Thursday, June 4, 2015

Lego in Spaaaace

Some of my very favourite Lego sets are ones based on real-world space-stuff. Indeed throughout my childhood my dream Lego set was one the space shuttles; and I had no lack of sets to choose from, to date there have been at least fifteen different Lego representations of the space shuttles! My dream came true in 2010, when I decided to get a newly released set, what I think is the best model of a space shuttle Lego ever made (and indeed one of the best Lego sets outright), 10213 Shuttle Adventure.

This is by far the most detailed and accurate Lego model of the shuttle, one of just four that includes the fuel tanks and booster rockets. In a perhaps ironic reflection of the problems in the real shuttle program, there were design issues with the fuel tank, prompting Lego to reissue a tweaked version of the set in 2011, 20131 Shuttle Expedition.

This set is a thing of beauty, but it's just one of many wonderful Lego sets based on real space science. Continue below for a look back at Lego's long-time fascination with space.

Space has been a subject for Lego sets almost as long as Lego has existed, starting with the 1964 set 801 Space Rocket.

It was almost a decade before Lego returned to space, and this time the rocket got a launch pad and support vehicle, in 1973's 358 Rocket Base. This was followed by 1976's moon landing set, released as 367 in Europe, and 565 in the US - This set featured the first Lego astronauts, in this instance brick built figures.

Space quickly became a more fanciful place for Lego play, with the Classic Space sets that followed soon after, and the more extravagant sci-fi themes which have regularly popped up ever since. But Lego has always had room for real space too, and perhaps the most realistic sets came in 2003's Discovery range, which gave us a wealth of sets, including two space shuttles: 7470 Space Shuttle Discovery was (prior to the release of the sets at the top of the page) the most accurate model of a shuttle released. Another smaller shuttle came in 7467 International Space Station, a charming tiny rendition of the space station, which remains a personal favourite.

A little further from Earth the theme explored the Apollo missions with two sets, a big minifigure scale model of the lander in 10029 Lunar Lander, and an overview of the lunar missions in 7468 Saturn V Moon Mission, which included the eponymous rocket, plus all the stages of the lunar lander and orbiter, and a lunar buggy!

The same sort of detail and mission overview approach was used to bring to life the then current Mars missions, the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity. 7469 Mission To Mars included the Delta II rocket, a rover, and the Mars Odyssey satellite, while the much larger and mostly Technic built 7471 Mars Exploration Rover gave us one of the rovers.

Technic also brought us 8480 Space Shuttle in 1996, an impressive rendition of the shuttle, which featured a fiber optic lighting system and a motorised robotic arm. Compared to modern Technic sets it's a bit on the see-through side, but despite its hollow wings it retains all the character of the shuttle, and is also the biggest Lego model of the vehicle.

It was however the minifigure scale shuttles that always got my attention, and they first arrived in 1990 with the Town set 1682 Space Shuttle Launch, including a shuttle complete with fuel tank and boosters with a lovely red launch tower.

Shuttles have been a pretty regular subject of Town and City sets ever since, with that first set quickly followed by 1992's 6346 Shuttle Launching Crew, which had the shuttle being transported on a truck.

The red launch tower returned in 1995 with 6339 Shuttle Launch Pad, including the crawler to move the shuttle into place at the tower. I think this remains the most complete shuttle launch playset, with everything you need to recreate the start of a shuttle mission.

This time however the shuttle wasn't on it's own, this was part of a Town sub-theme, Launch Command. The first of several real-space inspired Town and City sub-themes, this first range included a second shuttle being transported by plane, in 6544 Shuttle Transcon 2, a little moon buggy in 6516 Moon Walker and various support vehicles in 6336 Launch Response Unit and 6614 Launch Evac 1.

Space activity in the Lego Town resumed in 1999 with the Space Port theme, which featured no less than fifteen different sets! Once again the space shuttle was the headline set, featured in 6456 Mission Control, both this and the smaller rocket set, 6454 Countdown Corner, included a large rocket engine brick with light and sound features, and a modular building style meaning the vehicles could be reconfigured.

Another of the larger sets from the Space Port range is the astronaut training facility, 6455 Space Simulation Station, which features a centrifuge and space simulator.

Other sets in the range focus on support craft, small space vehicles, and scientists doing space experiments. Highlights include the charming 6452 Mini Rocket Launcher and neat little 6458 Satellite with Astronaut.

In the 2011 City Space theme the red launch tower returned, but this time a large rocket took the place on the launch pad, in 3368 Space Centre.

Not leave out the shuttle, it still appeared in a smaller set, 3367 Space Shuttle, now featuring a large molded cockpit.

There were just two other sets in this range, a neat mini rocket launch site, in 3366 Satellite Launch Pad, and another vehicle for explorers on the moon in 3365 Space Moon Buggy.

The most recent City range, named Space Port once again, came out just this year (2015). The shuttle once more takes top billing, in 60080 Spaceport, which features the full launch assembly and crawler, but no tower this time.

Other sets in the range include a strange two-tailed small shuttle in 60078 Utility Shuttle, as well as 60079 Training Jet Transporter, a character pack 60077 Space Starter Set, and another moon-buggy type vehicle in 30315.

As you can see, while many of these Town and City sets have been grounded in real space subjects, they have also sometimes taken more creative routes to deliver more play focused sets. In recent years though there has also been a new wave of more realistic mission specific sets, thanks to the user submitted Lego Ideas platform. The second ever Lego Ideas set, back in 2012 when it was called Lego Cuusoo, was 21101 Hayabusa, a Japanese spacecraft which retrieved a sample of asteroid dust - The set comes complete with a section of the asteroid to display the vehicle above.

Another Cuusoo set, from 2014, saw the latest generation of Mars rover transformer into Lego, and 21104 NASA Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity Rover was designed by no less than one of the engineers that worked on the real rover!

Later in 2014, by the time of the Lego Ideas rebrand, 21110 Research Institute also made sure to include a little Lego astronomer in the mixed band of scientists featured in the set.

Meanwhile, real scientists in real space also play with Lego! Back in 2012 a payload of Lego was sent up to the International Space Station, where astronaut Satoshi Furukawa was then able to build this impressive model of the station.

Unfortunately the Lego station wasn't allowed to remain floating inside the real one, as Lego plastic is too flammable, so it had to be safely stowed away again shortly after being built. Not to worry though, as Lego is going much further into space! In 2011 the Juno mission took off, heading to Jupiter (it will arrive next year); on board there are three Lego minifigures, the Roman god Jupiter, his wife Juno, and Galileo Galilei, all specially made from aluminium to make them fit for the mission.

With the latest wave of City space sets just out, and new proposals for real-space themed sets popping up on Lego Ideas pretty regularly, I think we can look forward to many more years of space Lego to come.

Thanks to space-ship designer Mark Rademaker for inspiring me to put this together with an off-hand tweet! Among Mark's many creations is the IXS Enterprise, a concept for a warp ship NASA might hope to build some day, based on ideas about warp travel currently being researched. And naturally there is already a Lego Ideas project to have the IXS Enterprise warp into Lego form!

All credit as well to the invaluable Brickset and Brickpedia, and all the nice eBay sellers who were good enough to take photos of some of the sets pictured above.


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