LEGO's nonfiction spacecraft though the years
LEGO has a long tradition of making wonderful science fiction themes, from the original Classic Space to the more recent Alien Conquest and Space Police III. But just as historic are their renditions of real-life spacecraft. In celebration of the Curiosity rover succeeding on CUUSOO, I thought I'd take a look back to see what other space sets the LEGO Group has produced over the years. I had no idea how many I would find!
The first space-related set ever produced by LEGO was the 801 Space Rocket in 1964, released under the Samsonite partnership in the U.S. This little model closely resembles a space-race era rocket and captures the '60s enthusiasm for space exploration fairly well. Even so, LEGO didn't really catch on to the massive demand for space sets until much later.
After almost a decade, Legoland Space debuted with set 358 Rocket Base in 1973. 367 Moon Landing followed two years later. (This was known as 565 in the U.S. where it was released in 1976). This was the only early space set to include the early homemaker-style figures (minifigs hadn't yet been invented). LEGO included parts to build both bare heads or space helmets for the astronauts.
Soon after this, the famous Classic Space line of intrepid sci-fi explorers took over the LEGO line. These sets were extremely popular but were hardly grounded in present-day technology. Plausible space vehicles didn't return until 1990's 1682 Space Shuttle Launch as part of the Town Airport theme. For realism, this shuttle had the words "United States" and a U.S. flag printed on the side, and a NASA logo on the little ground vehicle.
6346 Shuttle Launching Crew was released in 1992, again as a lone space set in the Town Flight theme. This one didn't include any launching mechanism, but instead focused on the truck which carried the shuttle around. Gone were the NASA insignias, replaced by LEGO's own fictional space agency.
A proper collection finally arrived with Launch Command in 1995, a subtheme of Town comprised of five sets ranging from the obligatory shuttle launch pad to a tiny lunar rover. This was the first time LEGO invested in a complete space theme and started to explore other aspects of space exploration such as transport jets and fire response units. The complete list of sets is below:
1996 saw the release of the only space-themed Technic set with the massive 8480 Space Shuttle. This set still looks good today thanks to its motorized bay doors, robot arm, and fiber optic engine illumination.
In fact, LEGO no longer uses fiber optics, so in some ways this set is more advanced than LEGO's most recent offerings.
Space Port soon followed, expanding the Town subtheme again in 1999. Out of all the sets in this article, Space Port's designs were closest to science fiction. Indeed, there are some clues that indicate Space Port is a direct predecessor to 2003's Life on Mars sci-fi theme. I include it here since Space Port still includes a shuttle, realistic astronauts, and takes place on planet Earth. This was an incredibly prolific theme, comprising some 20 sets in total (although some of these were just recycled with a new name). I won't list them all here, but head to Brickset to see the full collection.
Discovery was a licensed theme produced in coordination with the Discovery channel in 2003. These sets all revolved around famous spaceflight missions and brought back the official NASA branding. Sets ranged from a roughly minifig-scale Apollo 11 Lunar Lander to a large Mars Exploration Rover modeled after Spirit and Opportunity. If you want LEGO's most detailed and accurate renditions of famous spacecraft, this is the one to get.
Space themes took a break after Discovery until 2010 (probably due to LEGO's brush with bankruptcy). But when a new space shuttle was revealed, it made a splash. 10213 Shuttle Adventure was intended to be an advanced model for older builders, but quickly became popular with kids of all ages.
LEGO seemed somewhat surprised by this uptake and ended up redesigning the shuttle to make it more robust and to add more play features for younger children. The revamped model, 10231 Shuttle Expedition was released in 2011 with a reinforced fuel tank, stronger landing gear, and wigs for the minifigure astronauts. This model also included a robotic arm and attachable satellite.
Possibly encouraged by the success of the Shuttle Adventure, LEGO also made a new subtheme in 2011 called City Space. These were co-designed by NASA Education but focus more on play features than the accurate models from the Discovery line. Returning to the tried-and-true formula of a shuttle, launch pad, and a rover, Space seems to show the origins of more futuristic themes like Classic Space or Futuron, as hinted by its decidedly throwback logo.
LEGO hasn't released any plans for a new Space theme as of 2013, but their crowdsourcing website CUUSOO is picking up the slack with impressive fan-designed models. The Japanese 21101 Hayabusa Satellite was the second-ever CUUSOO model to gain funding and has since seen a successful release world-wide.
The latest CUUSOO set builds off the recent enthusiasm for Mars exploration which served LEGO well back in 2003. The Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity Rover has made it to the review stage with 10,000 votes. Built at mini land scale, this model includes a working rocker bogie suspension and sky crane descent system. Given LEGO's extensive history with educational and realistic space sets, I think the Curiosity rover has an excellent chance of reaching production. Space sets have come a long way since the 60s, and this one looks to be the best yet.