Lesson: Life in Space: The International Space Station

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

Photo shows a structure floating in black space with the sun rising in the background.
International Space Station
Copyright © NASA, http://www.grc.nasa.gov/WWW/PAO/issgrc.htm.


Students are introduced to the International Space Station (ISS) with information about its structure, operation and key experiments. The ISS itself is an experiment in international cooperation to explore the potential for humans to live in space. The space station features state-of-the-art science and engineering laboratories to conduct research in medicine, materials and fundamental science to benefit people on Earth as well as people who will live in space in the future.
This engineering curriculum meets Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Engineers came up with the idea of an international space station. Led by the US, 16 nations including Russia, Canada, Japan, 11 nations of the European Space Agency and Brazil together conduct one of the most ambitious experiments in history. The goal is to determine whether humans can have a real future in space. Engineers from around the world work on designs to recreate the Earth's atmospheric conditions in space — an engineering feat in itself! Engineers use these conditions to imagine and create new technologies that may only be possible in space.

Learning Objectives

After this lesson, students should be able to:

  • Explain that the primary mission of the ISS is to conduct experimental research on the feasibility of living in space that can also benefit life on Earth.
  • Describe ISS as a cooperative project with more than 16 nations actively participating and as one of the greatest feats of human engineering.
  • Give examples of how living in space is different than living on Earth, and how engineers design technologies to make living in space possible.

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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.

  • Support an argument that the gravitational force exerted by Earth on objects is directed down. (Grade 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Tools and machines extend human capabilities, such as holding, lifting, carrying, fastening, separating, and computing. (Grades 3 - 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Various relationships exist between technology and other fields of study. (Grades 3 - 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Gather, analyze, and interpret data about components of the solar system (Grade 4) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Gather, analyze, and interpret data about the Sunrise and Sunset, and Moon movements and phases (Grade 4) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
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What is it like to live in space? Would you float instead of walk? How would you sleep? What would you eat? What effects does microgravity or "weightlessness" have on human beings and other living things? How do plants grow in the conditions of space? Can engineers design new materials in space that are useful on Earth?

Photo shows a man and a woman holding food and using utensils as three oranges float nearby.
Astronaut Peggy Whitson (right) and cosmonaut Sergei Treschev, both Expedition Five flight engineers, share a meal on the International Space Station.
Copyright © Copyright © 2000, NASA, http://spaceflight1.nasa.gov/gallery/images/station/crew-5/html/iss005e16295.html.

The International Space Station (ISS) is designed to answer these questions and many more. The ISS is not only an adventure in space living, it is also an adventure in science and engineering. The ISS is a little bigger than a football field; think of it as a small space city orbiting above the Earth. To make a place where humans can go and study space and the space environment over long periods of time, 16 countries from around the world work together. The space station is one of the greatest accomplishments of engineering, ever. It takes a lot to organize so many countries working together to make a small city, especially in space! The US and Russia take the lead on this project, but all of the 16 countries have contributed something, from the laboratories to the robotic equipment, that help us explore (see Table 1).

The primary mission of the ISS is to conduct research on the possibility of humans living in space in the future, research that also benefits life on Earth now. The ISS gives us a chance to look at how things are affected by an environment with very little gravity holding them down (called microgravity). Gravity is caused by the attraction between all physical matter, and it is one of the natural forces present in our everyday life. On Earth, we feel gravity pulling us down towards the ground because our bodies are attracted to the massive amount of rock, dirt, water, and everything that makes up our planet beneath our feet. In the ISS, there is a small amount of gravity exerted on the astronauts by Earth, but since they are so far away, this amount of gravity is very small. Still the direction of the gravitational force on the astronauts is towards the Earth. Right now, many research projects are conducted on the space station. Engineers and scientists are continually learning more about space and traveling in space, as well as how space affects materials, such as metals, plants and the human body. From what is learned, engineers create better medical treatments, materials and energy technologies (such as solar).

Living in space is very different from living on Earth. Can you imagine it? Astronauts must be strapped down to their beds to sleep (so they do not float around). On the ISS, each astronaut has his/her own room, called a "galley." The space station environment is kept at a comfortable 70˚F temperature and much has been done to make the astronauts feel at home. On board the ISS, astronauts wear the usual clothing they would wear on Earth, but they have special engineered clothing for travel to and from the ISS as well pressurized suits for space walks. The space station is equipped with special microwave ovens and refrigerators, so the astronauts can eat more typical types of food, including specially-packaged fruits and ice cream. Exercise is very important on the space station, since microgravity affects bones and muscles in space; without the force of gravity, astronauts lose bone and muscle mass. Astronauts use special exercise equipment designed by engineers to make sure they do not lose too much bone or muscle mass, which would be dangerous for them once they return to Earth.

In addition to serving as a classroom for understanding the effects of space travel on humans, the International Space Station also gives us the opportunity to look at the planets and our Earth from a different perspective. Astronauts on the ISS take daily pictures of the Earth to help us learn about how people affect the Earth with pollution and cutting down forests of trees, as well as how the Earth's surface is changing with volcanoes and earthquakes. Engineers and scientists have only just begun to unlock the mysteries of what we can learn from living in space. Your generation will better understand space travel, our universe and even our Earth, because of what we learn from the experiments being conducted on the space station today.

Lesson Background and Concepts for Teachers

Led by the US, 16 nations including Russia, Canada, Japan, 11 nations of the European Space Agency and Brazil have joined forces to develop the International Space Station (ISS). The goal is to determine whether human beings can live for periods of time in space. Table 1 shows the initial contributions to ISS from the partner countries.

Equipment from Brazil and Italy; robotic arm from Canada; laboratory and vehicles from the ESA and Japan; research and living quarters modules, solar arrays, vehicles and spacecraft from Russia; and structure, solar arrays, other hardware, life support and guidance systems, and ground and launch facilities from the USA.
Table 1: Initial partner contributions to the International Space Station.
Copyright © Copyright © ITL Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado at Boulder. Source of information: International Space Station website: http://www.shuttlepresskit.com/ISS_OVR/.

The ISS orbits about 250 miles (~400 km) above Earth with an orbital inclination of 51.6 degrees, which means that the path of the ISS varies with each revolution. Traveling at a speed of about 28,000 kilometers an hour, the ISS circles the Earth every 90 minutes for about 16 orbits a day. (That means astronauts see a sunset or sunrise out the window every 45 minutes!) The variable and frequent orbit gives the international partners easy access to deliver crews and supplies. The orbit also permits excellent Earth observations, covering 85% of the globe and flying over 95% of the population.

Photo shows a person in a white space suit floating by some equipment, with the surface of the Earth as the background.
While on a space walk, astronaut Tamara Jernigan attaches a crane to the International Space Station.
Copyright © Copyright © NASA, http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/gallery/images/shuttle/sts-96/html/sts096_357_003.html.

Weighing more than one million pounds (~450,000 kg) and about 25% bigger than a football field, the ISS is a miniature city in space. Almost an acre (.4 hectare) of solar panels provide electricity to six state-of-the-art laboratories. The area in which the crew lives and works is only about the size of a school bus, but it has a great view, especially when crew members venture outside for space walks. See more "fast facts" about the International Space Station in Table 2.

Habitable volume (425 cubic m), span of solar arrays (73 m), weight (213,843 kg), first expedition launch (October 31, 2000), 14 expeditions since, 90 minutes to orbit Earth, speed (28,000 km/hour), altitude above Earth (40 km).
Table 2. Facts about the International Space Station.
Copyright © Copyright © ITL Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado at Boulder. Source of information: International Space Station website: http://www.shuttlepresskit.com/ISS_OVR/.

Research in Space

The primary mission of the ISS is scientific and engineering research in space. Many types of research are being conducted, including tissue and protein cultures for medical applications, combustion studies for materials applications (molten metals mix more in space), anatomy studies to observe how the human body changes in space, and studies of space itself — how the universe is changing and a distant perspective of Earth. Following are some experiments reported by NASA:

Life in Low Gravity: This study examines the long-term effects of microgravity on the bones of humans who spend an extended time in space. Preliminary results show a loss of ~11% of total hip bone mass during a six-month mission. In the absence of gravity, the human skeleton does not perform its primary function of supporting the body's weight, so space station astronauts experience disuse osteoporosis, a type of bone loss common in immobile patients.

Fire in Space: A team of scientists and engineers developed a space station experiment to help engineers design smoke detectors that perceive smoke in space. Smoke particles tend to form differently in a microgravity environment, making the typical household smoke detector unsuitable for use in space. Engineers must design smoke detectors that are sensitive to the different smoke particle, and can detect a fire early without causing too many false alarms.

Crew Earth Observations: ISS crew members photograph natural and human-made changes on Earth. They take pictures to capture the Earth's surface changing over time, including events such as storms, floods, fires and volcanic eruptions, and even urban land use and deforestation. These images help researchers on Earth understand how our planet is changing.

Photo shows two men pointing long-lens cameras different directions out two windows in a crowded space cabin.
Astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria (left) and cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin use still cameras at windows in the International Space Station.
Copyright © Copyright © NASA, http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/gallery/images/station/crew-14/html/iss014e11779.html.

Solar Cells: Solar cells convert sunshine into electricity and are used for many applications on Earth and in space. Thousands of solar cells hooked together generate enough energy to power the ISS. Since solar cells tend to degrade over time, especially in the harsh environment of space, engineers designed improved solar cells that are lighter, more efficient and more durable. This project tests how these new designs perform and endure in space.

Heat Shields: Since radiation is a danger to humans, this project examines how to keep space crews safe during high radiation exposure from the Sun or cosmic rays. Engineers explore new shielding materials to better block radiation. Engineers work on types of radiation shields for the spacecraft itself — materials that protect the crew from radiation and also deflect dangerous micrometeoroids. Shielding must be durable, but light enough to carry into space. This project also explores developing medical treatments to counteract human exposure to radiation.


Dock: To join two or more spacecraft in space.

Engineer: A person who applies his/her understanding of science and math to creating things for the benefit of humanity and our world.

Galley: On the ISS, each astronaut has his/her own room, called a "galley."

Microgravity: Very small gravitational effects experienced in near-Earth orbit.

Module: A structural component. In the case of the ISS, a structural component that serves a specialized purpose in the functioning of the entire assembly.

Shuttle: The spacecraft used to deliver crew, cargo and modules for assembly to the International Space Station (ISS).

Solar array: A system of solar panels composed of many connected solar cells, used to generate electrical power on the ISS.

Space walk: An excursion by a tethered astronaut outside a spacecraft in space; also called extra-vehicular activity. Usually to make repairs, perform routine maintenance or conduct experiments, and in the case of the ISS, to assemble the craft.

Zero gravity: Effect of weightlessness caused by a constant state of free fall; gravity is still in effect, but the falling motion offsets its effects.

Associated Activities

  • Muscles, Muscles Everywhere - Students learn about the three types of muscles and how the low gravity of outer space affects astronauts' muscles. They discover how important it is for astronauts to get exercise. Students design their own microgravity exercise machine, and learn about the exercise machines engineers design for astronauts.
  • Lunch in Outer Space! - Students learn about the challenges astronauts face while eating in outer space. To explore different food choices and food packaging, they work as if in NASA engineering teams to design and create original model devices to help astronauts eat in a microgravity environment.
  • Satellite Tracker - Students use satellite tracking software (available on the Internet) to monitor a very large satellite: the International Space Station. Students predict and graph the motion of the space station from their location, and create a 3-D display of its path through the sky. For grades 7 (6-8).

Lesson Closure

Why do we have an International Space Station? Well, the ISS provides humans with a place to conduct experiments that are not possible with the gravity of Earth. The space station is a peaceful cooperation among 16 countries that all want to learn about improving life on Earth. The primary mission of the ISS is to look at whether or not living in space is possible, and to conduct research that benefits life on Earth. How is living in space different from on Earth? (Possible answer: Living in space is affected by microgravity or "weightlessness.") What are some technologies developed by engineers that help astronauts live comfortably in space? (Possible answers: Special exercise equipment, clothing, beds cooking technologies, life support, communication equipment, and foods.)


Pre-Lesson Assessment

Discussion Questions: Ask a few discussion questions to get students to think about the upcoming lesson:

  • What do you know about the International Space Station?
  • Why was it created? (Discussion points: To conduct research away from the Earth. To see the Earth from a different perspective. To see if it is possible for humans to live in space.)
  • Who is creating and building it? (Answer: A group of 16 different countries including the US and Russia.)
  • What is it like to live in space?

Post-Introduction Assessment

Open-Ended Questions: As a class, have students engage in open discussion prompted by the questions below. Encourage creative ideas. Have students raise their hands to respond.

  • Who would like to visit the International Space Station some day?
  • What would you do if you were up there?
  • Do you think that humans would ever be forced to live there?

Numbered Heads: Divide the class into teams of three to five students each. Have the students on each team number off so each member has a different number. Ask the students a question (give them a time frame for solving it, if desired). The members of each team should work together to answer the question. Everyone on the team must know the answer. Call a number at random. Students with that number should raise their hands to give the answer. If not all the students with that number raise their hands, let the teams work a little longer. Example questions:

  • What does ISS stand for? (Answer: International Space Station.)
  • Is there gravity on the ISS? (Answer: Almost none; this little bit of gravity is called microgravity. This microgravity includes the small amount of gravity exerted on the astronauts by the Earth, which acts in the direction towards the Earth.)
  • Name a country other than the US that is working on the space station. (Answers: Russia, Japan, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom)
  • How might engineers use the information collected on the ISS? (Answer: Engineers use what they learn in space to create better medical treatments, stronger materials, and improved solar energy technologies.)

Lesson Summary Assessment

Engineering and the ISS: Discuss with students what part engineers had in the construction of the ISS. (Discussion points: Engineers are almost exclusively responsible for the design and construction of the ISS. Everything from the space toilet to the solar panels was designed by engineers.)

NASA Proposals: Engineers from different countries designed different sections of the ISS, called modules. Some of these modules include laboratories, control rooms, and living quarters or "galleys." Ask student pairs to think about a specific room on Earth that they would want to have if they lived in space. Have them write a letter to NASA to suggest the next module (room) to be added to the space station. Why would that module be important to add? What would they name it? Have students draw pictures of their modules to accompany the letters, to clarify the design so others understand its features and benefits.

Brainstorming: Brainstorming is an important first step in the engineering design process. Engage the class in a simple brainstorming open discussion. Remind students that in brainstorming, no idea or suggestion is "silly." All ideas should be respectfully heard. Take an uncritical position, encourage wild ideas and discourage criticism of ideas. Have students raise their hands to respond. Write their ideas on the board. Ask the students:

  • Now that we have learned a little about the International Space Station, let's brainstorm a list of questions that we would want engineers and scientists to research on future ISS missions.

How Far: Have students calculate how many miles the ISS travels in various time increments (i.e., in 1 minute, 30 minutes, 1 hour, etc.) given the average speed it travels (~17,500 km/hr). Answers: 181 miles, 5,440 miles, 10,900 miles.

Lesson Extension Activities

Have students find out where ISS is tracking in the atmosphere above where they live. See http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/realdata/sightings/.

Have students act as news reporters and gather the latest ISS news. Provide daily updates to the class from NASA's Space Station website at: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/main/index.html. Conduct an internet news search at http://www.google.com/, by using "international space station" as the search words and clicking on the "News" tab.

Additional Multimedia Support

The International Space Station is a work in progress. Show students a video of the space station assembly provided by SchoolDiscovery.com. Click on each module for a description of its function. See Putting it Together, Building the International Space Station: http://school.discoveryeducation.com/schooladventures/spacestation/together.html.

Learn mission basics: How do astronauts live on the ISS? What do astronauts do for fun? See a virtual tour of the living quarters. What is the scoop about astronaut food, sleep, exercise, clothing and personal hygiene? This DiscoverySchool.com website provides panoramic virtual tours, excellent background information, much more. While a high-speed connection helps, do not miss! See Space-Age Living, Building the International Space Station at: http://school.discoveryeducation.com/schooladventures/spacestation/.

See animations, videos and other interactive features (such as a space walk) at this Discovery.com website. A high-speed connection is helpful. See Life in Space: International Space Station: http://www.discovery.com/stories/science/iss/iss.html.


Early Assembly Flight Summaries. Updated June 26, 2000. International Space Station Overview, NASA, United Space Alliance and The Boeing Company. Accessed April 5, 2007. http://www.astronautix.com/craft/intation.htm

ESA Portal. European Space Agency. Accessed April 11, 2007. http://www.esa.int/esaCP/index.html

Glenn Research Center. Last updated August 25, 2006. NASA. Accessed April 5, 2007. (Glenn's contributions to ISS; detailed background info on ISS development) http://www.nasa.gov/centers/glenn/home/index.html

Human Space Flight: ISS. Last updated January 3, 2007. NASA. Accessed April 5, 2007. (Central information source; includes ISS Flight Control Room interactive feature, clock showing time ISS has been in orbit, updates on crew activities, space station sighting opportunities [by city], video tours and more) http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/station/

International Space Station. Last updated April 11, 2007. NASA. Accessed April 11, 2007. http://www.astronautix.com/craft/intation.htm

International Space Station Overview. Updated June 3, 1999. NASA, United Space Alliance and The Boeing Company. Accessed April 5, 2007. (The definitive source for shuttle mission information. Excellent summary of ISS mission with excellent graphics, although not been updated in awhile.) http://www.nasa.gov/audience/formedia/presskits/ffs_iss_overview.html

Kagen, S. Cooperative Learning. San Juan Capistrano, CA: Kagan Cooperative Learning, 1994. (Source for Numbered Heads assessment tool)

NASA Kids Home. Last updated March 28, 2007. NASA. Accessed April 11, 2007. http://www.nasa.gov/audience/forkids/home/index.html

Space Age Living: Building the International Space Station. Discovery Education. Accessed April 5 2007.http://school.discoveryeducation.com/schooladventures/spacestation/

Space Station Benefits. Posted August 7, 2004. NASA. Accessed April 5, 2007. http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/shuttle/benefits/index.html

Space Station: A Rare Inside View of the Next Frontier of Space Exploration. PBS. Accessed April 5, 2007. (Excellent site based on the series; take the quiz [answers provided] in this lesson plan) http://www.pbs.org/spacestation/index.htm

Space Station: A Stepping Stone to the Moon, Mars... and Beyond. Last updated April 2, 2007. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Accessed April 5, 2007. http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/science/index.html

Wide Awake in Outer Space. NASA. Accessed April 5, 2007. (Information and photos on problems of sleeping in weightlessness) http://science.nasa.gov/headlines/y2001/ast04sep_1.htm


Jessica Todd; Jane Evenson; Geoffrey Hill; Jessica Butterfield; Malinda Schaefer Zarske; Denise W. Carlson


© 2006 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 16, 2017