Introduction: Sparklab - Design a Spacecraft

About: Spark!Lab is a hands -on invention studio in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Spark!Lab activities communicate that invention is a process, rather than a single “Aha!” moment; provide vi…

Welcome to Spark!Lab digital. This is an online invention space where you get to be the inventor. There are no wrong answers, and you can create an invention using the pieces provided — or create some pieces of your own. Think like an inventor: how does your design solve a problem?

Design a spacecraft with these virtual materials — or create your own parts and pieces. Using Tinkercad, you can delete, reshape, duplicate, and create new parts.


  • Free Tinkercad account
  • Inventive creativity
  • "Design a Spacecraft" parts from the Tinkercad website

Step 1: Invention Is a Process

There are just two things to keep in mind as you design a spacecraft:
1. The invention process is not always linear, but inventors engage in these steps in some form or another:

  • Think it: Have a great idea for an invention
  • Explore it: Investigate inventions and ideas of the past
  • Sketch it: Draw pictures and diagrams to figure out how your invention might work
  • Create it: Build a prototype or model of your idea
  • Try it: Test your invention
  • Tweak it: Keep improving your idea
  • Sell it: Market your invention to people who might buy it

2. We also know everyone is inventive — and we do mean everyone! Today, you become the inventor. You will try new ideas, take risks, and learn how to keep going when things don’t go as planned.

Step 2: Think It

The first step of the invention process is to "think it," meaning to identify a problem you would like to solve and begin to imagine your solution.

What is the problem you are trying to solve?

What if humans began to explore worlds beyond earth in the next 10 years. What would that look like? What would space travelers need to take with them?

Step 3: Explore It

The next step of the invention process is to "explore it.” Inventors ask: “How have inventors solved this problem in the past?” and then conduct research to learn more about the problem they want to solve or to understand solutions that already may exist. They learn from what others have already tried and make sure that their solutions are new or different.

When President John F. Kennedy declared in 1961 that the United States would go to the Moon, he was committing the nation to do something nearly impossible. We didn’t have the tools or equipment—the rockets, the spacesuits, the computers, or the space food. We didn’t even know how to fly to the Moon. We didn’t know what path to take to get from here to there and back again. Ten thousand problems had to be solved before people could send humans to another celestial body for the first time. Every one of those challenges was tackled and mastered between May 1961 and July 1969. We flew to the Moon because hundreds of thousands of inventors, engineers, mathematicians, and factory workers made it possible.

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, and Michael Collins landed on the Moon, completing the first, human-crewed lunar landing mission, Apollo 11. A team of men and women designed and produced the Saturn V rocket to make it possible. This giant, complex machine carried humans to the Moon, where they landed and explored before coming safely back to Earth.

Learn more about the history of space crafts from the Smithsonian's online collection:

Click here to visit the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum website to learn more about the history of spaceflight.

Explore a 3D model created by the Smithsonian from 3D scans of the real Apollo 11 command module.

Step 4: Sketch It

Inventors use sketching as a way to organize their ideas.

Drawing an idea allows inventors to imagine what their invention might look like and how it will work. Try sketching out your invention before building! Take some time to sketch your ideas, images, and thoughts about what a spacecraft would need when carrying humans far from earth.

You can sketch your ideas with paper and pencil, or you can try using a digital format. Remember! Inventors rarely get it right on the first try. Whatever the method, you may need to erase and re-draw your invention as you continue to think through how you want to solve the problem.

Click here to learn more about inventors' sketches in the Smithsonian Collection.

Step 5: Create It

Now it is time to build a prototype of your invention idea. In this step, inventors get to see their idea turn into something real. Building a model can also help you learn about any issues there are with their invention design. Your prototype will show the size, shape, and form of your spacecraft.

How can you use these virtual materials to design a spacecraft? Can you create new pieces to complete your prototype? What will you include in the design of your spacecraft? How will your spacecraft support human life and return the humans safely to Earth?

Click here to go to the Tinkercad site where you can begin designing your spacecraft.

Once you have created your design, move on to the Try It step.

Step 6: Try It

Now that you have created your 3D model, take some time to imagine how your spacecraft would function on a real journey through space.

  • How would your spacecraft get into space?
  • What will be used to allow your spacecraft to communicate with earth?
  • How will the humans on your spacecraft keep busy?
  • Is there a part of your spacecraft for storing or growing food?
  • How many people can your spacecraft support?
  • How will the people on your spacecraft land on the surface of moons or planets? Will the whole spacecraft land or only a part of it?
  • Is there a way to make your spacecraft lighter?

Share your 3D model and ideas with others. Ask them for their input about your design.

  • What did they like best about your design?
  • What did they think needed improving?
  • What new ideas did you get by sharing your idea with them?

Step 7: Tweak It

Now that you’ve created your spacecraft, thought about how it would work, and shared your idea with others, it’s time to tweak your invention! Now is the time to ask yourself, "What changes can I make to improve my spacecraft?”

Inventors typically don't succeed with an invention on the first try. Inventors make changes to their prototypes to make them work better. Usually, they tweak their idea many times before it is finished. Once tweaks are made, inventors test their inventions again. It can take many tries to get it right.

Go back to your design in Tinkercad and tweak it to make it easier to use.

Step 8: Sell It

The final step of the invention process is to sell your idea. Selling your invention is not only about putting it up for sale. Selling an idea often happens when you share your idea with others after you have made your final tweaks.

Tell us about your invention on social media!

  • Who will use your invention?
  • What makes your invention unique?
  • How does your invention work?

We want to hear from you! Follow us on Instagram at @si_invention or Facebook @lemelsoncenter and use the hashtag #sparklab on your posts.