Lesson: Life on the Moon

Contributed by: Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder

Photo of a three-filter color image of the Moon overlaid with a black and white photo of an astronaut footprint on the Moon surface.
Figure 1. Is there life on the Moon?
Copyright © National Space Science Data Center, National Aeronautics and Space Administration http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/image/planetary/moon/gal_moon_color.jpg http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/imgcat/html/object_page/a11_h_40_5878.html


Students learn about the physical properties of the Moon. They compare these to the properties of the Earth to determine how life would be different for people living on the Moon. Using their understanding of these differences, they think about what types of products engineers would need to design for humans to live comfortably on the Moon.

Engineering Connection

When the Apollo 11 mission returned to Earth after landing on the Moon in 1969, it marked the completion of an engineering project that was years in the making. This successful mission paved the way for more tremendous engineering feats aimed at exploring the known universe. The International Space Station (ISS), the largest international space research station in history, not only enables humans to live in space, but also helps us learn how to best design and build long-term outposts for people to live on the Moon. From designing the spacecraft to getting us to the Moon safely to building tools to help humans someday live on the Moon, engineers play a vital role in space travel and space discovery.

Learning Objectives

After this lesson, students should be able to:

  • Describe important physical properties of the Moon.
  • Describe ways in which life on the Moon would be different than life on Earth.
  • Anticipate three problems that engineers would need to solve for people to be able to live on the Moon.

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Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

  • Use ratio and rate reasoning to solve real-world and mathematical problems, e.g., by reasoning about tables of equivalent ratios, tape diagrams, double number line diagrams, or equations. (Grade 6) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Knowledge gained from other fields of study has a direct effect on the development of technological products and systems. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Develop, communicate, and justify an evidence-based explanation using relative positions of Earth, Moon, and Sun to explain the following natural phenomenon:
    1. Tides
    2. Eclipses of the Sun and Moon
    3. Different shapes of the Moon as viewed from Earth
    (Grade 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Describe methods and equipment used to explore the solar system and beyond (Grade 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
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Humans first stepped foot on the Earth's Moon on July 20, 1969. Now, more than 40 years later, engineers and scientists are working on ways that people could actually live on the Moon for as long as six months! As construction of the International Space Station (ISS) progresses, the Earth's inhabitants are another step closer to a permanent Moon base and further exploration of our nearest neighbor in the solar system. Today's eighth graders may very well have a chance to visit the Moon at some point in their lifetimes.

Today, let's think about what life would be like on the Moon. (Conduct the pre-lesson KWL Chart activity, as described in the Assessment section.) I can see from your list on the board that we already have a good start. (Pause here to review facts students already know about the Moon. Make corrections if needed. Point out questions under the "Want to Know" section. We are going to find out the answers to many of your questions.

How big is the Moon, compared to the Earth? (Answer: Give students time to brainstorm possible answers. Then, offer the following comparison to students.) Probably the easiest comparison to make is between a tennis ball and a full-size basketball. A tennis ball is about one-quarter the size of a basketball in terms of their radii/diameters (2.25 in. vs. 9 in.). This is about the size difference between the Moon and the Earth (the Moon is about 27% of the size of Earth, 1738.1 km vs. 6378.1 km). The moon is about 380,000 km away, the equivalent of about 60 Earths lined up end to end.

What would it feel like to stand on the Moon? Two main factors would make it feel very different than what you experience on Earth. First, since the Moon is much smaller than Earth, the force of gravity is much less. What does this mean for you? Well, if you weighed 100 lbs on Earth, you would weigh only one-sixth of that amount, or only 17 lbs, on the Moon. Take a moment to figure out exactly how much you would weigh there. (Note: Remind students who have difficulty figuring this out to multiply their weight x .17, or 1/6 rounded up.)

The second major reason that the Moon would feel quite strange to you is that it has no atmosphere. This has several consequences: no oxygen is present for you to breathe, no wind exists to blow your hair around, and the temperature ranges are far greater— from -280° F at night to 260° F during the day, at the lunar equator. Withouth any atmosphere, there is no weather. And, it is sunny on the Moon for about two weeks at a time, resulting in a very intense heat because nothing exists to dim the light.

A few other properties of the Moon also affect what you would experience there. For one thing, the Moon takes much longer than the Earth to spin on its axis. How long does it take the Earth to make one complete rotation? That's right – 24 hours. So when we see the sunrise in the morning, we know it will be another 24 hours before it comes up again. Does anyone know how long it would be from one sunrise to the next on the Moon? (Give students some time to brainstorm.) It takes 29½ days! That would sure mess up your sleep cycle! In addition to longer days and nights, the Moon also has no water, except for a small amount of ice at the poles that is permanently frozen.

Furthermore, the Moon has no life (except for you humans who will live there in the future!). How would you eat and drink there?

Engineers made it possible for humans to take their first steps on the Moon, and it will be engineers who design and build a way for us to live safely under the Moon's different physical conditions.

Lesson Background and Concepts for Teachers

The Moon is the Earth's only natural satellite. (A satellite is defined as an object that orbits around another object.) It is made of similar rock as the Earth: igneous rock with a core of iron and sulfur, and a rocky crust made mostly of aluminum and calcium. As the Moon is constantly bombarded with small meteorites, a fine-grained "soil" or dust, sometimes referred to as regolith, is formed from the lunar rocks and covers the surface. The Moon does not have an atmosphere, and therefore sound does not carry; there is also no weather. The temperature on the Moon is about -200°C on average — more than twice as cold as the Earth's South Pole, which ranges between -20°C and -80°C on average. Having no weather means no winds; the footprints the astronauts made when they first stepped on the Moon's surface in 1969 are still there today.

Since the Moon is such a close neighbor, averaging only 380,000 kilometers from Earth, its main features are quite visible from Earth with the naked eye. Most noticeable are the maria or "seas" of the Moon ("mare" is the Latin word for "sea"). These seas are wide sunken plains thought to have been formed when basalt flooded the area after a huge impact with an asteroid or comet. Although scientists have determined that the Moon has no surface water, early observers thought these dark areas were seas on the surface. Light-colored areas on the Moon's surface are also visible from Earth, which are illuminated highlands or mountains that were uplifted as a result of meteor impacts. With the aid of a good pair of binoculars it is possible to view craters on the surface caused by such impacts.

A few main theories explain how the Moon might have come to be in orbit around the Earth. Many believe it was formed along with the Earth from the cloud of dust and gas that originally formed the solar system. Another hypothesis is that a large chunk broke off while the molten Earth was forming and stayed in orbit after it had solidified. Two lesser-accepted theories are that the Moon was a small planet in the solar system that came near the Earth and was captured by Earth's gravity, becoming its satellite, or that a large planet about the size of Mars struck the Earth and the molten material that resulted from the impact hardened to form the Moon.

The Moon does not produce its own light, despite the fact that it is the second brightest object in our sky (after the Sun). It reflects light from the Sun back at the Earth. Because the Moon's period of rotation is the same as its period of revolution around the Earth — 27.3 days — the Moon always shows the same side to the Earth. Therefore, we are unable to see the other half, the "dark side" of the Moon, with our naked eye. Fortunately, we have seen images of this part of the Moon, taken via satellites and spacecraft that travel to the "dark side."

Depending on the angle at which the Sun's light strikes the Moon, the Moon appears to go through phases in the course of a lunar month, which is actually 29.5 days because the Earth also moves in relation to the Sun. The eight phases of the Moon are: waxing crescent, first quarter, waxing gibbous, full Moon, waning gibbous, third quarter (last quarter), waning crescent, and new Moon (not visible), as shown in Figure 2.

A drawing shows eight Moons evenly spread along the inside of a circle, with the Earth in the center of the circle and the Sun shown on the outside, right.
Figure 2. The eight Moon phases as seen from Earth.
Copyright © National Aeronautic and Space Administration http://starchild.gsfc.nasa.gov/Images/StarChild/icons/moon_from_earth.gif

Moon Facts

Table lists distance from the Earth, orbital speed, temperature range night to day, temperature at poles, revolution period, rotation period, equatorial diameter and gravitational pull.
Basic Moon facts.
Copyright © NASA http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/planetary/factsheet/moonfact.html

Table lists volume, equatorial radius, surface gravity and escape velocity for the Moon and the Earth, and provides a Moon/Earth ratio.
Comparison of Moon and Earth facts.
Copyright © NASA http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/planetary/factsheet/moonfact.html

Moon Mission

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin became the first human beings to step foot on the Moon (see Figure 3). The Apollo 11 mission was the result of the largest engineering project ever undertaken.

Photo shows a man in a space suit on the moon surface next to an American flag.
Figure 3. Buzz Aldrin walks on the Moon!
Copyright © National Aeronautic and Space Administration http://www.americaslibrary.gov/jb/modern/jb_modern_subj_e.html

The Apollo program, which ran from 1963 until 1972, was designed to land humans on the Moon and bring them safely back to Earth. The program was a direct result of President Kennedy's 1962 challenge to NASA to land a human on the Moon by the end of the decade. That mission, Apollo 11, and five other successful missions to the moon (Apollo missions 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17) brought about 400 kilograms of lunar samples as well as countless other pieces of scientific data and information back to Earth.

How to Tell if the Moon is Waxing or Waning

These two rhymes help us tell if the Moon is waxing (a full Moon is on the way) or waning (a new Moon is on the way).

If you see the Moon at the end of the day,

A bright full Moon is on its way.

If you see the Moon in the early dawn,

Look real quick, it will soon be gone.


Incomplete to the west -

The Moon will disappear and hide in its nest.

Incomplete to the east -

Soon it's as big as a Christmas feast.

Source: http://jadesmoonblog.blogspot.com/p/understanding-moon.html


gravity: A force of attraction that causes objects to be drawn to the center of a body.

lunar month: The Moon revolves around the Earth every 27.3 days; because the Earth is also moving around the Sun, the actual lunar month is 29.5 days.

lunar phases: The eight stages marked as the Moon's shape appears to change through the course of the lunar month; stages are: waxing crescent, first quarter, waxing gibbous, full Moon, waning gibbous, third quarter (last quarter), waning crescent, new Moon (not visible).

maria: Large sunken plains on the surface of the Moon that look like seas that are thought to have been formed when basalt flooded the area after a huge impact with an asteroid or comet.

orbit: The path of a celestial body or human-made satellite as it revolves around another body.

regolith: The fine-grained soil that makes up much of the Moon's surface, formed from small meteorite collisions with the lunar surface.

satellite: An object, natural or artificial, that orbits around a larger object; the Moon is a natural satellite of the Earth.

waning: To become smaller in appearance.

waxing: To become larger in appearance.

Associated Activities

  • My Moon Colony - Students design and power a self-sufficient Moon colony. They write a proposal to NASA and present their ideas to the class.

Lesson Closure

The Moon would be a very strange place to live, indeed. With no atmosphere, no water, and no life, we'll need the help of engineers to find us new ways to take care of our basic needs of breathing, drinking and eating.


Pre-Lesson Assessment

Know / Want to Know / Learn (KWL) Chart: Tell students to imagine that they are going to live on the Moon for a month. By the end of the lesson, you want them to be able to clearly describe what life would be like for them, based on what they know about the Moon's properties. At the start of the lesson, ask students to divide a piece of paper into thirds by drawing a horizontal line across the center of their paper and a vertical line down the center of the top half (splitting the top half into two sections). Ask them to write in the top left square under the title, Know, all the things they already know about the Moon. Next, in the top right square under the title, Want to Know, ask them to write down anything they want to know about the Moon. Then have students come up to the board and write at least one thing from each list.

At the end of the Introduction, ask students to list in the bottom half of the page under the title, Learned, all of the things that they have learned about the Moon. Ask students to name a few items and write them on the board.

Post-Introduction Assessment

Know / Want to Know / Learn (KWL) Chart: Have each student complete the Learned section of the KWL chart on his/her paper. Call on students to share what they learned.

Lesson Summary Assessment

Brainstorming: As a class, have students engage in open discussion. Remind them that in brainstorming, no idea or suggestion is "silly." All ideas should be respectfully heard. Encourage wild ideas and discourage criticism of ideas. Have students raise their hands to respond. Write answers on the board. Ask the students:

  • What are some problems that engineers would need to solve in order for us to live comfortably on the Moon?

Lesson Extension Activities

Have students watch the film "Apollo 13." Direct them to take note of the major obstacles that engineers had to overcome in order to rescue the astronauts. Ask them to write a summary of what they learned from the movie.

Hoax busters: Did the Apollo astronauts really land on the Moon? As with many scientific and technological achievements, the occasional person thinks it is all a hoax. Ask students to research the claims made against the validity of the Moon landing and compare these to the compelling evidence that the landing was real. Frame the analysis of this "controversy" in the context of understanding the nature of science and what it means for something to be a scientific fact. Learn more at: http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2001/ast23feb_2/ and http://www.badastronomy.com/bad/tv/foxapollo.html.


Armstrong, Neil. Library of Congress, America's Story, "Jump Back in Time, Modern Era (1946 - present)." Accessed November 6, 2008. http://www.americaslibrary.gov/jb/modern/jb_modern_subj_e.html

Arnett, William A. The Nine (Eight) Planets, "A Multimedia Tour of the Solar System: one star, eight planets, and more," February 3, 2008. Accessed November 6, 2008. nineplanets.org.

Gib, Meredith and The National Aeronautic and Space Administration, Goddard Space Flight Center, High Energy Astrophysics Science Archive Research Center, Astrophysics Science Division. Accessed November 6, 2008. http://starchild.gsfc.nasa.gov/Images/StarChild/icons/moon_from_earth.gif

Laskowski, T. Waxing or Waning Moon? (rhymes) Midwest Native Skills Institute, Inc., Cleveland, OH. Accessed November 30, 2010. http://www.survivalschool.com/articles/Waxing_Waning_Moon.htm

Lunar and Planetary Institute, "Exploring the Moon," November 20, 2000. Accessed November 6, 2008. http://www.lpi.usra.edu/expmoon/

MoonPhase.java, "Moon Phases." Accessed November 6, 2008. http://www.astro.wisc.edu/~dolan/java/MoonPhase.html

National Aeronautic and Space Administration, Science@NASA, "Ocean Tides Lost and Found," June 15, 2000. Accessed November 6, 2008. http://science.nasa.gov/headlines/y2000/ast15jun_2.htm

National Space Science Data Center, National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Accessed November 6, 2008. http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/image/planetary/moon/gal_moon_color.jpg

National Space Science Data Center, National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Accessed November 6, 2008. http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/imgcat/html/object_page/a11_h_40_5878.html

Spudis, Paul D. "Moon." World Book Online Reference Center. 2004. World Book, Inc. World Book at NASA. Accessed November 6, 2008. http://www.nasa.gov/worldbook/moon_worldbook.html

U.S. Naval Observatory, Virtual Reality Moon Phase Pictures. Accessed November 6, 2008. http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/planetary/lunar/apollo.html


Brian Kay; Jessica Todd; Jane Evenson; Sam Semakula; Jessica Butterfield; Karen King; Janet Yowell


© 2008 by Regents of the University of Colorado

Supporting Program

Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder


The contents of these digital library curricula were developed by the Integrated Teaching and Learning Program under National Science Foundation GK-12 grant no. 0338326. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: August 27, 2017