The launch of Apollo 11 took place precisely 48 years ago today so we have decided to focus upon a space-based set in recognition of the anniversary. Something from the Space Race would have been most appropriate but 21309 NASA Apollo Saturn V was reviewed in May so we are turning our attention to the Space Shuttle which was retired from service just six years ago.
31066 Space Shuttle Explorer is the latest in an enduring series of models based on the famed orbiter but looks quite distinctive, featuring an unusual brick-built cockpit alongside some familiar design elements. Furthermore, the two alternative builds look great as well. We have therefore constructed all three and discuss each of them below.
The set includes a single astronaut to pilot the Space Shuttle and he wears a fairly standard uniform consisting of a white helmet and space suit. The visor is trans-black which is not entirely realistic as a more reflective visor would be used for extravehicular operations, although I am pleased to be able to see the face underneath. Removing the helmet reveals a fairly neutral expression on one side of the head while the other is printed with a frightened face, suggesting that something has gone very wrong.
This space suit was introduced in the 2015 CITY Space range but remains fairly rare, appearing in just five other sets. It is printed with some impressive detail on the front and back, including metallic silver equipment and the space exploration logo. I like the red helmet ring printed just below the neck and the areas of black visible around the shoulders and hips look great too.
The astronaut is equipped with a black wrench as well as a small Manned Manoeuvring Unit. Light bluish grey elements represent the controller arms while a white 1x2 plate with handles forms the camera rig which slots around the head. This entire assembly is fitted to the back of the minifigure using a neck bracket and while it may not be particularly detailed, it is instantly recognisable and offers some play value.
The Completed Model
The first of the three models is a space rover. This occupies the fewest of the 285 pieces included in the set but it is still reasonably large, measuring just over 13cm in length. The vehicles includes six large wheels for rolling over rough terrain and this, combined with its somewhat front-heavy design, reminds me of the rovers from The Martian and Moon, two of my favourite recent space-based films. I think it looks pretty good on the whole, although the yellow plates visible between the wheels are somewhat irritating.
White elements dominate the rover but it also includes some blue stripes and a few pearl gold details, including a radiator grille at the front. This is mounted using a bracket and curved wedges are attached to the sides of the cab using bricks with studs on the side, forming quite an attractive shape. The windscreen does not line up perfectly with the curved slopes underneath but it fits fairly well and the proportions of the canopy seem reasonable.
The cockpit opens on a hinge and there is space to seat a minifigure inside. A single printed control panel is placed in front of the driver and this is also mounted on a hinge which leaves a couple of studs exposed, perhaps to represent buttons or dials. A steering wheel would have been ideal here but the design is naturally restricted by the primary model so a printed slope appears to be a good compromise in my opinion.
The flatbed storage area includes two equipment arms alongside a clip for the wrench. They fit reasonably well when the arms are folded but removing the black slopes just behind the cab would allow even more space. Curved slopes form the smooth rear of the vehicle and trans-neon orange lights are placed on either side. These might have been more appropriate facing forwards as there are no headlights but they look nice in this position too.
Deploying the arms reveals another yellow piece beneath the roof of the cab but otherwise the model features a reasonably uniform colour scheme. A light bluish grey dome is fitted to the end of one arm, representing either a drill or a probe of some kind. The other piece of equipment includes two trans-light blue 2x3 tiles with clips and is equally difficult to identify but it could be used as a scanner or a solar collector, depending on how it is positioned.
This is definitely my least favourite of the three models but it includes some pleasing details and the numerous moving parts are ideal for play. We may all imagine what a manned space rover might look like and I think this vehicle fits with those broad preconceptions, due perhaps to the borrowing of design features from several fictional and real world sources.
Once the rover has been disassembled you can construct a small base for use on an extraterrestrial planet or moon. I find this to be really impressive as the limited selection of pieces has not restricted the kind of model which can be created. Furthermore, the base looks brilliant and I think it could easily form the main model in another set with some minor modification and a few colour swaps.
A robotic arm is mounted in the maintenance area. The arm can rotate all the way around and includes two points of vertical articulation so you can pose it quite effectively. A wrench represents the grabbing claw at the end and a red control station is placed a short distance away, presumably for directing the arm. I think the blue Technic element towards the end of the arm looks rather out of place but it works perfectly for play.
The base is constructed using curved panels which form a cylindrical structure, reminiscent of many fictional extraterrestrial bases from film and television. Once again, I particularly get the feeling that The Martian had some influence on the design of these alternative models, the reasoning for which becomes even more apparent when we venture inside. A large hatch opens at one end to allow access and there is a grey step to keep out dust from the planetary or lunar surface.
I think the base looks well finished from the front but there are some gaps at the rear as the limited selection of pieces leaves part of the base open. This is a result of the limited parts available but also makes it much easier to play inside, especially when the roof-mounted solar panel is raised too. It is worth noting that the set includes a couple of tan 1x1 bricks with studs on two sides which are very useful and were only introduced this year.
The largest area of the base is covered by four curved panels which can be opened on hinges. The smaller cylindrical section is secured using clips on both sides so cannot open in the same way, thereby leaving an attractive blue stripe visible on top. Two plants are placed on the table inside, again recalling The Martian as a botanist tries to survive on Mars. I would even suggest that the tan 1x1 round plates resemble potatoes which seems to indicate that further inspiration has been taken from the film.
All 285 pieces are used in the Space Shuttle. LEGO often returns to this iconic design when creating sets and the popularity of the orbiter does not appear to have diminished even after its retirement from service. This examples measures 26cm long so is fairly similar to many of the recent CITY Space Shuttles in scale and certain aspects of its design are accordingly borrowed from past sets. I have no issue with this as there are some features, including the wings and engines, which would be difficult to improve upon in my opinion.
However, the cockpit is very distinctive and does not rely on a large canopy component. Instead, it is brick-built so is perhaps a little less realistic but is much more consistent with the values of LEGO and the Creator theme. I think it looks marvellous as the model is divided between black and white hull sections, just as on the real vehicle. Moreover, I like the curved slopes on either side of the trans-black windscreen and the general shaping of the cockpit seems quite accurate to me.
The roof and windscreen can be removed together, thereby revealing a seat for the pilot as well as a printed control panel and some buttons on the rear wall. Of course, a real Space Shuttle would seat more than one person but for the purposes of this set I think the present configuration is perfect. The cargo bay houses a satellite as well as a robotic arm, more commonly known as the Canadarm after its country of origin.
Opening the doors allows the arm to extend and it can then grab the folded satellite using a click hinge. This is a very satisfying feature and the arm is fixed to a turntable so can be rotated into position. The solar panels fold out and the satellite is then ready for release to orbit the Earth. It includes some pearl gold pieces to form the insulating blankets as well as a trans-clear 1x1 round tile which might represent a camera or a sensor.
The wings are constructed using layered plates which looks brilliant and I like the vertical stabiliser too, although the 1x2 slopes on top leave the black stripe appearing jagged which is not ideal. Nevertheless, the stabiliser is securely attached using two clips and the three main engines are also very sturdy due to the Technic assembly inside. The angled design is excellent and it is pleasing to see four smaller thruster nozzles hidden on either side of the uppermost engine nacelle as this is faithful to the source material.
White pieces dominates the top of the Space Shuttle but the underside is almost entirely black, but for a few dark bluish grey 2x2 sliders and some more colourful pieces beneath the cockpit. It would have been brilliant to see landing gear included but that would probably have been quite difficult at this scale, particularly if it needed to retract as on a real orbiter.
LEGO produces several hundred sets each year and it is almost impossible to keep up with them all. I am often guilty of overlooking the Creator range as a result but am very pleased to have purchased 31066 Space Shuttle Explorer as this model is highly detailed and looks brilliant on display. It also includes some fun play features, the most notable of which is the articulated Canadarm and the deployable satellite.
Furthermore, the two alternative models are almost as impressive as the shuttle. I like the space base very much as the curved panels are perfectly suited to forming a cylindrical habitation unit, a lot like those seen in various films and television series. My only slight concern is with the price of £24.99 or $29.99 which is not quite as impressive as some other Creator sets. On the other hand, several large pieces are included and I still think the set offers reasonable value so would definitely recommend it to space fans.
I hope you have found this review informative. Let us know by liking this article and share your thoughts on the set in the comments below.