Updated: Mar 22, 2021
I was extremely young at the time, but I remember all the adults sitting around the living room watching the first astronauts land on the moon. At that time, I did not understand it. Later, in color, I remember seeing the splash down of a few capsules in the ocean. One I specifically remember as it preempted Saturday morning cartoons.
That did not stop me from playing astronaut. My first vehicle for 1/6th scale figures was the capsule from the Adventures of GI Joe Space Walk Mystery. Like most of the toys owned by the last child in a large family, it was not new. It did not have all the parts. Okay, it none of the parts that are removable: but it was mine.
Not knowing the difference between capsules, modules and landers, that vehicle blasted off from my backyard and landed on the moon, or on a desert planet (the alley), or the planet of Giant trees (the Mulberry tree in the front yard). The astronaut also took many space walks; tethered properly to the vehicle with shoelaces.
I was not lucky enough to the official GI Joe Astronaut, luckily my GI Joe Action Marine dressed as the Captain Action Flash Gordon volunteered for duty. I always wondered why the Flash Gordon set never looked like the Flash Gordon from the old comic strips, but as an adult, I assume the answer was that now real men were actually blasting into space.
One of the early projects they assigned to me when working on GI Joe, was the diorama to highlight the new Col Buzz Aldrin figure.
Compared to the Spacewalk Mystery uniform, it was astounding in detail. At that time, the soft goods team in Pawtucket created the uniforms while the rest of the design and engineering happened in Cincinnati. This uniform was lined and puffy like a real uniform (Although the vintage silver fabric is still REALLY cool.) It had several plastic components sewn in, so you could attach all the hoses into the uniform properly. The figure came with molded gloves to slip over the hands. They looked decent. I always hated the fabric gloves that slipped over the like mittens so Joe could never hold anything. However, the way they redesigned the space glove hands for the AT Secret of Planet Xenome was great! They no longer had the big gap revealing Joe’s palms to the elements. They also hid the soft goods well by molding them as gauntlets so the fabric could slip under the ledge.
The helmet looks and functions well but it is oversized. I was told at that time that the team had to remake the helmets in a rush as the first helmet they designed looked perfect to scale, but the engineer or designer did not account for the head size, therefore it would not fit. The second time around they made sure if fit, but it is a bit oversized. At least it has a movable and vacumetalized blast shield instead of just a facemask.
In the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum on the mall in Washington DC, they have the real uniforms to inspect close up. One of the times I was there, they even had gloves you could touch and see how many layers were inside and what each did. The real uniforms are far more remarkable up close than they look in pictures.
When I started writing these articles, I thought of them, as “behind the scenes history” to fulfill what was suggested to me, “We need the history documented.” However, several of the readers have commented that they are enjoying hearing how I made some of the models or things that I never finished, as they are trying out the techniques and concepts for themselves. “Give us more ideas!” one reader wrote. With that in mind, here are technical details of how I made the diorama.
First, start with studying. I reviewed as many of the original photos as I could find. This provided a target for how to make the base look just right, instead of guessing. Painting the set to get the high contrast black and white ground would be very important. I also needed some unevenness on the back wall to suggest the distant mountain background.
The next detail was to get the structure strong enough for shipping. Instead of using the thinner foam core boards, I used ½” black Gator board. It is more study and less likely to warp. It is harder to cut but worth the struggle. They are sold in sheets of 4’ x 8’ so one sheet was the vertical back and another was the base. To attack the two and be shippable, I took some extra gator board cut off the sides to build vertical braces about 6” tall, which I hot-glued to the base, then added wood screws for extra strength. I added holes and screwed the backboard into place to make it stronger for shipping and set up.
Next bought I bought several sheets of the hard blue insulation foam panels from the hardware store. These I attached together; probably using contact cement since white glue makes a harder line to sand through. Those sheets were the size limiter, so I cut the Gator boards were to fit the size of the foam.
With those panels as one giant chunk, I had to I had to dig out sections underneath so they would cover up the three back braces. This forced where I could have low valleys and peaks. I took various hand tools and started whacking away at the foam to make the surface uneven. These tools included rasps, files, chisel, surform plane and maybe others. One thing I knew that I needed to make it clearly the moon were a few impact craters. Those required the chisel to dig down and hand sanding to get a smooth finish. One last step I used for finishing once I had the basic look, a heat gun, carefully, to smooth it all out.
Normally, once this is over, you would add a layer of house paint since spray paint melts the foam. This gave me an idea that I tested out with the scraps of blue foam. It was indeed melting the foam and it melted it more the closer the spray was to the foam. It added a very cool effect that looked more like the photos. Cans of gray and black spray paint used from odd angles finished off the look of the base.
For the background, I splattered stars on it by dipping a toothbrush in a little paint, then pulling my finger slowly back across of the top of the brush to splatter that paint as fine droplets on the board. Later, I added a few larger stars by hand. The earth image was a color photocopy of one of the photos taken by an astronaut. The lander was a color copy also. NOTE – to make the copies match better, take a thick black marker to the edge of the paper before you glue it down with spray glue so it does not show a white line.
Since those figures would never stand in great poses like that in shipping, I attached each figure to a post that fit into a hole in the base. Each rod was clear and about 3/8” thick. I drilled a hole straight through the rod near the top, then added some of the silver wire ties used to hold toys in packages. So the wires would not show, I opened the uniform, slid the wire around Joe’s waist, then out the back so it was sticking though the Velcro closure – making them mostly unseen.
If you are not into dioramas, and went “La la la” in your head, here is another fun fact; each of the accessories in the astronaut’s hands were designed for a special GI Joe Astronaut accessory set. The designer on that project did proper research to find any cool parts that the astronauts really used. Even the properly hanging flag was one of those parts. Although they are very cool parts, they were dropped for timing reasons. As mentioned in other articles, the accessory sets ship through a different merchandising chain due to the vagaries of the toy industry. As there was only one astronaut, and if that set was not on shelf at the exact time, it could not really be used with any other figure. Therefore, it was deemed too specific and was dropped. At least we get to see what those parts were.
What is your favorite 1/6th scale space mission?
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