One of the best ways to learn is to study under someone who’s already highly skilled, and when it comes to building with Lego, the official sets are a treasure trove of knowledge from some of the world’s most talented model makers. The new Lego Space Shuttle Discovery is not only a wonderfully detailed model, the build itself also feels like a crash course in advanced building techniques.
One of the most popular Lego sets of the past five years (at least given how often it sells out and is hard to find in stock) is the Apollo Saturn V model: a towering tribute to one of mankind’s greatest achievements. What the Apollo program accomplished was nothing sort of spectacular, but it all took place long before I was born. As a child of the ‘80s, NASA’s Space Shuttle program, as flawed as it may have been, was what captivated my imagination because it made space exploration feel closer to what science fiction thought it would and should be like.
The Space Shuttle Discovery is the most famous of the five fully functional orbiters that NASA built, and over 27 years it was used for 39 missions and spent almost an entire year in space during its entire operational service. It landed for the last time on March 9, 2011, and was eventually transported to the National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, where it remains on display to this day. Of all the missions Discovery performed, its most famous was putting the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit.
This actually isn’t Lego’s first Discovery set, but it is by far the largest replica to date, clocking in at 2,354 pieces. It’s also the first Space Shuttle Discovery model to be targeted at older fans of the building toy: a demographic that Lego has been trying to pay more attention to in recent years with larger, more elaborate models.
The problem with older Lego fans is that we don’t necessarily have as much time as we used to to build—which is why I now carefully pick and choose which sets I’ll tackle. The last supersized Lego set I built was the immensely satisfying Tim Burton Batmobile from a few years ago, and even without pop-up machine guns, the new Lego Space Shuttle Discovery delivered exactly what I was looking for in a build.
The model’s scale lends itself well to details without being so large that it feels like a monstrous, overwhelming build that will occupy an end of your dining table for weeks. By the time I started to feel like I’d scratched my Lego itch, it was complete. The results make for a great display piece, especially since Lego has included buildable display stands that let you dynamically pose the orbiter with the Hubble Space Telescope model being released from its cargo hold.
But as enjoyable as the final model is, the real joy of building the Lego Space Shuttle was all the clever building techniques I encountered as I worked through the build and instruction manual.
One of the features that piqued my curiosity when it was first revealed was the spring-loaded retractable landing gear and how they managed to quickly drop down into place. When the gear are manually pushed back up and into the shuttle’s fuselage, they compress a set of three spring-loaded shock absorbers that are usually only seen in Lego’s larger sports car models. Hidden away inside Discovery they remain compressed until a flap on the back of the Shuttle activates a sliding mechanism that causes the springs to all release at the same time, pushing the orbiter’s landing gear into position.
The deceptively simple mechanism that causes the elevons on each of the shuttle’s wings to move up and down is also wonderfully clever, and uses many parts I’m already well familiar with in a new and interesting way.
It may seem trivial, but my favorite part of the Lego Space Shuttle Discovery build was this brilliant use of an inverted single stud claw piece to hold a small triangle plate in place upside down. It seemed overly complicated and unnecessary at first, but when I flipped the completed orbiter over and saw how that single small tile helped the underside of the model look polished and complete, it was a fun reminder of just how talented and resourceful Lego’s in-house builders are.
There were a few parts of the build that weren’t quite as enjoyable. The inside of Discovery’s cargo bay doors are lined with a reflective material requiring 24 decals to be painstakingly applied. The task felt so overwhelming at first that I was tempted to skip it completely (I hate applying decals) but I persevered and the final results definitely add a more authentic feel to the model when the cargo bay doors are wide open. Given these panels were entirely new parts designed explicitly for the Discovery model, I wish Lego had found a way to apply a reflective finish at the factory instead of relying on a large sticker sheet.
My other complaint is with the instruction manual. The sets that Lego has been targeting at older builders typically come in all black boxes with simple artwork limited to photographs of the completed models. For whatever reason Lego carried this approach over to the instructional manuals too, with each page featuring the model set against a black background which is very distracting and susceptible to glare, often making it hard to discern where a piece needs to go. It’s a problem that Lego has already addressed with an announcement that it was moving away from instruction manuals with black background, but not in time for Discovery, unfortunately.
I’m also not going to pretend that the new Lego Space Shuttle Discovery is in any way cheap. At $200, its per-piece price point is even more expensive than it was with the 1989 Tim Burton Batmobile, but that’s why Lego isn’t marketing this model to 6-year-olds who will accidentally drop it down a flight of stairs. It’s for adults who will get more enjoyment out of spending night after night assembling plastic bricks than dining out at fancy restaurants. If the last year has taught us anything, it’s to do whatever brings our brains the most peace and joy, and looking at this model sitting under a framed photo of Discovery above my desk, this set delivers exactly that.