Getting to space: it ain’t easy – each kilogram needs an estimated 32,900,000 joules of energy just to reach low Earth orbit.


The cost associated with this energy is enormous, so every kilogram counts. Costs have been dropping over time – 2020's Falcon Heavy launch cost $950/kg (£685/kg), whereas the 1981 Space Shuttle launch cost a whopping $85,216/kg (£61,467/kg approx) – but space agencies still work hard to keep the mass of their spacecraft to an absolute minimum.

Despite this hurdle, humans have launched vehicle after vehicle through the atmosphere and into space.

But which is heaviest? These are the spacecraft with the largest mass to have flown in Earth’s orbit and beyond.

10. Salyut 1

Top 10: Heaviest spacecraft - Salyut 1 © Shutterstock

Russian space station

In service: 1971

Weight: 18,900kg

9. ATV (Automated Transfer Vehicle)

Top 10: Heaviest spacecraft - ATV © NASA/ESA

European Space Agency cargo spacecraft

In service: 2008–2014

Weight: 19,357kg

8. Salyut 7

Top 10: Heaviest spacecraft - Salyut 7 © Alamy

Russian space station

In service: 1982–1991

Weight: 19,824kg

7. Tianhe core module

Top 10: Heaviest spacecraft - Tianhe core module © Alamy

Cornerstone of Chinese Tiangong space station

In service: April 2021-present

Weight: 22,000kg

6. Apollo Command and Service Module

Top 10: Heaviest spacecraft - Apollo Command and Service Module © Getty Images

US lunar spacecraft

In service: 1968–1975

Weight: 28,800kg

5. Skylab

Top 10: Heaviest spacecraft - Skylab © Getty Images

US space station

In service: 1973–1979

Weight: 77,000kg

4. Buran

Top 10: Heaviest spacecraft - Buran © Shutterstock

Russian uncrewed spaceplane

In service: 1988

Weight: 105,000kg (Orbiter vehicle mass)

3. Space Shuttle

Top 10: Heaviest spacecraft - Space Shuttle © NASA/JPL

US orbiter vehicle

In service: 1981-2011

Weight: 110,000kg (Gross lift-off mass of Endeavour)

2. Mir

Top 10: Heaviest spacecraft - Mir © NASA/JPL

Russian space station

In service: 1986-2001

Weight: 140,000kg

1. International Space Station

Top 10: Heaviest spacecraft - International Space Station

Space station, made of 16 pressurised modules

In service: 1998-present

Weight: 419,725kg (2011 size)

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Thomas Ling
Thomas LingDigital editor, BBC Science Focus

Thomas is Digital editor at BBC Science Focus. Writing about everything from cosmology to anthropology, he specialises in the latest psychology, health and neuroscience discoveries. Thomas has a Masters degree (distinction) in Magazine Journalism from the University of Sheffield and has written for Men’s Health, Vice and Radio Times. He has been shortlisted as the New Digital Talent of the Year at the national magazine Professional Publishers Association (PPA) awards. Also working in academia, Thomas has lectured on the topic of journalism to undergraduate and postgraduate students at The University of Sheffield.