How Much Do You Really Know About the Physics of Space Flight?


By: Gavin Thagard

6 Min Quiz

Image: Shutterstock

About This Quiz

For centuries, humans wondered about the cosmos and what lay beyond Earth. Slowly, we started piecing it all together, discovering that the Sun was at the center of the solar system and that gravity kept us here attached to the planet. However, it wasn't until the 20th century that we really began to understand the workings of space and time, providing us with the physics necessary for space flight. How much do you know about those physics that sent us into outer space?  Here's your chance to find out!

It wasn't until after World War II that space flight became a real possibility. New technology, a Cold War, and developments in science pushed us into what seemed the impossible at one point in our history. First, we were able to reach space by escaping Earth's own atmosphere. Not much later, we were exploring deeper into our own solar system, taking man to places like the Moon and sending satellites out much further. 

Do you think you know how humans were able to accomplish space flight? Do you know the inner workings of the physics that continue to carry us further and further into space? If you think you do, take this quiz and prove it!

Who developed the three laws of motion?

An Englishman by birth, Isaac Newton was one of the most influential figures of his time. His book Philosophae Naturalis Principia Mathematica guided scientific thought for centuries.


Which of Newton's laws explains the thrust force of a rocket motor?

Isaac Newton was certainly a revolutionary thinker, but that doesn't mean he wasn't influenced by those who came before him. He often referenced ancient philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle in his search for truth.


Where does pressure occur to launch a spacecraft?

The USSR launched the first manned spacecraft into space in 1961. It was operated by Yuri Gagarin, a Russian pilot.


Where do gases escape from a combustion chamber?

Russia's first manned spacecraft was named Vostok 1. The spacecraft completed one orbit around the Earth before returning, with the pilot ejecting separately from the capsule.


What is important when reducing the pressure of the gas inside the nozzle?

Speed was the most important factor that kept most early spacecraft from reaching outer space. For a spacecraft to escape the Earth's gravity, it had to reach a speed of 17,500 mph.


What can be determined by mass and velocity?

Animals were sent to space before humans to test how living organisms would react on such a mission. Early animals that reached space included fruit flies and a Russian dog named Laika.


Which of Newton's laws deals with force?

The Russian dog Laika died during her spaceflight. It was originally reported that a lack of oxygen led to her death, but she actually died from overheating.


How do you find force?

Strangely, the first rocket to reach space was a German guided ballistic missile during WWII. The missile was known as the V-2 rocket, and it would later influence both American and Russian space technology.


What is the mutual attraction of all masses in the universe?

Russia was the first country to land a spacecraft on the moon, known as the Luna 2. However, it was unmanned and would not return to Earth.


Who described the positions and motions of objects in our solar system?

Johannes Kepler was a German scientist during the scientific revolution in the 17th century. His interest in astronomy was influenced by events such as a comet in 1577, which he witnessed as a child.


Who developed the General Theory of Relativity?

If you only look at his childhood, Albert Einstein was far from a spectacular mind. He had trouble speaking and learning, which his parents thought was a mental disorder.


Is a circle an ellipse?

Most people believe Einstein won his Nobel Prize for his theory of relativity. However, it was actually his work on the law of photoelectric effect that earned him the award.


What is it called when force is applied to the opposite side of an object's original velocity?

The United States fell behind Russia early in the space competition. The first U.S. satellite to reach space was Explorer 1 in 1958.


What is it called when force is applied to the side of an object's original velocity?

The first American into space was Alan Shepard in 1961. He flew on the Freedom 7 capsule as part of Project Mercury.


What is the standard unit of mass?

President John F. Kennedy was the first president to promise that the United States would land a man on the moon by 1970. Sadly, Kennedy would be assassinated before that could happen.


What is the standard unit of force?

In 1963, the first woman, Valentina Tereshkova, went into space aboard Vostok 6. Tereshkova served as an amateur skydiver before becoming a Russian cosmonaut​.


What is used as a reaction mass in a spaceship's main engine?

The United States did not put a woman into space until Sally Ride in 1983. She went to space as part of mission STS-7 on Space Shuttle Challenger.


What is constant, according to the General Theory of Relativity?

In theory, there is nothing that can travel faster than the speed of light. When measured in a vacuum, the speed of light is 186,282 miles per second.


What causes light to bend?

We do not see sunlight on Earth at the same time that it leaves the Sun. In reality, the light from the Sun takes about ten minutes to reach Earth.


What is equivalent to gravitation?

The gravity from the Moon affects water on Earth. Tides in the ocean are a result of this gravitational pull.


What is it called when an object has enough speed to escape the gravitational pull of a larger object?

The Great Comet of 1577, which influenced many European thinkers at the time, was on a hyperbolic orbit. It is not expected to return to our solar system.


What is the common center of mass between two objects called?

Due to the small size of the Earth, the barycenter between it and the Sun is close to the center of the Sun. Jupiter, which is much larger than Earth, has a barycenter that is actually outside the Sun.


Why do parts of an object closer to the planet feel a stronger gravitational pull than the parts further away?

Have you ever wondered how to lose weight quickly? You could try standing on top of a mountain, because objects further from Earth's core weigh less.


What are spacecraft really doing while in orbit?

The space competition between the United States and Russia was not without its casualties. The two countries suffered losses of life to pilots and crew during both flights and training.


What is the lowest point in an orbit called?

In 1969, Apollo 11 landed the first humans on the Moon. The landing was part of NASA's Apollo Program, which began in 1961.


What affects the time an orbit takes?

There were many setbacks for the United States during the Apollo Program. It began with Apollo 1 which caught fire during a test launch, killing all three astronauts on board.


What is the time it takes for an object to complete its orbit called?

The Apollo Program launched the first manned spacecraft to leave Earth's orbit, circle the Moon, and come back to Earth. This mission, known as Apollo 8, was launched on December 21, 1968.


What do you increase to get a spacecraft further into orbit?

Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were the first two men to land on the Moon, using a lunar module. Armstrong was the first to actually step out of the module onto the Moon's surface.


What is it called when you slow a spacecraft down by flying into the Earth's atmosphere where there is frictional drag?

The Apollo 11 mission took eight days to complete. On return, the astronauts landed in the North Pacific Ocean and were picked up by the USS Hornet.


What do you experience while riding on a spacecraft in orbit?

The United States completed the second Moon landing the same year as the first with the Apollo 12 mission. The mission included a color television camera, which was destroyed when it was pointed at the Sun.


What is the perihelion of an object?

In 2018, the United States launched the first spacecraft to orbit the Sun. This was impossible before because of the intense heat produced by the Sun, but new technology has helped us combat that.


What is an object's furthest point from the Sun called?

Voyager 1, launched in 1977, is the furthest man-made object from the Earth. The space probe achieved escape velocity in 1980, which allowed it to leave our solar system.


What is the part of solar orbit that takes a spacecraft from one planet to another planet called?

Apollo 13, which has a movie detailing the mission, was the United States' third attempt to land a man on the moon. However, the mission was a failure due to spacecraft malfunctions, though the astronauts did return safely to Earth.


What can a spacecraft use from another planet to launch it further into space?

The United States launched its first space station in 1973. It was known as Skylab.


What is it called if a spacecraft moves in the same direction as a planet rotates?

Astronauts are required to be in great physical shape to complete missions into space. This is partially because they have to wear spacesuits that weigh about 280 pounds on Earth.


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