Sunday, March 27, 2011


Cloudy Again

Same old story, muchachos: it’s cloudy. It was clear all week, but as soon as the weekend arrived so did those fraking masses of airborne gray, scotching plans for a dark site expedition.

What do you, the committed amateur astronomer, do with your free hours when the sky won’t cooperate? There’s always the Cloudy Nights discussion groups for cloudy nights. Astromart too. Or you can catch up on your reading with the latest issue of Sky and Telescope. But what if you want to do something a little more tactile and involving, and know you shouldn’t amuse yourself by cleaning optics that don’t need to be cleaned?

What do I do when I can’t observe and the lovely Miss Dorothy and I don’t have something else planned? I have this blog and my other writing, of course, but once in a while, when that begins to feel a little too much like work, I engage in a pursuit you may find of interest. It’s been an abiding one for me.

I’m re-running the Space Race on Chaos Manor South’s dining room table.

Like most kids, boy kids anyhow, of my generation, the Baby Boom Generation, I loved glue-em-together plastic model kits. I’d assemble almost anything. I loved Aurora’s legendary Universal Monster kits. I did quite a few cars, too, mostly because my buddies, especially Wayne Lee, loved ‘em. Mainly, though, I focused on aircraft. And, most of all, the less plentiful but oh-so-interesting NASA spacecraft.

The first model kit I owned was one I didn’t put together. At four or five years old I didn’t have even the beginnings of the skills needed to assemble one of the old Strombecker Company’s complex models. But oh how their beautiful space station kit on the shelf in Sears’ toy department beckoned.

It didn’t matter that I didn’t understand exactly what it was, a model of Werner Von Braun’s “space wheel” space station featured in "Man in Space" on the old Disneyland TV show. To me it was a flying saucer, and like every other kid (and adult) in the 1950s I dang sure knew what that was. Eventually, Mama and I saw the theatrical version of the TV show (which also included "Man and the Moon" and "Mars and Beyond") at the Roxy, and I realized what the kit my Old Man had so painstakingly assembled was supposed to represent. That was fine, but I still called it my “flying saucer” and played with it till it fell to pieces and retired to that Valhalla inhabited by our long-lost and best-loved toys.

I didn’t get another space model till I was old enough to assemble one myself (barely) and spied an advertisement for the Science Service, who was a publisher of very good little paperback science books for kids on a variety of subjects. Mama and Daddy had got me a subscription to these books well before I could read; my first planisphere was bound into the Science Service’s Universe issue.

By the early sixties, my subscription had lapsed. I missed getting the little books, especially since I could actually read them now, and convinced Mama to re-up me. I really lucked out in that my desire for more Science Service books coincided with their new promotion. In addition to an update of Universe and another favorite, Man in Space, whose cover now featured a mock-up of an Apollo Lunar Excursion Module, what I got for the one thin dime I sent with my subscription blank was a model of the Mercury spacecraft in all its high-tech and futuristic glory (they later offered Gemini and Apollo for the same 10 cent fare).

Revell’s Project Mercury kit wasn’t much. It was small, only 1/48 scale, and looked kinda dreary, being made of haze-gray colored plastic. It would actually have looked pretty good if I’d painted it, but I couldn’t for my first “build up” of the kit—Mama believed the combination of me and Testor’s little bottles of enamel paint was a recipe for disaster.

My finished capsule didn’t look that great, no—it didn’t just lack paint, it was festooned with several glue-etched fingerprints—but I loved it. It was much more realistic than any of the toy space capsules down at Kress’ five and dime. It was a great toy to play with, me recreating Alan Shepard’s flight over and over, and I thought it also looked good on display on the dresser in my room. I wanted more.

And I got more, going from that humble spam-in-a-can capsule to the X-15 space plane, to the two-man Gemini, to the mighty Apollo-Saturn with lots of good stuff in between. While the products of my labors didn’t always turn out the way I hoped—then as now I had a problem with READ THE INSTRUCTIONS—many of my assembled kits were not bad. I’d matured from slamming one together in a single afternoon so I could play with the thing A.S.A.P., to taking my time, doing the assembly just right, and getting the spacecraft appropriately painted—when I could sneak those little bottles past Mama.

My space modeling career culminated one Christmas with the ultimate kit, Revell’s gigantic 1/96 scale Apollo-Saturn V which stood nearly four feet tall, included the Command, Service, and Lunar (Excursion) Modules from the company’s standard Apollo model, and looked just fantastic when I assembled it.

The experience was a great way to close out my space-modeling career. I still remember how excited I was to see that huge box under our skinny little tree at dawn on Christmas Morning. And how I enjoyed building it. My skills were pretty good by this time, 1969, and the kit was well thought-out. The first and second stages, for example, were made by forming thin plastic sheets into a tube. These sheets were printed in the correct colors, so my paint smuggling was kept to a minimum.

That was pretty much it for me and space modeling. After Apollo 11, the kits I craved began to disappear from the shelves as the public lost interest in Apollo, and Revell, AMT, Aurora, and the rest of the kit producers adjusted their offerings appropriately. By this time, high-school was winding down and I decided plastic model kits belonged in the past with (most of) the rest of my childhood obsessions, anyway.

But, suddenly, here I am with paint and glue again. Why did I revisit the art and craft of assembling models 40 years down the road? Partly because I was looking for a space-oriented something to occupy my free hours when I couldn’t observe, and partly because of middle-aged nostalgia for the pleasures of my youth (I am currently rereading all the Doc Savage novels). And nostalgia for the U.S. Space Program.

That’s hell, ain’t it? Feeling nostalgia for what was supposed to be man’s future. It’s the result of a time when the thrill of the final frontier is supposedly gone. An age when several Administrations have minimized the U.S. manned space program and the latest one has come close to eliminating it. The current crop of politicians ain’t stopping there, unfortunately. They are now preparing to cut back on unmanned missions as well; to the point where the future of unmanned exploration is in real jeopardy, too.

In addition to nostalgia for the sweet bird of youth, there had to be a spark to awaken my longing for the smell of glue and paint. That spark came one afternoon when Miss Dorothy and I were touring one of our favorite tourist destinations, the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville. As we usually do, we ended our visit with a stop at the Center’s extensive gift shop. I was browsing around as we picked up gifts for all and sundry, when what should I spy but my old pal the space-wheel. I picked up Glencoe Models’ reissue of the old Strombecker kit, gazed briefly at the beautiful and evocative cover painting, and was soon paying for the thing.

What I found when I finally began assembling the kit months later was that not only was space kit building relaxing fun, it was actually as EDUCATIONAL as I’d vainly tried to convince Mama it was all those years ago.

In the course of building Von Braun’s atomic-powered wonder, I had recourse to watch Disney’s excellent "Man in Space" show again (one of several DVD sets featuring Disneyland productions). That, in turn, led to me doing some reading and researching about the early days of Von Braun and his team and the birth of NASA. By the time my pretty space station was finished (alas, one of the cats soon tossed it off the top of the chiffarobe where I’d thought it would be safe), I knew a lot more about Von Braun’s early concepts and the beginnings of NASA than I had before.

While I’d always loved my completed kits, it was a whole other experience to finish up with a really good-looking, properly painted, glue-smear free result. In addition to paying (slightly) more attention to the instruction sheets, and having a little more patience and coordination, what’s helped my space models more than anything else has been the resources we now have available; not just a wealth of space books from publishers large and small, but DVDs and all the pictures and information brought by the Internet.

For a while, I was space model crazy again, doing an Apollo 11 LM, a small Saturn V (the big one is currently out of production), a Shuttle Orbiter, and a Vostok in quick succession one recent summer. Every time I finished a kit, I was much more knowledgeable about the spacecraft it depicted, down to the turbopump and engine level, than I had been before I began.

Since that summer, things have slowed down some on the modeling front. Another academic year at the University, a change of projects at work (I am now working on the U.S. Navy’s LPD program), and the vaunted Herschel Project mean I have less time to spend on my plastic playthings. But I have pressed on and have recently added Glencoe’s reissue Explorer I to my stable. Currently in process is a small but fairly well made Energia kit from Russia. I also have Revell’s famous “big Gemini” 1/24 scale capsule to look forward to—probably this summer when the storms begin to roll-in off the Gulf.

Does this sound interesting enough that you’d like to follow me into the world of glue and sprue (the plastic “trees” model parts are affixed to)? If so, the first step is finding a kit to build. We are in the age of the Internet, and there are plenty of online places to browse and buy from, but nothing beats the good old local hobby shop. Surprisingly, most cities still have one. I don’t suppose they sell much to kids, but there must be enough nostalgic Boomers around to keep ‘em hanging on.

Take a look at the aircraft section of the shop’s plastic model department, and you will likely find at least a few kits in our special area of interest. What do you pick? Choose one you find interesting or you may never finish it. You want a little challenge, but don’t overdo it the first time out. Stay with the old American brands. You’ll likely find a Revell easier to do than an import like a Tamiya, no matter how cool one of their models looks. Also stay away from “resin” kits in the beginning. These are usually issued by small concerns, are assembled using superglue rather than plastic cement, and are almost always more difficult to assemble than a mainstream styrene model.

Keep it fairly simple in the painting/detailing area as well. Yeah, I know you want to do an Apollo LM, but to do one even close to right, you’ll be dealing with lots of paint colors in small areas and doing things like applying gold foil to the ascent stage. A nice big Shuttle stack will be challenging without being overwhelming.

What else? You’ll need glue, of course. Get the stuff in the little tubes, just like you remember from The Day, but also purchase a bottle of liquid plastic cement for small parts and awkward places. Paint? If you know what’s required, get it, but chances are you will need to come back for that after doing some research.

You’ll need to equip yourself with a few other tools of the trade. You want to keep glue and paint off places where they shouldn’t go (like Chaos Manor South’s fancy-eating-room table), so get a small dropcloth. You will most assuredly need a sharp Exacto-type knife for trimming mold marks and such. Various sizes of paintbrushes will be required, with my inclination being to send you to an art supply store for brushes of higher quality than what you’ll get at the hobby shop. Rubber bands and paper clamps are handy for holding pieces together while glue dries. Don’t forget a full selection of sandpapers. The little kits of sandpaper at the hobby shop are much more expensive than sandpaper at Lowes or Home Depot, but are very convenient. Note that you can find many of these accessories prepackaged in kits from companies like Testors. You’ll want a place to keep all this stuff organized. A tackle box works fine, or you can get a “craft box” like the one I found in WallyWorld (Walmart, natch).

Then there is the airbrush question. You’ll usually spray rather than brush-paint larger pieces and assemblies, and an airbrush can potentially do a better paintjob than an aerosol can. One can also do detailed work. Should you buy an airbrush, then? How about a compressor? Invest in one or stick with propellant cans? Save airbrushing for later. At first, the little spray cans from the hobby shop will be good enough, maybe supplemented with Krylon Fusion (designed to paint plastic) spray-paint from Walmart.

If you do decide you want to airbrush, start with an inexpensive kit like the nice 30 dollar rig from Testors, and work your way up from there. Of course, the better your equipment, the better your results, just like in astrophotography, but if you’re like me, you no more aspire to seeing pictures of your completed kits in FineScale Modeler than you aspire to having your astro-images in the Gallery section of Sky and Telescope. Like Unk, you may just want to have fun, and one of the beauties of space modeling is that it is inexpensive. Not as expensive as amateur astronomy, at least.

Kit and supplies accumulated, where to begin? You begin with books and the Internet and maybe a DVD or two. Before you can duplicate a spacecraft, after all, you must know what it looks like in detail, including its paint scheme.

Print media can help. I especially favor the Apogee Space Books. Not only are they good sources of information and pictures, they are usually accompanied by CDs or DVDs with more pictures and video. I’ve also used Andrew Chaikin’s masterfully written and richly illustrated three-volume A Man on the Moon frequently. How about print resources for model building? The top of the heap is occupied by FineScale Modeler Magazine. It rarely has articles on or pictures of spacecraft, but there’s plenty on aircraft model building that is applicable to our interest, and lots of good tips for building any sort of plastic scale model.

Internet? There are hordes of sites devoted to modeling, and quite a few that focus on space models, including the excellent Starship Modeler website. But the numero uno Internet resource as far as I am concerned is the Yahoogroups space-modelers mailing list. There you will get your questions answered by folks who are very knowledgeable about both modeling and the space program, learn how talented modelers tackle kits, get news about new spacecraft models, and get pointed at excellent websites and other resources.

You may find DVDs, movies about the space program, helpful. Some I’ve used as reference are the rarely seen Moon Shot (from the book by Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton); Tom Hanks’ From the Earth to the Moon series from HBO; the blockbuster Apollo 13; and Discovery Channel’s too short, even at over four hours, but well done summing-up of the Space Race, When We Left Earth. Some of these, like Moon Shot, are documentaries, and modern DVD players’ still-frame capability will allow you to make excellent use of this footage. Be sure to have a look at the superb multi-DVD documentaries from Spacecraft Films, too.

You know what your spacecraft is supposed to look like; you’ve got the paint ready to go. Where do you begin? You begin by strategizing. Test fit the larger pieces (don’t remove small items from their sprues until you are ready to use them or you may have difficulty identifying them later) to see how assembly should go. Most of all, try to get some idea about how to paint the kit. Some parts will need to be painted before assembly. In other cases, it will be easier to paint something after the kit or at least a section of it is assembled. Have a plan in mind before you break out the glue.

Once you are ready to go, follow the instructions exactly (usually). The process is simple. Remove parts from their sprue tree. Trim/sand to remove the mark left where you removed it (I have better luck just bending back and forth than cutting from the sprue). Glue along the joint, all along the joint, but don’t use much glue; you don’t need gobs of the stuff, just a coating of one of the surfaces to be joined. Clamp the two pieces together with paper clamps or rubber band them together and let them dry for several hours. When dry, sand to remove evidence of the glued seam. Be careful when sanding that you do not sand-off details like engraved or raised lines. And just keep going…

Painting? Before plastic surfaces can be painted, they should at least be washed with detergent (dishwashing detergent) to remove traces of chemicals the manufacturer used to help the parts “release” from their molds. In some cases, depending on the colors to be used in the final finish, it may be wise to prime first. I just use flat spray paint, usually white, for this task. Go easy on the paint, whether spraying or brushing, using thin coats in multiple layers as necessary. I find it much easier and less messy to use acrylics for both brushing and spraying (with an airbrush; most spray cans are enamel) than oil-based paints.

The first time out, your finished kit will likely not look as good as you hoped nor as bad as you feared. I find my build-ups invariably look better the next day, but are never quite what I’d visualized. Don’t worry if your results are far from perfect, however. You gained skill, and will do better on the next one. You learned something—both about modeling and your “subject”—and, I hope, you had fun.

Nah, I don’t spend as much time on my space model kits as I’d like. Who has time for that? But when it is cloudy and I am otherwise unoccupied, you can bet your bippy there’s one on the dining room table so I can once again lose myself in not just the intricacies of glue and sprue, but in turbopumps, telemetry modules—and wonder.

Night of the Big Moon: I don’t know about your neighborhood, but round here in the Garden District folks were very excited about the recent SUPER-MOON. You will be proud of ol’ Unk. I didn’t mention to any of our neighbors, who were gathered in surprising numbers on their front lawns having a good time in the Moonlight, that this Moon wasn’t different enough in size from a “normal” Full Moon for them to notice the diff, even if last month’s full Moon were hung next to this month’s in the sky. All I know is everybody had a good time and some people who rarely do actually looked up at the night sky.

Next Time: Maybe Unk actually got to do some observing this weekend? Well, you never know; stranger things have happened.

Modeling Iowa Style:

He has done the Space Shuttle, unfortunatly there is no picture of it.
Doc Savage! You are a man after my own heart Rod! During down time I often pick up an old sci-fi paperback like the old Lensmen series from E.E. Doc Smith. And there has been a lot of down time this uber cloudy winter. Lately I have been "mining" Project Gutenberg on the net for old science fiction with some good results.
I am re (re-re-re) reading _Triplanetary_ right now. LOL!
You know of course of the wonderful NASA History Series Publications website? Tons of historical project history books and other stuff are posted online here. Many moons of lunchtime reading here.

Start with the "Project Histories, (SP-4200 Series)" section.

There there's also "Apollo Lunar Surface Journal":

-The Mad Hungarian
For those thinking of delving into space related models, don't forget to consider model rockets as well as static plastic models. There are several sources of scale kits of actual rockets, such as the Saturn V, Mercury Redstone and others in varying levels of detail and various scales (and various prices). They can range from a small scale $25 Dr. Zooch Saturn V to the $280 1/70 scale model of the same, which must be seen to be believed. Dr. Zooch probably has the greatest range of NASA space program rockets of anyone. They're in small scale, but look very good and, hey, they're only $25. Any of these models work both as static models and they fly well, too, for the most part.
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