Lesson 1 - Introduction to AI in Space

Time Estimate: 90 minutes

Introduction and Goals

In this lesson you will learn about artificial intelligence (AI). Although AI has been around since the 1950s, it is widely recognized now as one of the fastest-growing fields in technology. From ELIZA to Alexa, AI has become something we interact with every day, and will be a part of our daily life for the foreseeable future. Navigation apps, 3D photography, facial recognition, and smart assistants are just a few of the everyday uses for AI, and you’ll be introduced to more examples. But how can we define AI? And why is the use of AI being extended into space?

Learning Objectives: I will learn to
  • Explain the importance of data in the process of developing AI and machine learning, and recognize how data can lead to bias in AI.
  • Explain how Alexa is an example of AI
  • Identify how Alexa can be used to perform basic tasks.
  • Describe why AI could be useful in space and other contexts.
Language Objectives: I will be able to
  • Use target vocabulary such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, bias, Alexa and microgravity to describe the impact that AI has had on society out loud and in writing, with the support of vocabulary notes from this lesson.

Learning Activities

Hook Activity

Artificial intelligence (AI) has made its way into popular culture through movies, literature, and commerce. Examples include Star Wars, Marvel movies, Siri, Alexa and literary works such as I, Robot. Can you think of others? Discussion: share your ideas with the class.


This lecture is based on the slides by Jessica Van Brummelen, Tommy Heng, and Viktoriya Tabunshchyk from MIT.

AI, in general, is a computer program designed to simulate human intelligence. AI can be difficult to define in detail, but there are 5 Big Ideas that can help us to understand it.

5 Big Ideas of AI Wheel

Source: https://ai4k12.org/resources/big-ideas-poster

  1. Perception - Computers can use sensors to perceive information about their environment, and the programs that run them can use this data to create meaning.
  2. Representation and Reasoning - Once information has been gathered, it can be used to create a data structure that represents the problem, and reasoning algorithms can be applied to solve it. While these reasoning algorithms can be very complex, they are not “thinking” as a human thinks.
  3. Learning - With enough data (think thousands or, more likely, millions of input samples), computer algorithms can make inferences about patterns in data that allow it to “learn” something new.
  4. Natural Interaction - An “intelligent agent” must be able to interact with humans. This means not only mimicking appropriate human responses, but also recognizing human expressions, emotions and intentions. These can all be very complex to interpret when one takes into account differences in language, culture, and social conventions.
  5. Societal Impact - As AI becomes more of an influence on our daily lives, biases in the data and/or the algorithms can lead to flawed learning. This flawed learning can lead to unintentional discrimination, marginalization and under- or overrepresentation of certain groups of people. Different types of bias that can affect the reliability of intelligent agents are reporting bias, selection bias, group attribution bias, and implicit bias. The likelihood of bias in AI means that we need to be keenly aware of the need for criteria to ensure that the models are ethical and have a beneficial impact on society.


Consider these examples.
In a small group of 2-3 students, discuss and document whether these examples can be considered AI. Document your group’s answers on this worksheet. The following questions may be helpful to consider:

  • Does the example perceive/understand its environment?
  • Does the example continue to learn?
  • Does the example make plans or decisions on its own?
  • Does the example interact with its environment?
  • Who is doing the thinking? Where is the intelligence - with the humans who programmed it or with the device/program?

Taking it a step further, if it’s AI, can it be considered “conversational AI?”

  • Does the example understand natural (human) language?
  • Can the example respond in natural (human) language?

Video: What is Machine Learning?

Did you realize it is difficult to know if a machine is learning? Watch this short video (2 minutes) introducing machine learning.

Alexa as AI

Amazon’s smart assistant, Alexa, uses AI to build on the skills it already knows, and speech recognition (an application of AI technology that interprets and carries out spoken commands and/or aims to identify an individual based on their speech patterns) and speech synthesis (the artificial production of human speech) to interact with humans to improve their productivity. This video offers a glimpse into Alexa’s capabilities.


Reflecting independently, brainstorm 1-2 ways that Alexa could help you be more productive in the classroom. Document your reflections in your portfolio about the following:

  • How would you ask Alexa to help you with that particular task?
  • How might Alexa “learn” to help you with that skill if you continue to use it regularly?
  • What problems might you encounter as you attempt to use Alexa for this purpose?

Space Travel

Now that you understand the vast capability of AI to help with productivity here on Earth, you can appreciate how this technology is being used in space.

We have been sending people into space since 1961, when Alan Shepard became the first US man in space. Most of the people who have travelled outside of the Earth’s atmosphere have been trained astronauts, but there have been exceptions. In 1985 US Senator Jake Garn flew on a seven day space shuttle mission. Recently, in September of 2021, the Inspiration4 flight saw four civilians orbit the earth for three days. Check out William Shatner’s reaction to his trip to space!

Referred to by some as “space tourism,” more civilian space travel seems to be on the horizon. Independently explore these resources to learn more about space tourism.

People travel into space for various reasons, including scientific discovery, economic benefit, national security, and curiosity. Whatever the reason for space travel, all people encounter an environment very different from the one here on Earth. The further away from Earth one gets, the less effect gravity has on people and other objects. The name for the phenomenon of being affected by only a small amount of gravity is microgravity. As astronauts and space tourists go through their daily routines and responsibilities, they must find ways to cope with objects not responding as they would on Earth and their own physiology (the body and how it works) behaving differently. The resources above offer some insight into just how different daily life is in space with the effects of microgravity.

ACTIVITY: Exploring Microgravity

Independently explore one of these two resources to learn more about microgravity in space. Identify at least 2-3 ways that microgravity impacts daily life. Then, share what you learned with a shoulder partner.

AI in Space

One way for humans to deal with the difficulties of space travel is to rely on AI platforms like Alexa for help. For the reasons mentioned in the previous activity, AI is uniquely suited to assisting space travelers in monitoring their equipment, health statistics, daily tasks, navigation and more. Each role, from Commander to Flight Engineer, Science Officer to individual space flight participants could benefit. Maybe the best ways to use Alexa in space haven’t even been discovered yet…maybe that will be up to you! At the end of this unit, you’ll get the opportunity to develop your own Alexa skill!

Here is just an idea about how AI could be used in space in the future! (Audio transcript)


In this lesson, you learned how to:

Still Curious?



Here is a table of the technical terms we've introduced in this lesson. Hover over the terms to review the definitions.

artificial intelligence (AI)
machine learning
speech recognition
speech synthesis

Check Your Understanding

Complete the following self-check exercises. Please note that you should login if you want your answers saved and scored. In addition, some of these exercises will not work in Internet Explorer or Edge browsers. We recommend using Chrome.

Reflection: For Your Portfolio

Answer the following portfolio reflection questions as directed by your instructor. Questions are also available in this Google Doc where you may use File/Make a Copy to make your own editable copy.

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