Hands-on test: Lego NASA Apollo Saturn V model kit

Lego has changed a lot in the past 50 years and a detailed new set marking the anniversary of a space exploration milestone is one of the most sophisticated yet.

For some, the summer of 1967 was a pleasant haze of flower-power and anti-war protests, but for NASA’s steely-eyed missile men it was a fevered race to prepare their Saturn V Moon rocket for its debut launch on 9 November. The release of this new Lego kit marks the 50th anniversary of the world’s largest and most powerful launch vehicle to reach operational status.

My own recollection of circa-1967 Lego includes a grey baseboard, on which we built houses made from a limited number of standard brick shapes, a selection of clip-in windows and doors and some angled roof-bricks. It was an intuitive toy, but results relied entirely on your own imagination and skill; we usually ended up building the tallest tower possible, then ceremoniously crashing it to the ground in some imagined earthquake. But times change.

Lego’s Saturn V kit represents a pinnacle in ‘Lego engineering’ as one of the largest and most expensive kits available. At a scale of 1:110, the three-stage Saturn is captured in a 1m-tall model with a first-stage diameter of 9cm. For comparison, modellers might note that comparable Airfix-type models have a scale of 1:144, making them significantly smaller.

When complete, it’s quite an edifice and surprisingly substantial, weighing-in at around 1.8kg. Then there’s the piece-count of 1969 (presumably a nod to the year of the first manned landing). Of course, with a model of this complexity, you don’t leave the buyer with a grey baseboard and a big bag of bits! The full-colour instruction manual has some 180 pages and reveals that the model was designed by fans under the Lego Ideas programme. 

Those who have ‘helped’ children build Lego will appreciate how much it has changed over the decades: one kit makes one model, many parts are kit-specific and construction is ‘by the book’, one piece at a time with no variation allowed (and no creativity required).

On the positive side, there is plenty of scope to instil – in a young constructor - some basic engineering principles and an appreciation for technology. For example, while waxing lyrical on the historical significance of sending folks to the Moon, you can wow them with your knowledge of structural engineering, rocket propellants and (geek alert!) the fact that the first-stage turbo pumps could empty an Olympic swimming pool in 16 minutes.

More practically, they will learn the arts of component-identification, subassembly-construction, process-repeatability and possibly patience. Ideally, you need a ‘subcontractor’, as the repetitive nature of some of the subassemblies can get a little tedious.

Full disclosure: I made one mistake. It was early on in the job, at stage 14 (of 337), but didn’t manifest itself until around stage 70 when I couldn’t make a sub-assembly fit. Turned out I assumed the stage was rotational symmetric, as in reality, but the kit designers had other ideas.

Having successfully assembled this handsome kit (and enjoyed the look of awe and envy on my teenage son’s face), I think one should view it not so much as a model-kit but as a plastic-puzzle. Close-up, the interleaved shards of coloured ABS appear to have little logical structure, but stand back and the picture becomes clear.

One might criticise modern-day Lego for its one-kit, one-model philosophy, but I certainly wouldn’t wish to ‘crash this tower’. In fact, while you might not want the Lego Batmobile on your mantelpiece, the Saturn V would make an impressive feature in any engineering home.

The Lego NASA Apollo Saturn V model kit is available from retailers and the online Lego shop, RRP £109.99

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