Lunar and Planetary Institute

Space Stations - Communication Challenge

Communication Challenge - Designing and Constructing a Space Station


Children design a space station using a set of paper cutout parts. First, they learn the name and function of each part. Next, pairs of children create at least two space station designs, showing that there are different ways to create a successful space station. The full group then divides into a Mission Control Team (design) and an Astronaut Team (construction), and they take positions on either side of a screen or bookcase. The Mission Control Team creates a space station design. Then, mission controllers take turns telling the astronauts what to do to construct this design on their side of the screen. After placing all the parts in the appropriate location, both teams examine how closely the two designs match and discuss any communication difficulties.

What's the Point?

  • Building complex structures requires clear communication, proper sequencing, and teamwork.
  • Space stations are composed of a variety of modular parts.
  • Russia and the United States have both had a series of space stations in orbit since 1971.
  • Space stations are the only gravity-free laboratories where scientists can conduct long-term research.
  • Space stations enable scientists to study phenomena related to further exploration and development of space.


  • White paper
  • Rulers
  • Colored pencils and/or markers
  • Photocopy master of space station parts (Sheet 1, Sheet 2)
  • Space station parts for every pair of children (Cut each part so it is separated from the others. If you plan to do the activity repeatedly, consider laminating them. Copy each kind of part onto different-colored paper)
  • Space station parts transparency and overhead projector (optional)
  • NASA International Space Station fact sheets (optional)

The International Space Station (Press Kit)
The International Space Station: An Overview
Living and Working in Space
International Space Station Assembly: A Construction Site in Orbit
Others (including mission overviews and challenges to human health)

  • Books about space, space travel, and/or space stations
  • Blackline master of the completed International Space Station (Sheet 3)
  • Information sheet: International Space Station: Complete with Shuttle (Sheet 4)


1. Tell the children that their challenge is to design a space station using any or all of the provided parts. They will make several designs on their own and then work as part of a team to develop a final design.

Reassure children that some designs may be stronger than others, but there are no incorrect designs.

2. As a group, review the space station parts. Show either paper cutouts of each part or a transparency showing all the parts. Name each part and describe its function (see Table 1 below).

As you discuss the parts, keep them separate rather than assembling them into a space station. This encourages children to come up with their own solutions rather than follow a model you create. To make it easier to keep track of the parts during discussion and construction, consider photocopying each kind of part onto different colored paper.

Table 1: International Space Station (ISS) Parts and Their Functions

Antenna Used to communicate with Mission Control and with arriving and departing spacecraft.
  Crew Ships   Delivers new crews to the ISS and brings returning crews back to Earth. The crew ships in use are the Russian Soyuz spacecraft and the U.S. space shuttles.
  Habitation Module   Has living quarters with showers, private compartments, and an eating area.
  Laboratory Module   Houses equipment for microgravity experiments on materials and living things.
  Nodes   Connects sections and provides passageways and storage space.
  Return Vehicles   Provides an emergency egress from the ISS in case of need, such as when a crew member becomes ill or the station becomes uninhabitable.
  Service Module   Houses systems to remove carbon dioxide and maintain temperature, oxygen, and air pressure levels. Also, provides storage and space for aquaculture gardens.
  Solar Panels   Produce electricity for use during both the daylight and dark parts of the orbit (45 minutes of each in continuous rotation).

Supply Ships
Russian Progress and U.S. space shuttles

  Bring supplies and remove waste. The Progress has no onboard crew and is guided to the ISS by commands sent by Earth-based controllers in Russia.
  Thermal Radiators   Vent excess heat built up by the space station into the cold of space.
  Truss Beams   Serve as the long backbone of the space station, holding the solar arrays, radiators, and modules together.

3. Divide the group into pairs. Distribute a set of photocopied parts to each pair and have them design at least two different space stations. Have them record each design on white paper.

Children can also do this step individually or in small groups, depending on the group size.

4. After 10 minutes, reassemble the group, collect the parts, and divide them into two equal-sized groups: a Mission Control Team (design) and an Astronaut Team (construction). Put each group on a different side of a divider (e.g., a bookshelf, screen, or large piece of cardboard).

5. Hand out one set of parts to each team, making sure that each child gets one or more different kinds of parts. Have the Mission Control Team design a space station and assemble it from their parts. They do not have to use all the parts. Each Mission Control Team member should contribute one or more pieces to the final design.

While the Astronaut Team is waiting for the Mission Control Team to finish, have them look at books related to space, space travel, and space stations.

6. Have the Mission Control Team designate its first mission controller. This person looks at the space station his/her team designed and identifies the first part to be installed (e.g., a truss system). He/she tells a designated member of the Astronaut Team which part to select from his/her parts pile and where to place it. Remind astronauts that they can ask for clarification or repeated instructions, and remind them to let the mission controller that know they received the command.

Discuss the importance of keeping the room quiet so commands and questions can be heard. Encourage children to use language that relates pieces to each other and provides directional clues. In addition, encourage the use of clarifications, such as “Please repeat your instructions,” or “Can you be more specific?” Remind them that engineering teams must work TOGETHER to successfully accomplish a difficult mission.

7. Continue in this fashion, rotating mission controllers and astronauts and making certain that each child has a turn. As each instruction is "radioed" up from Mission Control, the astronaut should add his/her piece to the design, consulting with the group on where it should go.

Going alphabetically or by birthday order is an easy way to structure the team rotations.

8. After the space station is complete, have both teams view the astronauts' station and determine whether the two designs match. Discuss any inconsistencies and communication difficulties, identifying where the lapses occurred and why.

Mention that, in this activity, the astronauts did not know what the space station looked like. However, real astronauts are VERY prepared for space station construction. Yet, during the building of such a complex structure, many unforeseen design and construction problems occur, prompting conversations similar to the ones in this role-playing activity. To resolve problems, astronauts and mission control personnel use clear language and work very closely together.

9. Distribute information and fact sheets for children to take home.

Follow-Up Questions

  1. What were some ways each group worked as a team?
  2. How important was it for the Mission Control and Astronaut Teams to communicate clearly?
  3. What kinds of preparation would help astronauts in the construction phase?
  4. What kinds of equipment would have helped with this particular construction activity? (e.g., video camera, drawings, etc.)


Last updated
May 27, 2009

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