The 1960s shaped the world through cultural changes and technological advancement. LEGO has been influenced by the events of the 1960s, most recently with the release of 21306 The Beatles Yellow Submarine but perhaps most significantly by NASA and the space race.
Space is one of the three original themes which emerged in 1978 and celestial sets have appeared every year since, including several based on real NASA spacecraft and exploration vehicles of the past and present. Join as we continue our 1960s series and examine the influence of a scientific event which defined the decade...
Space toys dominated the market during the 1960s and the range from LEGO reflected this as early as 1964 with the release of 801 Space Rocket and 010 Basic Building Set which displays a simple rocket on the front of the box. 070 Universal Building Set became available in the next year and incorporated pieces for a more advanced model which includes a rocket, a service tower and two astronauts.
1969, the year of the first manned moon landing, was primarily occupied by a huge selection of trains but a small supplemental pack containing doors and hinges did offer inspiration for another space-themed model. The packaging is decorated with an image of a rocket which obviously belongs to the American space program, although official NASA branding is absent.
The products released by LEGO changed quite dramatically in the early 1970s as the number of general building sets was reduced in favour of those which came with instructions. 1973 saw the release of 358 Rocket Base which included a larger and more detailed rocket than any which had gone before as well as the control centre and a support vehicle. The black and white rocket was undoubtedly based on the Saturn V used by NASA between 1969 and 1973 and the model is even topped with a clear brick to represent the command module. Furthermore, 367 Space Module with Astronauts became available in 1975, allowing you to recreate the entire Apollo 15 mission from the launch pad to the surface of the moon!
1978 was a cardinal year in the development of The LEGO Group as the first traditional minifigures were released alongside sets categorised as belonging to Town, Castle or Space. While the vast majority of these space sets were based firmly in fiction, certain aspects of the range recalled reality and the Apollo missions which had finished just a few years earlier. 483 Alpha-1 Rocket Base is one such set as the rocket included shares its colour scheme with that of the Saturn V and does not fit with the blue, light grey and trans-yellow elements used on the vast majority of other vehicles.
This trend continued into the early 1980s but as the Apollo missions faded from memory, so the realm of space became more fantastical, culminating in the emergence of subthemes such as Futuron and Blacktron in 1987. However, the emergence of Space Shuttles soon provided new material on which to base sets and the first official NASA branding appeared in 1682 Space Shuttle Launch, a Town set released in 1990. Other shuttles became available soon after but were emblazoned with the logo of a fictional space agency, a variant of which has appeared again as recently as 2015.
Space exploration continued into the new millennium and the most realistic sets yet were released under the Discovery theme in 2003. 7471 Mars Exploration Rover was one such set, based on the Spirit and Opportunity rovers which were launched in 2003 while other models such as 7468 Saturn V Moon Mission and 10029 Lunar Lander celebrated past achievements in spacefaring.
The range of space sets based in our own galaxy has diminished in recent years as Star Wars has grown to become one of the most successful LEGO themes, dominating the market for space-based toys. Nevertheless, 21104 NASA Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity Rover was released as the fifth LEGO CUUSOO set in 2014. Coincidentally, Curiosity and Opportunity are currently the only active probes on the Martian surface.
2017 will see yet another partnership between LEGO and NASA as Apollo 11 Saturn V is released. The success of this enormous LEGO Ideas project was announced alongside 21306 The Beatles Yellow Submarine but no further information has been revealed since then. The submission is just under a metre in height and it seems unlikely that the final model will be as large as that, although the results of the review place emphasis on the size of the model in which case this would be the largest LEGO Ideas set yet released.
Space exploration continues to fascinate us all and it seems likely that LEGO will continue to reflect this trend in coming years as it has done for the last half century. One wonders where humanity will venture next and whether the range of LEGO products will follow.