gain the greatest benefit from this videotape, students should then develop a set of experimental questions about how these toys will function in microgravity. For example, can a basketball be thrown into a basket in space? Will a wind-up toy submarine swim in air? Will a Jacob's ladder flip? Through their own experiments, students develop hypotheses to answer their questions.

Students test their hypotheses by watching the videotape to see what actually happened in space. While not all student questions will be addressed by the orbital experiments, enough information can be gained from watching the videotape to accept, refine, or develop new hypotheses and explanations for what was observed.

Many of the toys chosen for the flight are readily available from toy stores. However, other toys, such as the comeback can, paper maple seed, paper boomerang, and the Jacob's ladder can be made by the students. Construction procedures are included in the toy section of this guide.

One set of toys can adequately allow all students in the class to experience examining the toys and forming hypotheses if the teacher keeps the following strategies in mind:

  • Students can be organized into cooperative study groups that specialize on one or more toys and report to the rest of the class.
  • Each student can specialize in a particular toy and report to the rest of the class.
  • Each student can experiment with every available toy and engage in class discussions on how the toys will operate in space.

The following is a list of the toys used by the STS-54 crew:

 Available at Toy Stores

Flipping mouse ("Rat Stuff")
Spring jumper ( wind-up frog)
Swimming frog (wind-up)
Swimming angel fish (wind-up)
Swimming submarine (wind- up)
Flapping bird (trade name: Tim Bird)
Balloon helicopter (trade name: Whistling Balloon Helicopter)
Gyroscope (trade name: Gravitron)
Rattleback (trade name: Space Pet)
Klacker balls (various trade names)
Racquetballs and pool balls
Velcro balls and target (various trade names)
Horseshoes and post (plastic or rubber shoes)
Basketball and hoop (foam rubber ball, hoop with suction cups)
Metal Coiled Spring (trade Name: Slinky)
Police car and track (trade name: Darda)
Magnetic marbles (trade name)
Magnetic rings (see plans)

Toys that can be made

maple seed
Jacob's ladder
Paper boomerang
Come-back can
Ball and cup


Toy Kits

Most of the toys can be purchased from several vendors who have collected many of the toys from one or both Shuttle flights into packages. Three vendors are listed below:

Lorain County JVS
15181 Route 58 South
Oberlin, OH 44074

Delta Education, Inc.
P.O. Box 950
Hudson, New Hampshire 03051

No longer available
Museum Products
84 Route 27
Mystic, CT 06355

498 Washington Street
Hagerstown, IN 47345
1 -800-654-6257
Phone: 317-489-4527
Fax: 317-489-5752

Videotape Design
This videotape is intended to be shown in segments to the students. The introduction is a greeting from the STS-54 crew, a description of their flight and an invitation to the students to participate in the experiment as co-investigators. The videotape does not demonstrate why objects appear to float on the Space Shuttle when it is in orbit. That topic is left to the teacher.

Please refer to the section of this guide on microgravity for help explaining and demonstrating microgravity. The videotape concludes with a farewell by the STS-54 crew.

The introduction of the tape is followed with toy demonstrations. The toys are demonstrated in the following order, with the segments separated from each other by titles and music:

Spring jumper
Swimming frog
Swimming submarine
Swimming angel fish
Flapping bird
Maple Seed
Paper boomerang
Balloon helicopter
Gravitron gyroscope
Klacker balls
Racquetballs and pool balls
Ball and cup
Velcro balls and target
Horseshoes and post
Basketball and hoop
Jacob's ladder
Coiled metal spring
Magnetic rings
Magnetic Marbles
Come-back can
Police car and track

 Note - Additional information on each of the toys tested in the Toys in Space II flight begins with the Toys in Space 2 Experiments of this guide. Suggested activities, brief descriptions of what happened during the flight, and science and mathematics links also follow. The science/math links provide lists of relevant terms, principles, and equations. Additional information about these links begins with the Glossary section.

Microgravity  contents

Many people misunderstand why astronauts appear to float in space. A common misconception is that there is no gravity in space. Another common idea is that the gravity from Earth and the Moon each pull on the astronauts from the opposite direction and cancel out.

The real reason astronauts appear to float is that they are in a state of freefall around Earth. To help your students understand microgravity, show them the videotape Space Basics or use the Microgravity - A Teacher's Guide with NASA educational products, refer to the References and Resources List on page 24.

Understanding why astronauts appear to float in space first requires an understanding of how the astronauts and their space vehicle stay in orbit. Rather than orbiting Earth because there is no gravity in space, the astronauts and the Space Shuttle orbit Earth because there is gravity.

More than 300 years ago the English scientist Isaac Newton discovered the universal law of gravitation. He reasoned that the pull of Earth that causes an apple to fall to the ground also extends out into space to pull on the Moon as well. Newton expanded this discovery and hypothesized how an artificial satellite could be made to orbit Earth. He envisioned a very tall mountain extending above Earth's atmosphere so that friction with the air would not be a factor. He then imagined a cannon at the top of that mountain firing cannonballs parallel to the ground. As each cannonball was fired, it was acted upon by two forces. One force propelled the cannonball straight forward and the second force, gravity, pulled the cannonball down towards Earth. The two forces combined to bend the path of the cannonball into an arc ending at the Earth's surface.

description under photo
 STS-54 mission commander John Casper experiments with the magnetic rings
description under photo
Mission specialist Susan Helms tries to understand the strange behavior of the Jacob's ladder
Newton demonstrated how additional cannonballs would travel farther from the mountain if the cannon were loaded with more gunpowder each time it was fired. Eventually, a cannonball was fired so fast, in Newton's imagination, that it fell entirely around the Earth and came back to its starting point. This is called an orbit of the Earth.

Without gravity to bend the cannonball's path, the cannonball would not orbit the Earth and would instead shoot straight out into space. The same condition applies to Space Shuttles. The Space Shuttle is launched high above the Earth and aimed so that it travels parallel to the ground. If it climbs to a 321-kilometer-high orbit, the Shuttle must travel at a speed of about 27,750 kilometers per hour to circle the Earth. At this speed and altitude, the curvature of the Shuttle's falling path will exactly match the curvature of Earth.

Knowing that gravity is responsible for keeping satellites in orbit leads us to the question, why do astronauts appear to float in space? The answer is simple: the Space Shuttle orbiter falls in a circular path about Earth and so does everything in it. The orbiter, astronauts, and the contents of the orbiter (food, tools, cameras, etc.) all fall together so they seem to float in relation to each other. Imagine if the cables supporting a high elevator would break, causing the car and its passengers to fall to the ground. Discounting the effects of air friction on the elevator, the car and its passengers all fall together at the same rate, so the passengers seem to float.

The floating effect of Space Shuttles and astronauts in orbit has been called by many names such as freefall, weightlessness, zero-G (zero-gravity), or microgravity. Weightlessness and zero-G are incorrect terms that imply that gravity goes away in space. The term freefall best describes what causes the floating effect. Space scientists prefer to use the technical term microgravity because it includes the very small (micro) accelerations that are still experienced in orbit regardless of the objects falling.

Classroom Microgravity Demonstration

To demonstrate microgravity in freefall, poke a small hole near the bottom of an empty soft drink can. Cover the hole with your thumb and fill the can with water. While holding the can over a catch basin on the floor, remove your thumb and observe the water stream. Reseal the hole and refill the can. This time drop the can into the basin and watch to see if the water streams out of the hole. What happens? Why? (Recycle the can after you are finished with it.)
illustration of set up
 Other Toys In Space Videotapes. The original Toys In Space (1985 flight) videotape is available from NASA Educator Resource Centers. The live lesson (Physics of Toys) that was conducted during the STS-54 mission is also available

Some of the text in this video resource guide was provided by Dr. Carolyn Sumners of the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences; Houston, Texas. Dr. Sumners, working with an educator advisory panel, selected the toys shown in this videotape and planned the experiments. She has published a book on the two Toys in Space experiments. Refer to the reference section of this guide for the book's title.

A technical review of physics concepts was provided by Dr. Tom Hudson Physics Department, University of Houston,, Texas.

References  contents

Lowry, Patricia, dir. Toys In Space II, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1994.
Baker, Diedra, dir. Space Basics, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1991.
Baker, Diedra, dir. Newton In Space, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1991.

Curriculum Guide:
Vogt, Gregory L., Wargo, Michael J.Microgravity -Teaching Guide With Activities for Physical Science, EG-103, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1993.

Other References
Sumners, Carolyn R. Toys In Space: Exploring Science With The Astronauts, TAB Books,A Division of McGraw-Hill, Inc, 1994.

Crew Biographies

Commander: John H. Casper (COL, USAF)
Pilot: Donald R. McMonagle (LTCOL, USAF)
Mission Specialist: Gregory J. Harbaugh.
Mission Specialist: Mario Runco, Jr. (LCDR, USN)
Mission Specialist: Susan J. Helms (MAJ, USAF)

To obtain biographic information, click on highlighted names


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