How big is the International Space Station?
Last Updated: October 9, 2022
Today, many of us have our eyes set on space, on other planets, including our neighbor Mars.
But space travel and space habitation include many dangers known and unknown. Before we send humans that far into space for that long, we want to make sure that they will be as safe as possible. How can we best prepare them for that trip?
By living in space! We’ve had continuous human habitation in space since November 2000. Not on another body in space, but in orbit around Earth on the International Space Station (ISS). But how big should a space station be to house multiple astronauts and provide laboratories to study life in space?
A Brief History of Space Stations
The Russian Salyut 1 was the first in 1971 at 20 meters/ 66 feet long and 4 meters/ 13 feet across (about as long as a semi-truck and about five steps across).
The first American space station was Skylab in 1973-1974 due to a decaying orbit. Skylab measurements:
- 25.1 m/ 82 ft long (about 3 London buses long)
- 17 m/ 56 ft wide (about as wide as a typical movie theater screen)
- 11.1 m/ 36.3 ft with the telescope mount (about as tall as a telephone pole)
Mir was the first modular space station, meaning it was built in parts that were sent up separately and attached together in space over time. The first module was sent up in 1986, with construction continuing for a decade and it was in operation through 2001. It was the first continuously inhabited long-term research station in Earth’s orbit. Its final measurements:
- Approximately 62 ft long (about as long as a semi-truck)
- 102 ft wide (as long as a blue whale)
- 90 ft high (as tall as a 9-story building)
The International Space Station
But then a new idea formed: international collaboration in the pursuit of space research, spreading the costs and resources across multiple nations for the betterment of science and humankind. In September 1993, the U.S. and Russia, former Space Race rivals, announced plans for a joint space station program that would eventually become the International Space Station.
The first module, a Russian contribution called Zarya launched on November 20th, 1988 on an autonomous Russian rocket. Two weeks later, the NASA module, Unity, was launched via Space Shuttle flight STS-88 with astronauts who connected it to Zarya. Infrastructure, equipment, computers, instruments, and another module, Zvezda, joined them over the course of two years before the first resident crew came up in November 2000.
We have continued adding modules, particularly as new countries have joined in. Since that first resident crew, human occupation of the ISS has been continuous, with usually about 7 people aboard the station at any given time, but 13 is the current record number of humans in space together.
So what does it look like today, in 2022?
The ISS orbits around the Earth at an average height of about 254 miles (408 kilometres).
The size of the International Space Station
Today, the International Space Station is a collaboration between 15 countries across 5 different space agencies:
- The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
- The European Space Agency (ESA)
- The Canadian Space Agency (CSA)
- The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)
- The Russian Federal Space Agency ROSKOSMOS)
The International Space Station is now a fairly recognizable object with its two arrays of solar panels on either side connected to a series of modules in the middle.
The ISS is about 109 m/ 357 feet wide by 73 m/ 240 feet long, approximately the same width as an American football field from end zone to end zone and 1 and half times the length of a football field going from sideline to sideline. For another comparison, the Statue of Liberty is 92.96 m/ 305 ft tall and a Boeing 747 is 70.71 m/ 232 feet long.
The living and working areas of the station are comparable to a six-bedroom house. The station features six sleeping areas, 2 bathrooms, a gym area, lab space, and a 360-degree view bay window called the cupola.
We tend to split the station into two segments: the Russian Orbital Sector (ROS) and the US Orbital Sector (USOS). The USOS contains segments from CSA, ESA, and JAXA. Some of the structural components that have been installed, updated, and repaired over the course of the ISS’s lifetime include:
- Solar panels: 2 massive arrays of solar panels that power the station
- Four solar arrays on either side
- Each of the eight solar arrays is 112 feet long by 39 feet wide (as tall as an 11 story building and as wide as a full-sized school bus is long)
- The Integrated Truss Structure:
- 11 triangular trusses/ beams that support the different components, holding them all together
- The”backbone” of the components and the solar panels
- Trusses range from 3.37m/ 11 ft to 18.3 m/ 60 ft (from a decent-sized alligator to a semi-truck)
- Docking adapters and systems that connect ships to the station and parts of the station to each other
- External Stowage Platforms (ESP): external modules that can hold spare parts, also known as orbital replacement units (ORUs), for the space station
- The Mobile Base System (MBS) (launched 2002):
- A platform that rides on rails along the length of the station’s main truss for Canadarm2 and Dextre robotic arms, allowing them to reach all parts of the USOS
Many of these structural components are not pressurized meaning access requires a space suit.
The ISS is just as big as an American football field. Image Credit: NASA
The size of the 16 ISS modules
The ISS is made up of 16 pressurized modules. Below are the modules of the ISS and prominent components of the ISS in chronological order of launch. All measurements are approximate and diameter dimensions are used as modules are cylindrical.
Zarya (Russia; launched 1998)
- As the Functional Cargo Block (FCB), it provided power, communications, and altitude control functions during the early stages of assembly
- Primarily used for storage and propulsion today
- 12.56 m/ 41.2 ft long (about the size of a shipping container)
- 4.1 m/ 13 ft diameter (about the length of a Volkswagon Beetle)
Unity (NASA; launched 1998)
- Joins other parts of the station together with 6 “berthing” locations
- Crews often eat meals here
- 5.5 m/ 18 ft long
- 4.3 m / 14 ft diameter (about two average NBA players)
Zvezda Service Module (Russia; launched in 2000)
- Houses life support systems, living quarters for two crew members
- Structural and functional center of the ROS
- Crews meet here if there is an emergency
- 13.1 m/ 43 ft long (a little shorter than the Hollywood sign letters)
- 4.2 m/ 14 ft diameter
Destiny Laboratory Module/ the U.S. Lab (NASA; launched 2001)
- Primary operating facility for U.S. research payloads
- Pressurized facility for experiments in medicine, engineering, biotechnology, physics, materials science, and Earth science
- 9.2 m/ 30 ft long (about 2 cars long)
- 4.3 m/ 14 ft diameter
Quest (NASA; launched 2001)
- A.k.a. the Joint Airlock
- A dual door system that allows Extravehicular Activity (EVA), activities in space around the station in a spacesuit without depressurizing the station
- Despite differences between the Russian and American space suits, both suits could be used in Quest.
- Crew airlock for astronauts to exit the station
- An equipment airlock for suit storage and an area where astronauts can “camp out” to repressurize after an EVA
- 5.5 m/ 18 ft long
- 4 m/ 13.1 ft diameter
Harmony/Node 2 (NASA; launched 2007)
- Connects the laboratory modules of the United States, Europe, and Japan
- Serves as a “utility hub”, providing:
- Air, water, electrical power, and data and video exchange with the ground and the rest of the ISS
- Sleeping cabins for four of the crew
- 7.2 m/ 24 ft long (as long as a two-car garage)
- 4.4 m/ 14 ft diameter (about two average NBA players)
Columbus orbital facility (ESA; launched 2008)
- Multifunction laboratory specializing in fluid physics, materials science, and life sciences research
- 7 m/ 23 ft long
- 4.5 m/ 15 ft diameter
Japanese Experiment Module/ Kibo (launched in stages between 2008-09)
- A complex of three modules
- The Experiment Logistics Module-Pressurized Section (ELM-PS): storage facility (4.21 m/ 13.8 ft long and 4.39 m/ 14.4 ft diameter)
- The Pressurized Module (PM): main facility for preparing and performing experiments (11.19 m/ 36.7 ft long and 4.39 m/ 14.4 ft diameter)
- The Exposed Facility (EF) allows experiments to be sent into space and then retrieved with their robotic arm/ JEM Remote Manipulator System (JEMRMS)
Poisk (Russia; launched 2009)
- An airlock used to store, service, and refurbish Russian Orlan suits and provides contingency entry for crew using the slightly bulkier American suits
- Also can be used for docking Russian spacecraft.
Tranquility/Node 3 (ESA/Italy/NASA; launched 2010)
- Third main node connecting parts of the station
- Contains environmental control systems, life support systems, a toilet, and exercise equipment
- 6.7 m/ 22 ft long (a small/ mini school bus)
- 4.5 m/ 14.7 ft diameter
- Observation window made up of seven smaller windows totaling a diameter of 80 cm/ 31 in used to conduct experiments, dockings, and amazing observations of Earth
- Technically within Tranquility but listed as its own module
Rassvet with MLM outfittings (Russia; launched 2010)
- A.k.a. the Mini-Research Module 1 and formerly known as the Docking Cargo Module (DCM)
- Primarily used for cargo storage and as a docking port for visiting spacecraft.
- 6 m/ 19.7 ft long (just under two kayaks laid end to end)
- 2.35 m/ 7.7 ft diameter (a little smaller than an average Christmas tree or a small adult surfboard)
Leonardo Permanent Multipurpose Module
- (ESA; launched for permanent residency in 2011, although it was used before that as the Multipurpose Logistics Module to bring cargo to and from the station):
- Primarily used for storage of spares, supplies, and waste on the ISS.
- Personal hygiene area for the astronauts who live in the US Orbital Segment
- 6.6 m/ 22 ft long
- 4.6 m/ 15.0 ft diameter (an average giraffe)
BEAM Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (private module launched 2016)
- Experimental expandable space station module developed by Bigelow Aerospace, under contract to NASA, for testing as a temporary module
- Not used on a regular basis by the crew, just monitored
- 4.01 m/ 13.2 ft long
- 3.23 m/ 10.6 ft diameter (a little bigger than a basketball hoop)
Nauka, Multipurpose Laboratory Module (Russia; launched 2021)
- A.k.a. the Multipurpose Laboratory Module-Upgrade (MLM-U)
- Used for a variety of purposes relating to laboratory activities
- 13 m/ 43 ft long (almost as tall as the Hollywood sign letters)
- 4.25 m/ 13.9 ft diameter
- The ERA is 11.3 m/ 37 ft long (a little taller than a utility pole)
Prichal docking module (Russia; launched 2021)
- 4-tonne (8,800 lb) ball-shaped module that will provide the Russian segment additional docking ports to receive Soyuz MS and Progress MS spacecraft
- 4.91 m/ 16.1 ft long
- 3.3 m/ 11 ft diameter (just bigger than a basketball hoop or a single-story building)
The ISS is made of 16 modules of different shapes and sizes.
Visit the ISS with Google Street View
Would you like to appreciate the size of the ISS with your own eyes? Unless you can actually go there yourself, the next best thing is to use Google’s handy tool that lets you tour the ISS from module to module with just your laptop or smartphone.
This football-field-sized research station in space with a 6-bedroom house for our astronauts is paving our future in space. Thanks to it, we have been able to test the technology, skills, and knowledge needed for long-term space habitation.
Due to the current situation with Russia and Ukraine, Russia’s future involvement in the ISS is uncertain, but they currently plan to continue operations until 2024. NASA has approved an extension of ISS operations through 2030 when we will refocus our human space explorations on returning to the moon, including a more permanent human presence on both the surface in stations in orbit around it. The remaining years of habitation on the ISS are helping us ensure the success of these missions which will help pave the way for us to go to Mars.
Written by Sarah Hoffschwelle
Sarah Hoffschwelle is a freelance writer who covers a combination of topics including astronomy, general science and STEM, self-development, art, and societal commentary. In the past, Sarah worked in educational nonprofits providing free-choice learning experiences for audiences ages 2-99. As a lifelong space nerd, she loves sharing the universe with others through her words. She currently writes on Medium at https://medium.com/@sarah-marie and authors self-help and children’s books.
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