Saturday, January 11, 2014

Soaring Into Space, On Wings of Polystyrene

Before the space shuttle concept was finalized, the model companies began planning their kits. This was typical of an industry that had been at the forefront of pushing "the final frontier" to the public. Even before the "space race" began in earnest, the model companies were there, selling their interpretations of what spaceships should look like. Plastic model companies like Strombecker, Lindberg and Revell were producing kits of winged spacecraft that looked logical. Model rocket companies such as Estes were producing winged spacecraft that went aloft like rockets and glided back to earth. The idea of spacecraft being nothing more than an evolution of aircraft seemed a natural one, a progression.
The first true manned spacecraft were disappointing to many, returning to Earth via parachute, so the idea of real winged spacecraft was exciting.
The idea of the shuttle was barely new when what was probably the first kit appeared. This was a flying model rocket by Centuri, which first saw the light of day in 1971. 

The original Centuri Space Shuttle, from 1971
Image courtesy

Many people like to point to the Aurora (and similar Airfix) model of the Pan American Space Clipper "Orion", from the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey", as the first realistic shuttle like spacecraft. Like those earlier concepts, though, it was rooted in fiction or ideas. The Centuri Space Shuttle kit of 1971 was based on the initial ideas proposed by NASA, and namely Max Faget. It was a "DC-3" derived design, and proved to be a popular kit.
The Centuri model borrowed heavily from this,
though using a modified version of a later booster design
Image courtesy NASA..

By the time the Centuri kit hit the market, though, it was becoming less clear that would be the approved design. During the summer of 1972, the final "stage and a half" design was selected, the proposal by North American Rockwell, and soon the shuttle's design would be set. 
In the meantime, the Centuri kit continued to sell, finally dropping from their catalog in 1981, the year  the real shuttle would finally fly.
There would be a few years before another company would produce a kit of the final design. There had been rumors of limited production models being made during that time, apparently very limited and somewhat exotic. One rumor I heard for a couple of years was that a Japanese company made a small fiberglass and resin model orbiter based upon the early North American design, the one that would lead to the actual orbiter. From what I remember of the story, the model would have been about 1/120 scale, around a 1 foot / 30 cm in length, and was basically devoid of detail. To this date, I have not been able to confirm the existence of this ethereal model. 
I can say with certainty, though, that the first real shuttle stack would become available in 1976, and like the Centuri kit, it, too, was a flyer. This was the Estes kit, which scaled out to be 1/162. Its first production run carried the early paint scheme that NASA and Rockwell showed not just in their publicity art, but even as far as including on an early set of drawings.

The Estes model was the first to show the final orbiter design, along with what was pretty close to the final ET and SRB design as well. I only saw one of the early kits built in 1976, and even then, that build wasn't very good (I would later see lovely models built from this kit).

Estes 1976 catalog cover.
Image courtesy
There were compromises with the Estes kit. It had out of scale wings, to allow better gliding flight. The SRB's had inserts that carried large fins to assist in boost phase. I'm sure that someone took this kit and produced a scale model out of it. I can find no evidence of that happening, however.
Which is fine, as the plastic model manufacturers were readying dies to release kits of their own.
In late 1977, the first wave of plastic space shuttle kits started appearing. First amongst these was Revell, which chose the practical scale of 1/144 for its first kits. Three kits appeared simultaneously; an orbiter alone, the orbiter and 747, and the complete stack. A short time later, Revell released a large 1/72 orbiter. The markings and paint scheme were for the Enterprise and Kitty Hawk on the earlier, smaller kits.
Monogram joined in the fray with a little 1/200 snap together orbiter Enterprise, which was released in early 1978.
A short time later, Entex released a kit of their own, which in some ways was superior, having better nose detail (though the nose profile is somewhat chunky). 
When you compared these kits, one thing really stood out. Entex had much better detail on the nose, even if it was somewhat misshapen. Only the later Airfix 1/144 would be better. Where did the two American companies go wrong?
It appears that the two American companies began tooling their models long before, possibly as early as 1975. One of the first set of drawing released of the final design was the following, dated June of 1974 - 

There are a lot of details that are not finalized in this drawing. Notable is the nose detail, and how the upper RCS (Reaction Control System) thrusters are beneath doors. Revell appears to have simply hedged their bets and left the nose fairly blank. There is one detail in this drawing that leads me to suspect that the Monogram Snap-Tite orbiter is actually from older tooling, and it is that diagonal seam that runs around the entire nose just ahead of the cockpit. This, and the very early design for the ESA "Space Lab" included in that kit lead me to suspect that this model was tooled first. 

Could this be from the oldest set of dies for a model shuttle?
The Entex and Airfix kits came next, and quite probably in that order. They seem to have based their kits upon this later drawing, from 1977 (and I suspect was actually made in late 1976) - 

There are still some details yet to appear, but that was pretty close to the final appearance of the space shuttle.
More plastic model shuttles would appear; Monogram would produce a 1/72 orbiter in 1979, and followed it a few years later with a huge 1/72 stack. Tamiya produced what is arguably the best shuttle orbiter period, in 1/100. Revell/Crown produced 1/288 kits. Hasegawa, and then Lindberg, produced 1/200 models. A small 1/400 Heller model would appear in the late 1990's and an unusual 1/400 stack that appeared in some science project kits showed up around 2005. More flying models would be made as well. Amazingly, most of the plastic kits are still in production; the Entex kit is now being produced by Minicraft, and the 1/288 kits went to Academy. Monogram and Revell merged in the 1980's, so their kits are still being turned out, though under the Revell moniker.
There are days when I can't help but wonder at how many of these I've built personally, and how they helped to inspire a generation of space dreamers.

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