A few months ago, I ran across AMTs rerelease of this 1967 era kit, which contains models of all five of NASA's manned space vehicles in 1/200 scale. The series begins with the Mercury Redstone rockets flown by astronauts Alan Shepard and Virgil "Gus" Grissom, the Mercury Atlas configuration flown by the other Mercury astronauts, the Gemini – Titan II rockets, and both the Saturn 1B and Saturn V rockets of the Apollo program.
The cover art is largely conjectural – while the artists knew well what a Mercury and Gemini rocket looked like, the Saturn 1B appears to have been based on the unmanned AES–201 or AES–202 unmanned test flights of the Saturn 1B on February 26 and August 25, 1966 respectively.
The artwork for the Saturn V bears no resemblance either in contours or paint scheme to any Saturn V – flown or un-flown, which probably means that it predates the rollout of the SA-500F Facilities Integration Vehicle, which was a dummy Saturn V used by NASA to test facilities at launch complex 39 during 1966.
500F was rolled out to Pad A on May 25, 1966, and quickly became the face of the Saturn V, even though its paint scheme differed substantially from any Saturn V ever flown. Most notably, the first stage had a much larger set of black markings mimicking those of the then-launching Gemini’s Titan II first stage, as shown in this November 11, 1966 photo of the last Gemini mission, Gemini 12, launching while SA-500F sits on the pad in the distance. 500F’s markings were adopted by the 1970 Revell 1/96 Saturn V, and remained the model for numerous Saturn V reproductions, including, inexplicably that in Ron Howard's 1995 film Apollo 13, even though the paint scheme was never used by any of the 11 Saturn Vs (including Skylab) that actually launched. In any event, this indicated to me that the artwork for the kit was prepared in the spring of 1966.
Although I bought the kit used, with one exception all of the parts were present except for the large cardboard gantry background shown at left. I probably wouldn't have used it anyway, so I didn't miss it.
As I had not completed a plastic model kit in almost 23 years, in most cases because I got too ambitious trying to modify kits to make them more accurate, I decided to try to avoid accurizing the kits as much as possible, and instead focus on an out-of-the-box build, regaining some basic modeling skills (knifework, sanding) and building new ones (airbrushing & sanding).
In this case, there were really two options as far as kit modifications and I chose to do one, but not the other.
The kit decals are not bad, and I believe were updated when the kit was recently rereleased, but there was a more complete set available from Indycals so I ordered that. Unfortunately, even that set had major issues. I didn't really mind that the Mercury spacecraft name decals were a little oversized, because they were almost invisible as it was, but the Saturn 1B markings for the upper stage were grossly oversized, and when I got to the Saturn V, markings were similarly oversized in some cases (flags on the first stage seem suspiciously large),wrong in others (the decals for the service module did not have the white background in the correct locations, and most annoyingly did not have any instructions or directions on where they were to be placed. This was a problem, since there were several that I simply did not recognize, in which on closer inspection I believe were for the Block I service module, which never flew on a Saturn V manned mission. For a 1/200 scale model, they were acceptable, but I wouldn't recommend them for a modeler seeking complete accuracy.
The other problem with the kit is that the actual Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft are not completely accurate. The Mercury capsule lacks detail, but the real problem is that the launch escape tower is crudely modeled, and not the correct dimensions. The Gemini spacecraft is actually pretty good, but does not have all the exterior detail it could have.
Most importantly, the Apollo command/service module is, as is standard for late 1960s Apollo models, completely wrong. It is a fairly accurate reproduction of a Block I command/service module, but only Block II spacecraft flew on any manned Saturn 1B or Saturn V rocket. But of course in 1966-67 when the kit was originally designed and produced, Block I CSMs were supposed to be used for the Saturn IB missions, and I assume the differences in the Block II were just not well known.
There are aftermarket options – Indycals actually makes 3-D printed Mercury, Gemini and Block II service module options, but I decided I could live without these. And I could always sub them in for the kit parts later. As it ended, I liked the original parts just fine.
Block I/Block II – what’s the difference?
Glad you asked. When NASA awarded the initial contract for the Apollo program command module in 1961, it was not contemplating using a separate lunar module, and thus the original command module was intended to take all three astronauts to and from the lunar surface on a direct–descent mission. Accordingly, the command module as originally designed had no provisions for docking with another spacecraft. While it had an emergency escape tunnel out the top of the spacecraft, it did not have the wider dedicated docking port that later command modules would have. A representation of what a Block I would have looked like is shown at right, alongside a picture of the Apollo I astronauts entering an actual Block I for tests in late 1966.
Within two years NASA had run into a number of technical obstacles with the original CSM design, and had decided that the Apollo program would use lunar orbit rendezvous, both of which necessitated a substantial redesign of the CSM. Thus in 1963, NASA decided to continue proceeding with the original design – designated Block I – only for early low Earth orbit test flights, and begin development of a more advanced Block II design, which would include a docking hatch as well as other lessons learned during the development of the Block I spacecraft. There were originally to be two manned Block I flights, but after the first spacecraft caught fire, killing the three astronauts of Apollo 1 on January 27, 1967, all use of the Block I spacecraft for manned spaceflight was abandoned.
From a modeling perspective, at this small scale and assuming that the command module would be covered by the launch escape tower (LES) anyway, there are only two difference between Block I and Block II , a model of which is shown at left. The first is that the umbilical connection between the command and service modules which was located near the crew hatch on Block I was moved 180° and made much larger. Making this change is a matter of a few minutes shaving off the old connector and scratchbuilding a new one. The second is that the pattern of white rectangular radiators on the service module is completely different. On a larger model, this would require sanding down the service module and starting over. At this scale, however, the new panels can simply be painted on the existing model.
Airbrushing & Decaling
The weak spot in my modeling skills has always been poor airbrushing. I bought a new airbrush and air compressor sometime back, but had not even taken them out of the box to use, so I decided this would be my initial attempt to learn how to airbrush. Airbrushing skills were critical for another reason as well. Any decent model, and especially aircraft or spacecraft, requires skilled application of decals. Without the ability to airbrush a "gloss coat" onto a model before decaling, the decals won't adhere well. In addition there are liquid decaling solutions that will help a decal adhere better to a model’s surface, and I wanted to try to obtain the skills to use them working on the many decals that the spacecraft would require.
I started with the smallest model, the Mercury Redstone, which consisted of three parts in the rocket, and three parts for the spacecraft. I was able to airbrush the initial coat of paint and subsequent gloss coat successfully (it appears I have been sabotaged my entire modeling career by not having a decent air compressor), and the Indycals decals went on fine. I chose the markings for Allan Shepard's Freedom 7, and tried to represent the porthole in his spacecraft with paint.
Again, the airbrushing and gloss coating of the silver body of the rocket went well, as did the application of the decals. At this point I was still hand painting the capsules, and used the Friendship 7 decal for John Glenn's spacecraft. The decals provided a surround for the larger window on Glenn spacecraft, and I was very pleased with how that came out.
I really enjoyed this one, since I had no familiarity at all with the Gemini/Titan configuration. I didn't know that it was two stages, and was very happy with finally getting to build a Gemini spacecraft, even at this very small scale. The booster did require a little scratch building, since the one part missing from the kit was one side of the piping structure that surrounded the two rockets on the first stage. The kit parts were pretty crude to start with, so I ditched the other as well and cut several pieces of rod styrene for a new cage around the rocket nozzles.
The decals were a little more challenging since the patterns were not familiar to me, but it all worked out.
Yes, that really is how small the Gemini/Titan was compared to the Saturn V.
I was really looking forward to this one because again, I had no familiarity at all with this particular configuration. The first stage was by far the hardest to paint because of the complex curves and alternating black/white pattern, and I wasn't happy with how it came out. But it did give me a practice run with how to assemble the S-IVB stage, which is the second stage for the 1B, and the third for the V and its accompanying CSM.
Apollo command modules were covered in silver Kapton tape, but at launch the entire command module was covered by a white shroud which was bolted to the white launch escape system , which was intended to pull the command module up and away from the rocket in the case of a launch emergency. The photo to the right of the Saturn V at the Johnson Space Center in Houston shows the white LES tower and its base which sits atop the CM, but with the white shroud removed so that you can see the underlying command module.
As the kit is too small for a separate shroud, as I have on the 1/96 model, I simply decided to attach the LES tower and its base and paint the whole thing white. I then attached the heat shield to the underside of the CM, but did not glue it to the service module. This ended up creating problems that I corrected on the Saturn V CSM assembly.
Fifteen years ago or so I got a 1/96 Revell Saturn V like the one I had when I was little, but tried to build it so it was as accurate as it could be without getting aftermarket parts. So in the course of getting it partially built, I had done enough research on Saturn V construction and markings that the Saturn V went together pretty quickly, using the big dog as a model. I airbrushed most of the black roll markings, some of which went well, and some didn't, but it was a good learning experience.
The one change that I made from the kit was in the way the command module is attached to the service module. The white launch escape tower makes a sort of white skirt around the base of the command module where it joins to the service module when the spacecraft is on the launch pad. The Saturn 1B didn't really replicate this well, because you could see the heat shield and an exposed seam underneath it between the command and service modules. To remedy this, instead of installing the curved heat shield on the bottom of the command module, instead I glued two thicknesses of .020 sheet plastic, sanded smooth, to replicate the skirt. I then sanded the ridge off the top of the service module, and glued the command module directly to it. This also eliminated the Saturn IB's problem of the command module falling off the rocket repeatedly.
All in all, a very enjoyable and educational build. But I wonder if that Saturn V wouldn’t look better with a matching Launch Utility Tower (LUT) …