Sunday, August 05, 2012


Space Summer Redux

Another birthday has come and gone, muchachos. I ain’t gonna say exactly which one, but you can probably figure that out. I will say it doesn’t feel much different from “39” or even “16,” which was how old I was that halcyon July of Apollo 11. My birthday comes on the seventeenth, the day after Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins set out.

What a birthday that was. Someday I’ll tell you about my birthday that July of 1969, but today I want to talk July 2012.  In one way the whole week was depressing. I didn’t catch even the briefest of brief mention of Apollo 11 on the dadgum cable news networks. Nor did I see a single film or special on the subject on any of the channels I thought might run one, Discovery, Science, History, etc., etc. Nada. Zip. Zilch. If any of them did play When We Left Earth, or Magnificent Desolation, or even Apollo 13, I sure couldn’t find it buried among the listings for American Pickers and Toddlers and Tiaras.

What did I expect? I dunno. Maybe just a little remembrance of that most monumental of events, even on an “off” anniversary, 43 years. But I didn’t let that spoil my week; I made it a space week, an Apollo week, anyway, no matter what the pinheads in charge of reality TV (is there any other kind anymore?) did. So it goes. Like somebody posted on Facebook the other day, “CERN announces the discovery of the Higgs Boson and the top story on Yahoo is about Justin Bieber having a hissy fit.” Sigh.

After finishing putting together the Navigation systems on LPD 23 and LPD 24, I was dang sure in need of a break, and took the whole week of 16 July off. As y’all already know, that’s the week I made my way down to the Chiefland Astronomy Village to clean up the remaining objects in The Herschel Project, but that didn’t happen until Wednesday the 18th, the day after my birthday; I had the whole glorious weekend and Monday and Tuesday to rest, relax, and think space.

“Yeah, OK, Unk, but what did you get, huh, what did you get?” Oh, the haul was good this year! I’d already got something from my daughter, Elizabeth, a framed poster of the famous Battlestar Galactica “Last Supper.” BSG, the new BSG, is one of my favorite SciFi shows of all time and I just love my poster.

Next up was from Miss Dorothy, Spacecraft Films’ Project Gemini three DVD set, which includes Andrew Chaikin’s outstanding documentary on this most overlooked chapter in the story of American spaceflight as well as hours of launch, onboard, and recovery footage from the Gemini missions.

If you’re as nuts about this stuff as your old Uncle, you’ve probably seen some of the Gemini films before, but I'll bet you ain’t seen everything on these three DVDs, and you have not seen it like this. In contrast to the grainy, scratched prints on the NASA DVD sets you find at places like BestBuy, this footage, most of it shot on 16mm film, is beautiful and some of it looks like it was shot yesterday. I was hypnotized watching the liftoffs of those mighty Titan II’s.

Somehow, someway, Miss Dorothy and her sister, Susan, who had stopped by to visit on her way home from Florida's Disney World, managed to drag me away from Project Gemini long enough to take me out to my current favorite local Mexican place, Las Cazuelas, for my birthday dinner Tuesday. What happened to my former favorite Possum Swamp Tex-Mex restaurant, El Giro's? It burned down on Christmas Eve last year, just hours after Miss Dorothy, her daughter Beth, Beth's husband, and I dined there. I miss it, but Las Cazuelas, while a little farther away, has noticeably better food than the reliable but basic El Giro’s.

It being MY SPECIAL DAY, I went hog wild, ordering the shrimp fajitas, which was wonderful, sizzling merrily in a slightly sweet sauce that was killer. Piles of fresh lettuce, salsa, guacamole, refried beans, tortillas, sour cream, and rice to go with it. El Yucateco and what Unk calls “Chupacabra sauce” (really Cholula) habanero hot sauces to put on it. And let us not forget the margaritas. What a fete it was! Oh, and Susan let slip it was my birthday, which resulted in me happily wearing the big blue sombrero and being serenaded with “Happy Birthday.”

And there were still more presents to come. Brother Danny, knowing my love for 60s-70s space toys, got me a cool one. It’s a reissue of a Multiple Plastics (MPC) Moon base set that is accompanied by a passel of astronauts and aliens produced with surviving molds from the glorious old Marx toy company. In addition to a somewhat odd looking Lunar Module, there’s Skylab, and what looks to me like a Minuteman III ICBM (!). It is all unbelievably garish and strange and I love it.

OH, yes, very good!
As y’all may recall, I’ve been recreating the space program on our dining room table by means of plastic scale models of spacecraft, “space modeling.” I’ve been so busy the last couple of years that I’d let that fall by the wayside, but I recently decided to take it up again, since I had such fun with it the last time around. Checking back into the space modeling Yahoogroups and websites, I found a lot of buzz about a book, Matt Irvine’s Creating Space, which is subtitled “The Story of the Space Age Told Through Models.”

Sounded good, and it was published by Apogee Books, whose volumes about real space hardware I’ve recommended here a time or three. I ordered a copy through Amazon (“Hey, Dorothy, guess what? You just got me another birthday present!), which somehow arrived the very afternoon of my big day. I was gobsmacked by Creating Space. This book lists and describes every “real space” model produced by anybody since the 40s, and is full of color pictures. I threw it in the 4Runner and spent many of my off-field hours at the Chiefland Astronomy Village with my nose buried in it.

My final gift was one I got myself at the hobby shop (yes, amazingly, we’ve still got a real one in addition to dumb old Hobby Lobby): the Monogram 1/32 Apollo Spacecraft kit. It is one cool model. Not only is it the largest CSM available, matching the scale of the famous Revell Vostok 3KA spacecraft (that I built some years ago), it has a fairly detailed interior that’s visible through clear plastic panels. And it is the Block 2 lunar-capable configuration. Most model kits mistakenly portray Apollo Block 1 spacecraft, which never got close to the Moon, being used for Earth orbit testing only. I bought the CSM a couple of weeks before my birthday, and hoped to make some progress before I left for Chiefland.

Odd but fun.
Not that this kit would be the only time I’ve done Apollo hardware in my space modeling career; Apollo models and me go back to before Eagle touched down. As I told y’all here, I got started with the ten-cent Revell kits the old Science Service offered if you would sign up for a subscription to their little books.  By means of a wily scheme that involved subscribing, buying a few books,  unsubscribing, and re-subscribing again, I was able to get the Revell Mercury, Gemini, and, finally, Apollo models.

The 1/96 scale Apollo Command Module/Service Module/LM kit was a good one and I wish it was still available. Mine turned out fairly well, if looking a little plain. Alas, following an incident where a bottle of black Testor’s enamel (do you remember those devilish little jars?) somehow got spilled on the carport floor, Mama banned model paints. I had to leave the kit white, the color it was molded in, but sitting on a stand that suspended the docked spacecraft over a nice-looking lunar landscape it looked dern good. You could even “undock” the models and display the LM as having touched down.

That was not the penultimate Apollo kit of my youth, however. That came at Christmas 1969. The hallowed Sears Wishbook that year pictured a Saturn V model from Revell that immediately got the Rodster’s attention. What a model it was. Executed in the same scale as the CSM kit, 1/96, it was huge, nearly five-feet tall when assembled. Mama thought it a little strange I’d want “a toy rocket” at age 16, but I patiently explained, “Mama, IT’S A MODEL,” and she assented with fewer concerned looks that she displayed when I asked for another legendary space toy, the Marx Moon Base, one Easter not long before.

When I tore into that big box (it was five feet tall and sported a carrying handle so it could serve as storage for the completed kit) Christmas morning, I was at first a little surprised. There didn’t seem to be as many big plastic pieces as I’d expected. Then I understood: the “tanks” of the first and second and third stages were thin plastic sheets you wrapped into cylinders and secured with the “conduits” for the pressurization system (on the real booster) that ran up the sides of the tanks. These plastic sheets were preprinted in approximately correct colors and details, and the kit required far less painting (I had smuggled the Testor’s bottles back into the house by this time) than it otherwise would have. When the model was completed it looked terrific.

I loved and admired and, yes—I’m not ashamed to say it—played with that lovely Saturn V for the next two years, till I was off to college. What happened to it? No matter how I search the gray-matter memory banks, I simply cannot remember. I suspect the answer is that it was knocked off my dresser either by Mama during one of her periodic cleaning binges or by one of the cats on an expedition to my old room. I seem to vaguely recall it sat in pieces for a while, with me meaning to get around to repairing it “soon.”

That wonderful kit was soon discontinued as America turned its collective mind from space to Vietnam, and kids found other things to do with their time than assemble plastic models. The oil crisis of the 70s had a rather deleterious effect on the model industry, too, driving their costs way up. That was not the end for the Saturn, though; it’s been rereleased once, in 1994, and I hope it will come out again sometime soon. If it does, I will get one. If it doesn’t? Well, there is always the dadgum eBay, I reckon. If the chance presents itself, I vow I will do another Revell “big Saturn.”

And that was that for over thirty years, till I ran across a Glencoe models reissue of the old Von Braun/Disney Space Wheel space station one morning in the gift shop at Huntsville’s Space and Rocket Center. That reacquainted me with the joys of space-bound styrene, and I was soon re-running Project Apollo in our dining room.

That included a new Saturn V, not the bigun, of course, but Revell’s current model, a smaller but still impressive 1/144 scale job. While I was still finding my feet again modeling-wise, it turned out pretty well. I could have added more detail, done a better job of painting, and been more careful with the decals—my failure to properly prep the model’s surface and seal the decals has resulted in them being pretty badly yellowed by now.

From there it was on to the pièce de résistance of part two of my space modeling hobby, Revell’s 1/48 scale Lunar module. As with the Saturn V, my execution ain’t perfection, but I am pretty happy with the result. I can do better now, I think, but the paint is OK and I did an alright if not overly accurate job of duplicating the gold foil covering of the descent stage (the foil came from Hershey’s almond kisses chocolates).

The LEM done, it was time for another modeling intermission. Two things were responsible for that. First was me changing jobs to the much more demanding LPD landing ship project. Another factor was The Herschel Project. When you are faced with observing and writing about upwards of 2500 uber-dim deep sky objects, that’s what you—or me at least—spend most of your time working on and thinking about.

Not too bad...
With work a little calmer and the initial observing for The Herschel Project done, I wanted to get back into space, and as July came in I began by dusting off and rehabilitating my little space museum, the shelf above the dining room fireplace where my completed models live. Which led to me considering “What next?” Then I remembered Monogram’s big and cool CSM kit, wonder of wonders our shop, Hobby Town, had it, and I was on my way again.

While this is a mainstream kit, a time-tested and not overly complex one that’s been on the shelves most of the time since it was originally released back in The Day, I figured it would be best to take it slowly, strategize and test fit everything before applying glue or paint. With older mass produced kits that pays off. The molds are old, and pieces may not fit together as well as they did when the model first hit the streets. Also, in these days of reduced interest in modeling, a kit may sit on a dealer’s shelf for a long time after having been in a warehouse for even longer.

How was my CSM? At little testing revealed “not bad.” The parts fit together OK, ‘bout what I’d expect for something from its era. Main faux pas? The clear plastic panels that allow you to see the finished interiors of the capsule and Service Module are, naturally, made from a different type of styrene, and it shrinks a little differently with age than the opaque styrene parts that form the rest of the model. Fitting the clear parts would take some clamping with rubber bands while the glue dried, but it looked like that would be doable.

Speaking of glue, you modeling newbies may be curious as to what I use. The answer is “it depends.” For parts that can use help sticking together or seams that need a little filling, I use good, old Testor’s, the little tubes of “airplane glue” that are much the same as they ever were. For places where I don’t want to chance the overly gluey airplane glue making a mess, I use one of the modern liquid/semi-liquid styrene glues every hobby shop carries. For special things like metal parts or the plastic resins used in the small “custom” kits that are so popular with today’s modelers, it’s Superglue, cyanoacrylate glue in a type, whether liquid or gel, appropriate for the job at hand.

Tommy "helping." 
Overall, I was pleased with the condition of my CSM kit. There was only one downcheck: the suckers at Revell/Monogram continue to provide the capsule pre-finished in gold “chrome.” It looks cool, no doubt about that, but the Apollo CM was not shiny gold, it was shiny silver. Why did Monogram do it in gold? In some of the most famous shots of the CSM in Earth orbit, it’s reflecting the color of the desert landscape below it, which makes the Command Module look slightly gold-tinted. That combined with the knowledge that gold foil was used on the LM resulted in a wrong color for the CM. I would have to fix that, and chose Krylon’s chrome spray paint as the fix.

While Chaos Manor South’s Resident Black Cat, Thomas Aquinas, who is always eager to help Rod with anything, was anxious to get started, I continued my strategizing. One of the most pleasant aspects of space modeling for me is this planning. In a way, a model kit is like a puzzle. There are things to be figured out:  “Should I glue these pieces together before they are painted or after? The instructions want me to do this first; wouldn’t it be better to do that?” And so on. To Thomas’ satisfaction, we finally got started with the capsule interior, but not until we’d done some research as well as planning.

Most models come with at least some guidance as to how a spacecraft should be painted. You can depend on one thing when it comes to mass produced kits, however: this guidance is almost always wrong. Luckily there is a wealth of photographic reference materials on Apollo. Most are as close as a web site—I really like The Apollo Saturn Reference Page—or at least and the Apogee books and Spacecraft Films DVDs. Looking at those old pix is almost as much fun as recreating the spacecraft, and the photos are invaluable when it comes to adding extra detail.

You can just assemble kits as they come. They will look nice if you do a good job. However, those from the mainline companies will often not be accurate. An example being the confusion noted above about the Block 1 vice Block 2 Apollo configurations. There’s also the matter of missing stuff. Monogram added a fair amount of detail to the capsule and Service Module since they are designed to be shown off via the clear plastic panels, but they did not try to duplicate every box, switch, and cable. Adding just a few more of those things really kicks up the CSM’s appearance a notch or three.

How do you do that? There are companies selling detailing kits for serious space modelers. The number one outfit of that type in the U.S. of A. probably being Realspace Models. They are famous in the community for their detailing kit for the Revell 1/32 Gemini. While enhancements are vital to make the Revell Gemini look anything like the real operational spaceship, they are less vital for the Apollo, since Monogram did a pretty good job to begin with. Yes, you can get detailed instrument panels for the Command Module, but you will find that when the model in assembled you can barely see them, and that the decals Monogram supplies to represent the instrument panels are sufficient.

I'm pretty happy with the result.
Which doesn’t mean I didn’t add a few things. The area inside the heatshield around the periphery of the CM, for example, looked mite bare to me, and studying images I noted several cables and junction boxes Monogram left out. Using some bits of styrene leftover from other models and some lengths of wire, I added in a little of this. A few minutes and a few odds and ends really helped the final look of my kit.

What helped even more, though, was an airbrush. When I initially returned to modeling, I continued using those little cans of Testor’s spray paint, which are much the same as they were back in the long-ago days when me and my buddy Wayne Lee were putting together model cars. They are OK, but you are limited as far as colors and they are almost invariably messy, stinky enamels.

I had the sense just before my last intermission from space modeling to buy one of Testor’s inexpensive airbrush kits. These are not fancy—the airbrush is mostly plastic and its propellant comes out of a can, not a compressor—but work, and work much better than spray paint cans.

Not only does an airbrush give you access to the dozens and dozens of colors even a corner hobby shop has in stock, you have control of the spray’s width and density and you can use acrylic paints, which I find easier to work with than oil-based paints. Acrylics are also much easier to clean up when Unk spills a bottle, as he inevitably will. I tumped over a bottle of black in Chaos Manor South’s kitchen just like I’d done in Mama’s carport that sunny sixties afternoon, but it was acrylic and cleaned up without leaving a trace.

So, where are Thomas and I at with our Apollo kit? The CM is done, campers, and we are pretty derned pleased. We put the last touches on it just before Unk departed for the Chiefland Astronomy Village. Is it perfect? No. We hurried a little bit toward the end, hoping to have it done on Unk’s birthday, so there are a couple of minor mistakes. What would I do differently next time? In addition to “slow and steady wins the race,” I’d choose a different silver finish for the CM gumdrop. The Krylon worked OK, but some of the buffable metal finishes for models would have worked better, and strips of metal foil in the form of Real Metal Foil, which is designed to be applied to model kits, would have been better still.

Oh, well, that’s the beauty of the thing. Space model kits and supplies are relatively inexpensive. If you don’t like the way your Jupiter C came out? Well, heck, just do another one. I am happy enough with how me and Thomas’ Apollo capsule came out that I will probably move on, however.

To what? Well, we still gotta do the Service Module, but after that we will be on to still more Apollo hardware. Perhaps a new Lunar Module, but probably a new 1/144 Saturn V. Not another Revell, though. Maybe I am going to switch to one of the other remaining “big” model companies, Airfix, for that. The details better in the Airfix Saturn—the Revell CSM is too tall and skinny—and they at least got the decals correct. The current 1/144 Revell booster has black “USA” and “United States” decals instead of red as on the real article. Not a big deal in the larger scheme of things, but when you are running a space program on a shoestring on Miss Dorothy’s dining room table, every detail counts, muchachos. Stay tuned.

Next Time: Southern Nights...

Hi Unk:

Congratulations on your birthday, and many more.

As I eagerly await the arrival of the Mars rover Curiosity (you bet I'm going to watch the live coverage, online or on TV (probably online since I don't have cable and doubt any of the OTA networks will do it)), I wonder about how ignorant so many people are about space nowadays.

I was telling my girlfriend, who is about the same age as me, about watching the Apollo 11 mission, and how the networks blew off live coverage of the later moonwalks. There was some coverage because I can remmeber seeing one in color with "Live from the surface of the Moon" in the credits, but most people stopped following the program after Apollo 13.

Had there been more cable TV, and a channel devoted just to NASA then, I would have been overjoyed.

As a kid, I still watched all the launches and splashdowns, and hoped earnestly for successful missions. To me, sending men to the moon was the future, and like most little boys, I liked things that made a big bang and boom. The Saturn V was, to me, a symbol of our technological prowwess and determination.

I bought one of the big Saturn V models and assembled it, but like you don't know what happened to it. I was seriously into World War II planes, too, and I know that I kept a local hobby shop in business with all my purchases from them.

I work in the news media on a freelance basis, and try to find assignments related to the Apollo program, but most local sciene museums are run by people with little interest in science or the wonders of those missions to the moon, so the programming is pretty limited, if there is any at all.

One time, though, a science museum director did invite his old pal, Apollo 14 astronaut Ed Mitchell, and I was able to get a few stories in the newspaper advancing Mitchell's visit and then covering the visit. I got to meet one of my heroes, and learned that I had lived only a few miles away from him when I was in Lake Worth, Fla., from 1987 to 2001.

There were lots of people there, including lots of kids, and they were thrilled to meet a man who had walked on the moon.

The world wasn't perfect in the 1960s to 1970s, but the space program to me always was a sign that people could work together and make something great. Forty-plus years later, I am trying my best to raise awareness in my own small way. I think we all need to do that, especially with the 40th anniversary of Apollo 17 coming up.

Recently, I was so proud to hear that my 3-year-old grand-nephew wants to be an astronaut. He saw the moon one night, asked what it was, his mother told him and he said he wanted to go there. I look forward to encouraging him to pursue that interest. Maybe he'll be in the next group of astronauts to set foot on the moon. Or maybe not. I just want him to know some of the history.

Got to run, Unk. Take care and keep posting those memories. I loved that Sears ad for the Saturn V. Oh, to go back in time and get one of those!
Hi Vincent:

Thanks for a great post! This goes way beyond just a "comment." :-)
They were on the moon on my birthday (but i was too young at the time to remember it).

Did i post you awhile back the URL to the NASA project histories webpage? Wonderful lunchtime reading.

On another topic, a couple misc questions i've been meaning to ask the Uncle:
1. What items do you use in your optical path when using the Mallincam? A focal reducer? Filters?
2. When you stake down your canopy, how exactly do you tie the guideropes to the corners? I've got this brand new EZ-UP canopy, and it has no obvious attachment points for guy ropes. I'm sort of new at this sort of thing, myself.
Almost any model of the mighty Saturn V is pretty darn awesome in my book. I've got a couple of the Estes flying model rocket Saturn Vs, one built (and needing a bit repair work-- it has flown a few times) and one still sitting in the box. They're not perfect scale models, but are pretty darn impressive, just the same-- plus you can fly 'em, too!

Though it's relatively expensive, Apogee makes a 1/70 scale flyable model of the Saturn V (and the Saturn 1B, too) that, from all I've heard and seen, are wonderfully detailed. They'd work well as a static model, too. At a bit over 5' tall, there's plenty of scale for good detail. I'd think if you wanted the most detailed, impressive Saturn V model, this would be it.
I love space and all the mystery that it holds! I hope with the rover landing, the USA will get back more fully into the space race again!
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