25 November 2017

My Space Fleet (or, nostalgia concerning missed and lost toy spaceships)

Major Matt Mason, the moon, and a map. All stuff I've loved since forever. If I'd received this in a Christmas stocking at age eight, I'd have exploded. Alas, it appears to be a fan creation, not an authentic Mattel product. Image credit: I'm not sure, though it uses a NASA base map from after Luna 24 landed in 1976 and Mattel box art
I was born in 1962, just ahead of John Glenn's orbital Mercury-Atlas flight. The 1960s were a great epoch for space toys, but I fear that I missed out on most of those. My parents were not keen on encouraging my odd fascination with spaceflight. I had some Major Matt Mason dolls, but none of the large sets. It wasn't about poverty; I had a big metal garage with lots of moving parts, lots of Man from Uncle spy toys, and a baseball glove I never used. They just didn't see space as a "normal" sort of interest for a youngster. Perhaps they figured that I was peculiar enough already without adding space to the mix.

Oddly enough, though, they took me to see 2001: a Space Odyssey during its first theatrical run. (I think I had to seize hostages to induce them to take me - it's all hazy now.) I vividly remember building an Apollo LM model with my dad. I think that stands out because it was the only time he did something with me that was related to space.

The LM was great, but it was not enough for me. It was a display piece; I needed sturdy vessels with which I might conquer the Solar System.

I was eight or nine when I began to use materials I had at hand to make models of spacecraft of my own crude design. In the 1970-1975 period, in fact, I designed my own space program set in the then-distant year 2020. Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama and Earthlight were major sources of inspiration, as were the book and film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Bob McCall's first art compendium, Our World in Space, also influenced my vision. Some Star Trek influence was inevitable, though my space travelers didn't wander among the stars or tangle with aliens.

Foam cups, pins, dixie cups, pens, popsicle sticks, colored markers, pipe cleaners, tape, curtain weights, and rubber cement were my construction materials. The weights made excellent footpads; by far the heaviest parts of my spacecraft, the disk-shaped lead weights helped them to stand upright in the face of stray breezes and casual sideswipes from affectionate cats.

Perhaps in keeping with Star Trek, my ships included two propulsion systems. Chemical rockets permitted proximity operations near space stations and facilities on asteroids and other vacuum worlds. A far more advanced "photonic" drive enabled high-gee acceleration with minimal propellant expenditure. Think the Epstein Drive from The Expanse series.

The first spacecraft I built was an all-purpose explorer/police vessel in the tradition of Endeavour from Rendezvous with Rama or Star Trek's Enterprise. I envisioned a fleet of such craft. It was not designed to land, though it carried a small sortie vehicle and a 2001-esque service pod. Sortie vehicle and pod could be combined to yield a beefier sortie vehicle and the sortie vehicle could be broken down to create a second service pod.

Much of the action in my space program centered on the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter and the asteroidal moons and trojan asteroids of Jupiter. Asteroid settlement was well under way in 2020. My explorer/police vessel could "dock" with low-g small- and middle-sized asteroids with compatible facilities. It could also dock with and push smaller vessels with higher-g landing capability, much as the Apollo Command and Service Module pushed the Lunar Module.

The second vessel I built was a long-range explorer with higher-g landing capability. It had a beefy photonic drive, powerful chemical verniers, and a small crew compartment - perhaps room enough only for four people. Basically, it was a big engine cluster with scientific instrument pallets standing in as skin, eight adjustable landing legs, and a crew module on top.

A more conventional vessel needed weeks to travel between worlds of the Inner System and the Asteroid Belt and months to travel between the Outer System worlds. The long-range explorer could reach Pluto from Ceres in five weeks. It could also descend through atmospheres: an optional disposable heat shield (a thick paper plate) enabled Titan landings. Mysterious Titan was a major focus of scientific exploration in my space program.

The third vessel I designed, the Vulpecula-class space tug/freighter, was a small ship capable of pushing a standardized cargo module between worlds. It could accompany a cargo module to its destination or simply boost it on its way, then dock with an incoming cargo module and return to port. It could operate with or without a crew and could land on higher-g vacuum worlds bearing a cargo module.

Though I only built a pair of cargo modules, I imagined that they would take many forms. They could, for example, serve as tankers for refueling spacecraft. Another module was decked out as a passenger pod. The influence of the Franz Joseph space freighter in the Star Trek Technical Manual is unmistakable.

I also built a fast courier. Like the explorer/police ship, vessels of the Pegasus class weren't meant to land on higher-g worlds. They had a photonic engine identical to the explorer/police ship's engine, but could accelerate harder because they included only a small crew module, no auxiliary vehicles, and minimal instrumentation. They were meant to move people rapidly between scattered ships and worlds. For example, if an isolated trojan asteroid colony urgently needed a surgeon, one could be dispatched in a fast courier.

Finally, I built a long-range explorer capable of really epic trips. An extended version of the explorer/police ship, I envisioned that only a few would be built. Most traveled in pairs to interesting worlds beyond Pluto. (I'm not sure if I knew of the then-hypothetical Kuiper Belt - probably I just assumed there would be more planets past Pluto.) Their large crews hibernated in shifts. They traded speed for on-site crew expertise.

I didn't spend much time on Earth-to-orbit transportation. I assumed that rockets larger than the Saturn V would exist. That's all I remember.

Individuals and companies could own Pegasus-class fast couriers, Vulpecula-class freighters, and cargo modules. Some fast couriers became the equivalent of private jets. Some Vulpecula-class ships pushed cargo modules outfitted for asteroid prospecting.

Though I often lamented never acquiring Major Matt Mason's big moon base, in retrospect I am glad that I was thrown back on my own devices. Missing out on ready-made 1960s space toys helped to turn me creative.

What became of my space fleet? After Star Wars came out, I switched to building kit-bashed hyperdrive starships. The foam-cups-and-popsicle-sticks fleet grew dusty on a closet shelf. One summer day, as I prepared to depart for my first semester of college, I ceremoniously set fire to that fleet. The foam, rubber cement, and paper burned rapidly, leaving behind in moments only blackened pins and curtain weights. At college, my spaceships mostly became built of words, and it has remained so ever since.


  1. Thanks for sharing your youthful creative endeavors! No doubt many of us have similar stories to tell.

    For my part, I spent the early 2000s designing an single-stage-to-orbit shuttle, strictly for crew transport. Larger than a Space Shuttle Orbiter but with roughly the same shape, it could carry up to twenty-five people as high as geosynchronous orbit, and was fully reusable. Launched with the assustance of a multi-kilometer-long electromagnetic track, it would have a single toroidal aerospike engine to carry it the rest of the way to orbit, deployable solar panels on the wings for long-duration missions, and would be capable of on-orbit refuelling for transporting crew to lunar orbit.

    I painstakingly laid out blueprints and concept pixel art in Microsoft Paint, and still have it all - though the craft will never be built!

    1. Caesar:

      So glad you "took the bait," so to speak. I hope other add their "youthful creative endeavors" to the comments. This post was inspired, by the way, by Mike Mackowski's Space City site (http://www.space-city-mike.net/ - listed among my links). His youthful creativity was of impressively high quality.

      Want to illustrate this post with some of your concept art? No trace of my stuff survives.

      Heck, I want to extend the invitation to anyone who created spaceships and space empires when they were youngsters. If you have artwork, drawings, photos, etc., of your creations, send 'em my way and I'll post them along with whatever image credit line you suggest.


    2. David - the most recent stuff I did with this was some 3D rendering in Google SketchUp (back when it was still a Google project). You can see some renders and a bit more information on this Facebook post: https://www.facebook.com/shanekincaid/posts/10202013107237340
      Let me know if the post doesn't show - I changed the privacy to Public, but you never know.
      If you do use the images, just credit them to me (Shane Kincaid). If you'd like the early doodles in MS Paint, I'll happily share those too.

    3. Caesar:

      I like your shuttle design and the narrative you wrote for it. After I asked about your images I found the Major Matt Mason image at the top of this post. Though it's almost certainly fan art, there's so much about it that I like that I'm going to stick with it, I think.


  2. Befor Star Wars & Co
    i had models of Spaceships and rockets like Gemini and Apollo & Saturn V from Revell & Airfix
    Then came Space: 1999, suddenly i got small fleet of Eagle models, even one in Metal !
    Star Wars was a game changer and the overkill started: model, model, more model, toys, toys, and more toys
    i lost intrest because the oversupply and my parents were not willing to finance George Lucas also...

    And Today ?
    Airfix and Revell offer not much on Sci-if and Space Flight models (ahh not again a Shuttle model)

    But if found my old joy of model building, what i abandon 40 years ago: LEGO !
    i got the 1:110 scale Apollo Saturn V and build it with great fun.
    For Moment i wait for it's Launch Tower to get LEGO approval for Production.
    in mean time found some manuals to build the LEGO Saturn IB and Skylab component for 1:110 scale Saturn V

    1. Michel:

      Good point re: STAR WARS - it swamped & sank the space toy market, for the most part. It was worse, I think, because it came out during the period when no American piloted spacecraft were launched.

      About 12 years ago, when my daughter was nearly three, I decided I wanted to build things with my kiddo. Seemed like a mutually beneficial way of making some happy memories. Wooden blocks were OK while they lasted, but soon it was time to find something more interesting to us both. I couldn't find many appealing plastic models and she was too young to be around model glue, paints, and knives. I considered paper models, but thought them to be too complicated and fragile.

      Then I stumbled upon LEGO. I was overwhelmed by all the different kinds of kits. The smaller, more affordable kits fit her attention span nicely. Soon, however, we were building the Eiffel Tower - that was memorable. It was great kit to build with a kid - each step a little different, each step reaching higher. We spent months building it. The finished model was taller than she was!

      Now she's more into video games and reading. But I buy LEGO kits that appeal to me and always offer her the opportunity to help out. And she loves LEGO movies.

      I built the Saturn V - what a cool kit. Alas, I missed the Curiosity rover.

      For the past couple of years I've been building my own realistic spacecraft from LEGO. It's in the spirit of my foam-cup-and-popsicle-sticks fleet. At my current rate of progress, I'll finish it in 2050 or thereabouts. I need to pick up the pace!

      You found manuals with instructions for building a LEGO Skylab payload and the Saturn IB? I haven't seen those. Did you find them online? I expect you did - would you mind sharing the URLs?

      Thanks for sharing your story!


  3. Yes i found them at Lego Ideas page
    With building instruction and most Important, the list of part with oder number for Online shop.
    Skylab and Saturn IB first stage
    Titan Gemini and Mercury Atlas / Redstone (also MOL and Gemini B Titan 3C)

    By the way
    Any way to contact you ?
    i got allot space flight stuff, like the ESA Kepler Mars Probe data.
    for my reference ask Winchell Chung,
    last time i try to figure out a German text about NAA Manned Mars Mission from 1966.
    for Chung and William-Black

  4. Michel:

    I've added my email address to the right-hand column on the blog.

    Thanks for all the LEGO links!


    1. This is my favorite post of yours--right up there with this:

      I want to see an artist do some art on the asteroid bases the workshop called for.

      One of my saddest memories as a child was a search for a birthday cake. I wanted Chocolate of course as any child should. Well, My mom took me to the store to pick it up.

      But right next to it--there was a vanilla cake--but with beautiful little Apollo miniature cake decorations I have not seen anywhere since.

      All I got was a good screaming at--and worse, on a trip to my grandmothers, a mean cousin smashed my AMT Enterprise.

      Someone up there doesn't like me liking space it seems

    2. Anon:

      I'm always a little hesitant when I think of writing a "personal story" post. I suspect that lots of people don't want to read that stuff. On the other hand, I get feedback like yours. So, I guess I'll continue very occasionally writing about myself.

      I had similar experiences as a youngster. I remember when I bought my first AMT Enterprise. I saved up for months. Soon after we bought it we visited one of my mom's friends, and her kids thought my STAR TREK purchase worthy of ridicule. One of them made a grab for the box and I knocked them down and got yelled at. I suppose I should have let them jump on it or something. Wasn't gonna happen.

      The USS ENTERPRISE was worth fighting for! :-)


  5. Picked up the third Pilgrim Observer model kit I've owned in my lifetime. Once I finalize my move, and get a proper model work table set up, I plan to make this version the best I've ever done.

    Have you visited Alan Ury's Fantastic Plastic website? Lots of material and photos of classic models (both real and SF), and announcements of releases for wonderful (but woefully expensive) kits being released by private artists (am lusting after the Messiah from "Deep Impact", as well as the SPECTRE spacecraft from "You Only Live Twice", and am hoping they'll re-release the Mars Gravity Probe from "Robinson Crusoe on Mars" once I get into some cash).

    Wonderful piece.

    1. Michael:

      Glad you enjoyed it.

      I've never purchased a Pilgrim Observer kit - I think the first time I saw one was at a hobby shop in Houston in about 1994. So I guess I was deprived. :-)

      I almost responded by saying that Fantastic Plastic is among my links, but then I realized that it isn't! How did I manage not to include it? I meant to. I need to fix that omission right now. Thanks for pointing it out.

      Which reminds me - I haven't looked at the Starship Modeler website in ages. That's where I'm going after I finish writing this.


  6. I build a large fleet of 200 aircrafts and spaceships within the span of a decade (1996 - 2007)- most of them in 1/72 scale.

    They are gathering dust at my mom house. I still have all the pictures on my Photobucket account.

    I bought Airfix 1/72 scale Lunar Module on Thursday,11 September 2001 while visiting a space museum (it was to be a fantastic day...sigh)
    I made a plaster-of-Paris lunar surface for it, complete with the Star and strippes, a couple of astronauts, the ALSEP, and the LRV.

    Then - just like you ! - "" my spaceships mostly became built of words, and it has remained so ever since. ""

    I've been writting my own alternate history of the space program since 2008. It starts in 1971, when the space shuttle is cancelled, and stretch into the 21th century.


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