Education and
Public Engagement
at the Lunar and Planetary Institute
Space Exploration

Build a Space Station


Design a space station by examining the parts, then work in teams to create and communicate a design. After placing all the parts in the appropriate location, both teams examine how closely the Mission Control team’s design matches the Astronaut Team’s construction. NASA also has a 3D paper model a​c​t​i​v​i​t​y.

What's the Point?


For the group:

For the facilitator:



  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 copying each kind of part onto different colored paper.

  3. 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.

  4. Divide the group into pairs. Distribute a copy of the 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.

  5. 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).

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

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.)