DIY LEGO Rocket Garden


(Updated June 22 with Ares I-X.)
(Updated July 4 with scale converter and STS mod.)
(Updated July 7 with Sputnik R-7 and more STS info.)
(Updated July 15 with Vostok and Voskhod.)
(Updated July 28 with Soyuz and Long March 2F.)

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It started with the Saturn V, combined with a love of Skylab.

Like many people, I bought the original LEGO Saturn V kit. And that was going to be the end of it.

But then I happened to see that there were instructions online to convert it into a LEGO Skylab Saturn V. And, obviously, I need to have a LEGO Skylab Saturn V. So I bought a second LEGO Saturn V set. And that was going to be the end of it.

But then I built my two Saturn Vs. And because I replaced the top part of the second Saturn V with the Skylab mod, I had a Saturn V third-stage-and-Apollo stack left over. And the site where I got the instructions for modifying the Saturn V to Skylab configuration also had instructions on how to build a first stage for that S-IVB-and-Apollo stack to make a Saturn IB. So I did. And by that point, I knew it wasn’t going to be the end of it.

And that’s how I ended up with a LEGO rocket garden, all built to the same 1:110 scale as the LEGO Saturn V.

When I’ve posted pictures of my LEGO rocket garden, I frequently get questions about how I built it, so I thought I’d put together a “guide” based on my experiences. So here’s pretty much all I know about building a LEGO rocket garden.

Basically, all you need are pieces and instructions. (If you’re cleverer than I, you can do it without instructions, of course; but I’m writing for this for folks who, like me, aren’t cleverer than me.)

I buy my pieces at Bricklink. There are other places you can buy them, including Brickowl. Different people use different sites, so while I prefer Bricklink, you may prefer something else. Bricklink is a portal to individual vendors; it’s not so much a store as a storefront for sellers. When you make a purchase, you’ll frequently be placing multiple orders split between different stores that have different parts you need. Particularly with the bigger builds, the parts can get pricy over time, so I’ll spread my piece purchases out. Bricklink lets you set up multiple want lists, so I’ll have want lists set up for multiple projects at once. When I buy pieces I need for the thing I’m working on, I’ll add a few bucks extra for a future project, so it doesn’t hit all at once.

I haven’t done this yet personally, but someone more experienced than I read this post and pointed out you can also buy pieces directly from LEGO. Their shop doesn’t have the variety you can find on Bricklink, but it can be good if you need a large quantities of specific pieces.

Here’s where I found the instructions for the different builds, along with any hints I have from building them:

V2 – The instructions for this one are here. The site they’re on is a Google Drive with instructions for an incredibly wide collection of space vehicles. I was late finding it, so haven’t used it much. I thought I was going to be clever and make mine narrower because I didn’t like the way it narrows, but it looked bad. In the process, though, I replaced the nose with a simple 2x2x3 cone, and I do like that mode. You’ll need to add, I think three more 3024 pieces to go between the 4733 and the cone.

(Quick update, since I mentioned the Google Drive here. Another experienced builder, reading this, pointed me toward this Gitlab site with a very comprehensive collection of designs, which I had not seen before but will be revisiting. Update update: The creator of bricksin.space rightfully reminded me it’s a good resource. I have downloaded his books, but haven’t had a chance to use them yet.)

Juno – The instructions for this one are here. LEGO Ideas is a good, but inconsistent place to find instructions. The site’s primary purpose is for designers to post their ideas for people to vote on them so that they might become official sets. A few, but far from all, designers will share the instructions for their builds. The site will do nothing to help you find them, and in fact hides old ideas after they’ve expired. The designer, Eiffleman, includes decal or wrap designs here; I prefer to stick to just bricks. Also included here are the instructions for versions of the next three builds I did. I didn’t do the Juno until I’d done the other three, so I used instructions from elsewhere. (As a result, my Juno and Redstone fins don’t match, even though they’re the same in real life.)

Mercury Redstone – Instructions are here. In fact, it’s from a source where I got the designs for a good chunk of the collection. I mentioned Bricklink as a place to buy bricks; it also has a “Studio” section where you can find or share designs. A benefit to finding designs in the Gallery at Bricklink is that it’s very simple from there to create Wanted Lists for the parts and order them. There’s a designer in the gallery named legorockets who is based in my hometown of Huntsville, Alabama, and whose collection of designs includes my Mercury Redstone, Mercury Atlas, Gemini Titan and Falcon 9. This (or the Eiffleman version mentioned above) is a good one to start with; it and the Juno are probably the easiest and cheapest, and of the two the Mercury Redstone is arguably more iconic.

Mercury Atlas – I believe these are the instructions I used for this one. All all note here is the importance of paying attention to version numbers. legorockets has at least four versions of the Mercury Redstone, and they’re all still on the site. At least once I realized I’d ordered pieces using a different design version than the instructions I was using.

Gemini Titan – I think this is the version of the instructions I used for this one. Side note here: Remember at the beginning where I said all you need to create your own rocket garden is pieces and instructions, and you don’t actually need the instructions if you’re creative. Well, technically, you don’t actually need the pieces, either. There’s a branch of the hobby where, rather than building physical models, you just design them virtually, using LEGO Digital Designer or Studio. Designing virtually lets you figure out what you need before you start ordering parts, and creating a digital rocket garden has two advantages over a physical one – it’s a whole lot cheaper, and you can do things virtually you can’t do in real life. A model that would collapse under its own weight in real life works beautifully virtually. And, in the case of this Gemini Titan, you can use a piece that doesn’t exist in real life – a white barrel piece, shown at the base of the Gemini capsule. This same piece, or lack thereof, also shows up in my shuttle model at the base of the boosters. Some people will paint the pieces to the color they need; I find limiting yourself to the limits of LEGO is part of the charm of the hobby.

Saturn V – I built the official LEGO kit. Unfortunately, it’s discontinued now. You can still find them for sale on places like eBay, but be prepared to spend a lot more than the original cost. (It looks like some folks have reverse-engineered the set so you can order the parts and build it yourself; this may be one.)

Skylab Saturn V – I found the instructions here (design by Eiffleman, who did the Juno above) to modify the official LEGO Saturn V kit to the Skylab configuration. Unfortunately, that requires an official LEGO Saturn V kit, and, as noted above, it’s discontinued. If you don’t want to buy one second-hand, I noticed in working on this that legorockets has a Bricklink Gallery design for the full-up Skylab Saturn V, engines to shroud. It looks like you can probably source the parts cheaper than buying a secondhand Saturn V.

Saturn IB – I found the instructions here. As mentioned above, this was a mod using the pieces leftover from the Saturn V kit when I built the Skylab Saturn V, so it has the same issue with needing the discontinued set. If you want to build it from scratch, here are instructions from legorockets. I’ll throw in another side note here – Most of the bigger rockets have a lot of internal structure that you don’t see. Generally, when you get the part lists, they’ll have a color assigned to the pieces for that structure. If the pieces isn’t going to be visible, Bricklink will let you change the color to “(Not Applicable)” so that you can order the piece in the cheapest color, rather than paying extra to match a color that doesn’t matter. Many designers make this easy by picking an obviously weird color, like blue cylinders on a rocket that’s all black and white.

Space Shuttle – Since I originally posted this, KingsKnight has created an improved version; the instructions for which are on sale at Rebrickable for $15. You can probably still find the old instructions for free, but I endorse buying the new ones both because KingsKnight has put a lot of time into this design and its worth the money, and because I’m pretty sure the new design can save you more than $15 in parts versus the old one.)

I found the instructions here for this design by KingsKnight. I used a part list from Bricklink Gallery to create an easy Wanted List. You can also find the instructions on the Google Drive mentioned in the V2 section, but I figured this would be a good time to mention the Bricks In Space group on Facebook, which is a great resource for general information. There’s also an r/legorockets subreddit on Reddit.  Since I built built my Saturns using official kits, this was the biggest project for which I had to source all the pieces. I started buying parts several projects ahead, and broke it into chunks – I did the Orbiter first, and then got serious about the boosters and then got serious about the ET. As designed, it’s a phenomenally expensive build because of some rare dark orange parts for the external tank. Some people buy other colors and paint them; some go with a “close enough” orange. I went with white, the way the tank looked for the first two launches, which not only matches the way the tank looks on the cover of my shuttle history book, Bold They Rise, but saved me maybe a couple of hundred dollars. Bricklink’s Wanted List makes it easy to filter the parts for a particular color (i.e. dark orange) and then bulk change them to a different color (i.e. white)


Update: At the suggestion of KingsKnight, I made a slight mod to my orbiter, replacing the front end of the wings with the distinctive black appearance of Columbia, making it more true to the STS-1 or -2 white external tank. (It’s a pretty simple change, and much more simple if you make it was your building instead of after you’re finished.)
Update Update: I recently came across a post where someone gave instructions for modding KingsKnight’s build to the exact appearance of any orbiter for *any shuttle launch.*

Falcon 9 – Instructions found here. Another one by legorockets. Side note here: Relying on other people’s instructions and parts lists, and letting Bricklink’s automated system find sellers for you, it’s easy to sink money into things you don’t care about. Case in point: My rocket garden centers around the history of human spaceflight, so I wanted to build the Crew Dragon configuration of Falcon 9. This design includes that, so I went with it. When I was buying the parts, I noticed that one order had a small number of parts and a big price tag. Upon inspecting it, I found it was because one of the fairing configurations used a rare, expensive part. I have no interest in building a fairing for the rocket, so I removed the part from my order, and saved about $18. My Atlas V had flames for the Starliner that were like $4 each. I’m displaying it as a full-up stack, so you’d never see the flames. Gone. This was the first build where I really noticed that; if I’d paid more attention, I could have saved even more. There were other fairing parts I could have struck, and this design has legs that are interchangeable for either a launch pad or drone ship configuration; I only needed the former. (I recently had met the designer online behind this version that has folding legs, but no Dragon, if you’d prefer to go that way.)

Atlas V – Instructions are here. This is the only one so far that I’ve paid for instructions for; it was the only one I could find that was proper Saturn V scale and included Starliner. They were on Rebrickable, where people can sell designs. I paid just over two bucks for the instructions, and it was totally worth it. I’ll take free instructions where they’re offered, of course, but people put real time and effort into coming up with these, and I don’t begrudge them at all making some money off that. A bit of jargon – Bricklink has a Gallery; Rebrickable has “MOCs.” MOCs? My Own Creations, as opposed to official LEGO designs. (Back when I was a kid, making your own creations was what you did with LEGOs, before they started becoming more like model kits. That said, I’m not really building my own creations now, so I can’t say anything.) A MOC is just a custom design; it’s still a MOC even if it’s someone else’s creation that you’re just building. More jargon – you’ll occasionally see AFOL. If you do, it’s Adult Fan of LEGO. Now you know.

Ares I-X – Design files are on the Google Drive site here, and on Facebook Bricks in Space. The design for the Ares I is by Sebastian Schoen, aka Moppe Stone. While the Studio files were available, instructions weren’t included, so I contacted the creator through the Bricks in Space FB group. I modified it to Ares I-X since I attended that launch and work with some team members; the mod mainly involved replacing orange pieces with white like with the Shuttle; but it also meant I could simplify things a little at the bottom of the upper stage.

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Sputnik, Vostok, Voskhod and Soyuz – Instructions are here. LEGO Ideas designer tech_niek submitted a Soyuz design for consideration to become a real set (which wasn’t chosen), and as a bonus included versions for an entire fleet of Soviet vehicles using the same approach – the launchers for Sputnik, Vostok and Voskhod, in addition to Soyuz. (The post also has instructions to mod them to the whitish appearance at launch caused by ice collecting on the rocket.) The upside is, it’s a great all-in-one approach to the highlights of Soviet launcher history, (Though I’d be lying if I said I didn’t hear the siren call of building N1 and Buran someday, designs for both of which exist.) The downside is, it’s a design optimized for being created as an official set, versus sourcing parts on your own, particularly if you’re doing the entire fleet. The Sputnik R-7 uses six of this part; the others use even more. Currently, no Bricklink seller in the US has more than five in stock, which means shipping is going to drive the price up; and the Soyuz uses an orange version that is even more rare. (The design also leaves a gap between the boosters and the core that is very visible at some angles, FWIW.)

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Long March 2F – Instructions are here. Like the Ares I-X, this one is by Sebastian Schön. If I recall correctly, if you use the .io file for ordering from Bricklink, you’ll need to reduce the part counts in half – his instructions show the elements assembled and in separate close-ups, so the file includes parts for both versions. This is a good intermediate build, since the .io file doesn’t include step-by-step instructions, but it’s relatively easy to figure out, particularly if you’ve built a few rockets before this.

Space Stations and Other Things

In addition to my 1:110-scale rocket garden, I’ve also built a couple of builds to accompany the official LEGO Space Station kit, which is roughly 1:220 scale, about half the Saturn V. I started with a 1:220 Skylab found in the Facebook Bricks in Space files; it was fascinating to see the two stations in scale with each other. The visiting vehicles that come with the Space Station kit are out of scale with the ISS, and people have designed replacements for those. The space shuttle, in particular, struck me as bad, so I used a design from those Files for a properly-scaled 1:220 Space Shuttle. Like the Long March 2F, I didn’t have step-by-step instructions; I had exterior pictures and a list of parts and had to figure out how it went together from there, but this one was more challenging than the Long March was. It took a while, but it was rewarding. (As an added bonus, it meant that I could create in LEGO the planned-but-never-flown Shuttle-Skylab rendezvous mission.)

I’ve done one true “MOC” – my own creation – the upper stage of NASA’s new SLS rocket deploying a CubeSat. It’s not as accurate to scale or as elegant, but I did it, and it was a good first step. If you’re interested in creating your own design to Saturn V or ISS (or any other scale), here’s a useful tool for converting real-world measurements to LEGO measurements.

I’ll update this as I add to the rocket garden (I’ve already started the next rocket). If you have any questions, leave a comment or find me on Twitter. Or, better yet, look up the Facebook or Reddit groups and join the conversation!

I hope this helps, and happy building!

Greetings From The Future!


Dear younger David:

Greetings from The Future! Well, the future for you, the present for me. Although, actually, I’m writing this post one day and post-dating it to publish another, so kind of the future for me, too. I know that means nothing to you, but we’ll get back to that.

So our dad just picked up a paperback copy of the Arthur C. Clarke novel 2010: Odyssey Two.which, not so coincidentally, happens to be the year that I’m writing this from.

If I recall, you haven’t yet seen either of the movies, but you’ve made a rather impressive start for an elementary school student at reading 2001: A Space Odyssey. Be proud, it’s a tough book.

It’s also, it turns out, utterly unreliable. From where you’re sitting, in the early 80s, and being an elementary school student, and an overly optimistic one at that, you don’t yet have any concept that there’s is no way we’re going to have lunar bases or interplanetary missions by 2001.

Sadly, here in 2010, it’s no better. The Leonov spacecraft remains as far out of reach today as the Discovery was in 2001. No missions to Jupiter, I’m afraid. Or Mars. Or even the moon. We’re even about to stop flying the space shuttle, something that will become more imaginable to you in two or three years, I’m afraid. The future of NASA is rather wide-open right now. Which is not necessarily a bad thing — there are a few certainties, but that means there’s a lot of possibilities.

There were some things Clarke got right. There were even some interesting things he got wrong. That joint U.S.-U.S.S.R. mission in 2010? The fall of the Soviet Union is closer in time to you than it is to me. Practically just around the corner, and the great futurist couldn’t see it. Politics are even more unpredictable than science, it appears.

None of that is to say that there haven’t been huge leaps forward in technology in the years between us. It’s just not in the way you would hope. There’s a guy out there named Steve Jobs. I would tell you to read about him, but, to be honest, I don’t remember now how you would do that. You won’t have the internet for years. You don’t even have Wired magazine. Looking back, it’s such a different world that it’s hard to imagine. Anyway, point being, computers are going to do things you can’t even imagine. And, get this, the most amazing part of life in 2010 is the telephone. Yeah, I know, just hear me out. OK, imagine your telephone. Now, imagine there was no cord on it. Now imagine it was smaller. Now imagine it could play games and take pictures and make you as close as human beings can come to omniscient.

But if you’re like me, and, pretty much by definition, you are, all the little ways life is better are only consolations against the future that didn’t happen — the leaps and bounds in personal technology are nice, but you were hoping for leaps and bounds through the solar system.

There’s hope. Last week, this company called SpaceX put a capsule in orbit and brought it back down. No people on it, but it’s a vehicle that could carry people. On the one hand, it doesn’t compare to Apollo, decades ago. Or even Mercury, yet. But it’s a private company doing it. It’s a huge step closer to people like us making it into space, and its a huge step closer to people making money in space. And when there’s money to be made in space, there’s going to be money spent getting into space. And when that happens, space is going to open up like never before. So maybe it’s not what you were hoping for. But it is cool, trust me. And, hey, you can trust me — after all, I’m kind of an expert, thanks to … but that would be telling.

And, in the meantime, there will be more Star Wars movies. But, then, you’ll have to wait a long time, and they really won’t be worth it. So never mind. But, hey, I’m about to go see the new Tron movie in a few days. That’s gotta be worth something, right?

Take care. Have fun. Hug your grandmother for me.

David

Floored Again


I wrote a post a while back about how Skylab’s distinctive triangle-grid floor pattern continues to resurface in spacecraft design as NASA works on new vehicles and concepts.

treadmill on triangular Skylab floor

Scientist-astronaut Bill Thornton demonstrates a treadmill designed for the Skylab 4 crew in a mock-up of the space station. Skylab's distinctive triangular grid floor can be seen. Photo Credit: NASA

Today, I was looking at pictures from the recovery of the SpaceX Dragon capsule that orbited Earth yesterday, and saw this:

dragon floor

Mystery "Secret Payload" aboard the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft, with spacecraft floor visible. Photo from collectSPACE.com.

I have no idea how Dragon ended up with a triangular floor pattern, or what purpose it serves on the spacecraft. From the picture, it looks like it’s modified from the Skylab version, with a hard surface below the grid instead of just being open. But nonetheless, there it is — a little bit of Skylab was in orbit again yesterday. This makes me happy.

For the source of the picture, and to find out what was in the secret payload, visit collectSPACE.com. And, of course, to learn more about the awesomeness of Skylab, read Homesteading Space,co-authored with astronauts Owen Garriott and Joe Kerwin.