Grades 9-12 | 5 (45 min) classes

Topics Covered

Parachute Physics | Terminal Velocity | Optimizing Descent

Essential Question

How does a parachute’s design influence a model rocket's descent speed?


In this five-day, 45-minute-per-class lesson, high school students become NASA scientists tasked with aiding a Martian colony. The focus: "How does parachute design affect a model rocket's descent?" Students start by exploring parachute physics, including the role of spill holes, to influence descent stability and terminal velocity. Teams create and test parachute prototypes, then develop proposals “for NASA” in a Claim-Evidence-Reasoning (CER) format. Once approved, they integrate their parachute designs into model rockets for launch.

On launch day, rockets can be equipped with data collectors, and students aim for an ideal descent. Data informs a final analysis to determine the most effective parachute designs. Teams receive a "mission award," recognizing their contributions to Martian colony survival.

Note to Educators: This lesson caters to all experience levels but holds particular value for those new to the intricacies of rocket and parachute design. It is highly recommended that teachers construct a model rocket and parachute system beforehand to better guide the students through each step. Having a concrete example in the classroom can illuminate the process and offer insights into the challenges your students may face. Enjoy your expedition into the dynamic world of rocket science!


Each Student Needs:

  • Student Portfolio
  • Safety Goggles

Each Classroom Needs:




Use mathematical representations to support the claim that the total momentum of a system of objects is conserved when there is no net force on the system. (Terminal Velocity)


Apply scientific and engineering ideas to design, evaluate, and refine a device that minimizes the force on a macroscopic object during a collision. (Parachute Stability & Spill Holes)



Write arguments focused on discipline-specific content.


Follow precisely a complex multistep procedure when carrying out experiments, taking measurements, or performing technical tasks.


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The resistance an object experiences as it moves through the air. Acts in the opposite direction to the object’s motion.


A device used to slow down an object’s descent while falling through the atmosphere by creating drag.


The mechanisms, like a parachute, used to safely return a rocket to the ground.


Holes made in the parachute canopy to release air pressure and drag, thereby increasing descent speed. Some improve stability.


The constant speed an object eventually reaches when falling freely through a fluid (usually air) where gravitational force is balanced by the drag force, resulting in zero net acceleration.

Learn About Model Rocket Safety!

Not sure how to safely launch a rocket with your group? Head over to our dedicated Safety instructions page for videos, support, and more!