Teacher Tools for the High Frontier: International Space Station

It was about a decade ago that the first pieces of the International Space Station (ISS) starting making their way to station on-orbit. It represents our toe-hold in space, and the latest evolution of flight models dating back to the 1970s, but unique in that the pieces have come from all over the world. It is our most advanced laboratory, yet one that we have a fundamental difficulty in reaching in a regular and reliable fashion. A lot of folks are working on solving that problem, but once it is overcome and we can start shoveling people up into space we’re going to find that there is a lot of work to be done, from sciences at space stations to freeflyer super-microgravity platforms to cleaning up GEO and prepping for solar power satellites. We need instrumentation in higher orbits (like EML-1) to look Sunward for near-Earth objects like asteroids. We need to start honing our Solar system exploration skills on the Moon. We need to start visiting asteroids to see how they can be tapped for useful resources.


But that’s a little ways off, and we’re still at the first stages of creating a spacefaring civilization. The International Space Station is the most prominent result to date of that ambition, but also has a lot of issues to deal with. It would be great to use it as a staging platform to organize trans-LEO sorties, but that’s not what it was ‘designed for’. Its usefulness as a science laboratory is compromised by the very presence of the astronauts bumping into things and creating ‘jitters’ in the microgravity environment, which is why many scientists have long advocated the use of free-flyer platforms instead for their microgravity materials sciences experiments. EML-1 makes a great staging location for that activity for a whole host of reasons beyond the scope of this article. A limit of twelve dockings per year puts a very low ceiling on the amount of traffic at the ISS.

Regardless, the International Space Station is a triumph from many perspectives. The international cooperation alone is mind-boggling when you conceive of how much organizational effort was/is required. The engineering is phenomenal, with all kinds of spinoffs in things like couplings and seals and materials and so on. What do you make a cable sheath out of that can remain flexible from -100 F to +250 F? Can that kind of sheath find application here on Earth? The science is also great, though of course we don’t hear enough about it. Kids have even contributed their fair share, and I get to that later in the article. So without further ado, let’s start looking at some of the educational materials we have available to learn about the ISS.


Franklyn M. Branley has a long career of writing space books for kids. He updated his oeuvre in 2000 with HarperCollinsPublishers Let’s-Read-And-Find-Out Science Stage 2: The International Space Station, with illustrations by True Kelley. It covers how they’re going to put it together, what all the different parts are named, how it will get power, escape measures in an emergency, and a long section on how the astronauts will live and work on the station. It weighs in at a well-illustrated 31 pages.


Scholastic’s Space University: The Space Explorers Guide to Life Aboard the International Space Station has unfortunately been discontinued by Scholastic. It was kind of a ‘space class of the month’ type club, where each month you would get the book with a box of materials appurtenant to that month’s activities. For the ISS, it was some 2-liter bottle connectors (angled and crossed and whatnot), some fastening tape (a/k/a Velcro), some slipper socks like astronauts and Zero-G flyers use, some space washcloths, and some space shampoo. The web resources are no longer around, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still have fun with this one. The book covers ISS basics, different aspects of living in space, and the future of human life in space. The activities are really clever, like the tough docking and get a grip. It weighs in at 48 pages.


ISS: International Space Station by David Jefferis is, for some reason, rather difficult to find information on on the internet. Which is a pity, as this is a nice book. It offers a lot of cutaways and exposed insides of spacecraft and station components. Large illustrations with crisp CGI renderings render lots of details for the eyes to discover, and there’s a foldout of the ‘complete’ station. Weighing in at 48 pages, I would put this one somewhere around later elementary or primary school.


Like “Home on the Moon”, Space Station Science: Life in Free Fall by Marianne Dyson is a middle-school level targeted book that thoroughly covers its topic. Each chapter is interspersed with easy to perform experiments that highlight the principles discussed in the text. It also highlights some powerful on-line tools like EarthKAM, and even offers a craftwork model of the ISS. This one is definitely a great intro to the ISS for the middle-school set, and even for adults who want a solid overview. One of the things that Marianne likes to note is that if you want a good quick overview on a topic (say the Pyramids or sharks), you read a kids book, since its a digested version of the grown-up tomes and therefore focuses on the most important points. You also find unusual bits of trivia that the author has uncovered in their research. A hefty 128 pages in softcover, this is probably the one book to have if you can only have one at the middle school level.


One step beyond is Tessloff Publishing’s Start Me Up Special: The International Space Station: A Journey into Space by Wolfgang Engelhardt and from 1997. Since it pre-dates actual construction of the ISS, it can be thought of as a preparatory guide to what living in space might be like, and much more text-driven than previous books. It looks back at Skylab, Salyut and Mir before turning to the planning involved for the station and how it might come together. The book considers the costs and benefits before looking at the international contributions to the station, and finally what it will be like to live and work there. Weighing in at 64 pages, I can see this one in high school libraries.


Reference Guide to the International Space Station was produced by NASA in August 2006,and several boxes of the spiral-bound version were handed out at ISDC 2007, since my co-chair had arranged such a great ISS Science track with JSC. It provides a comprehensive overview of the station and tons of just incredible eye candy photos of all different parts of it. It lays out the construction timeline, including future missions. Each of the individual elements is explored with labeled cutaway diagrams, basic almanac data, and photos of each one in action. Transport and logistics gives details on the various means we have/will have to get supplies to the station. Each of the major systems is detailed, including the Truss Assembly, EVA assets, GN&C, and electrical & thermal. The contributions of each of the international partners to the ongoing operations of ISS is outlined, and we end with a look at the missions to date. There’s a section on interesting facts, and a much-needed acronym list. In my view this is the best guide to the ISS around, and I would say suitable for adults on down to probably middle school/junior high. Apogee Books offers a version for sale, and I presume the spiral-bound version can be ordered through NASA. If a school library is going to have a reference book on the ISS, this 96-pager is the one to have.

Some additional handouts were also available. One in particular is of interest, Inspiring the Next Generation: Student Experiments and Educational Activities on the International Space Station, 2000-2006” (big pdf) by astronaut Don Thomas and Julie Robinson. It offers 95 pages of inspiring examples of students involving themselves directly in our space future. NASA does a great service in documenting their reports (and making them somewhat findable) at their NASA Technical Reports Server, where this one can also be found, so grab the pdf and check it out!

Another handout is a great reference tool, International Space Station Research Summary Through Expedition 10, available for order at the NTRS. This one documents the many experiments that have been run in the early years of the ISS, 142 pages worth. When someone says they’re not doing anything up on the ISS, you can point to this and say “Wrong!”


For some folks, just reading about the space station in books is not enough, so SpaceStationSim offers a virtual experience, where players take control of the construction and management of a space station based on components of the ISS. From logistics to crew temperament management, there is plenty to keep you occupied. It has received decent reviews, and was featured in the 2006 edition of NASA Spinoff magazine. It is quite thorough, and is great training for future system managers and people managers. Now at the v2.0 level, it’s more of a people game than I’m used to playing, such as Outpost, relying on your ability to balance skillsets and temperaments to gain the optimal crew for maximum efficiency. I do wonder though what a temper tantrum would be like on the station…


On the documentary movie side of things, there are several choices. An older one, from 2000,and so more focused on the early stages of assembly and how the ISS came about, is “Inside the Space Station” from the Discovery Channel. There’s a website with additional material as well. A more recent entry is the gorgeous IMAX movie Space Station from 2002. This one also has its own website with a variety of supplemental materials. Subsequent to these two there doesn’t seem to have really been any additional films made, except of course for the immense amount of material on NASA TV.

On-Line Resources

ISS Home Page – NASA:
ISS Home Page – ESA:
ISS Home Page – CSA:

ISS Education Kit – ESA
ISS Reference Guide
NASA Education Homepage
NASA Kid’s Club
PBS ISS Website
ISS Challenge

Update: Don’t forget to search NASA CORE (Central Operation of Resources for Educators) for more materials from NASA about the International Space Station, here

So as you can see, there is a fair amount of information out there about the International Space Station that can be used to educate a variety of audiences about the workings of the ISS. Next time around in Teacher Tools for the High Frontier, we’re going to look at two kinds of high-velocity objects: orbital debris and asteroids, so be sure to stop back by.

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