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Space Shuttle Columbia


Columbia Orbiter

by John Darlington



Airfix's 1/144 scale Space Shuttle is available online from Squadron.com




Call it morbid fascination or whatever, but I became, like many others I suspect, caught up in the tragedy of the Columbia disaster of 1st February 2003 as the Space shuttle catastrophically broke up on re-entry into the earths atmosphere over Texas. I am often inspired to build a particular model when the real thing features in an event or sometimes a movie.

So after a bit of exploring on the internet to find out which space shuttle kits were available and which was best (I had already decided to opt for a kit with the solid rocket boosters etc) it seemed that, by general concensus, the 1/144 scale Airfix kit was the best overall although all available had some shortcomings.

The worst features of the Airfix kit was a lack of a cockpit interior and a poor cargo bay. I did not see this as too much of a problem as I figured you wouldn't see much through the main windows anyway and I planned to have the cargo bay doors closed. The Airfix kit had a fairly accurate shape overall and very well detaled SRBs and external tank.

I planned to build the kit in four sub-assemblies: external tank 2 x SRB's and the orbiter itself, and bring them all together on completion after painting etc was completed.





The kit itself built up fairly quickly and I worked on each of the four sub-assemblies simultaneously. The fit of the parts was extremely good.

I briefly toyed with the idea of scratchbuilding a cockpit (flight-deck??) but decided it wasn't worth the effort considering how little would be seen once the windscreens were fitted. In hindsight I was absolutely right! All I did was paint the interior black.

I also fitted the cargo bay interior but this was more to add strength than anything since the bay doors would be closed on the completed model as were the undercarriage doors which were also glued in the closed position.

Incidentally, one of the worst fitting parts of the kit was the clear windscreen part and I ended up using C.A. (superglue) to both glue it in place and fill all the gaps around it, followed by lots of sanding and polishing.

During my research on the internet I discovered a company called Realspace models which did a set of resin engine nozzles and more accurate decals so, not being one to build anything straight from the box these days, I proceeded to multiply the cost of the kit.



Painting, Masks and Decals


Originally, I had fully intended to paint the kit white, mask it up, and spray the tiled areas matt black and so I proceeded to aid this process by sanding off the raised panel lines on the orbiter and rescribing. This was relatively simple as they are mostly straight lines.

Also, while I was at Tamiyacon someone there was selling the Space Shuttle Walkaround book and, fatally, I bought it. I say fatally because this was originally going to be a quck build (is there such a thing?) At about the same time Cutting Edge released a set of decals which had extra bits that the Realspace ones didn't include, a set of Black Magic masks for the tile shapes (I wasn't looking forward to all that masking anyway), followed by (oh lucky me) a set of decals to replicate the actual tiling. And so AMS immediately kicked in and the various bits and pieces are soon in the mailbox and I'm working on another $200+ kit.

But of course what a difference all this made to the completed model, it was no longer just a black and white piece of painted plastic!

Masking the shuttle wouldn't have been too difficult but the Black Magic vinyl masks speeded up the process somewhat. The Realspace decal sheet had a beautiful decal of the windscreen frame and the tiled area around it but no matter what I did I couldn't make it fit! I guess that says something about the accuracy of the shape of the Airfix windscreen.

The Black Magic tile decal, although a great improvement over simply painting the kit, seemed to me a bit light in colour and there were a few comments on HyperScale to this effect. I considered this problem for a while before deciding to pain matt black in the positions where the dark coloured tiles would be (ie únderneath the decals') and to overspray heavily thinned matt black lightly over the decals while they were still on the sheet just for good measure. I believe this worked fairly well leaving the decals not too dark and not too light.

The only other criticism I would make is that the tiles carry on along the fuselage sides quite prominently and these are not included in the tile decals so I replicated this with off-white coloured paint.

Painting the SRB's was easy - white all over then apply decals, but the external fuel tank proved quite challenging, mostly to obtain it's colour realistically as there is no dedicated paint colour that I'm aware of.
Also, after studying various photos the external tank is not one solid colour but has an almost shaded effect which I wanted to replicate. This was mostly accomplished by trial and error so I cannot explain in any detail how this was done.



Finishing Touches and Display


Once painting and decalling was complete, it was time to bring all the various sub-assemblies together and this also proved hassle-free. The next major hurdle was how to mount it for display. Airfix supplied a plastic stand to display the model in a "flying"attitude but I thought it looked a bit tacky and decided to go with a simple painted base (someone at IPMS suggested I might scratchbuild a launch platform..... yeah right!)

Even then, mounting it wasn't going to be such a simple task. The only place to mount it is via the SRB nozzles so I decided to drill a couple of holes inside the nozzle and superglue the heftiest bit of sprue I could find inside which would the be inserted into holes drilled into the base, sounds easy, right? Not quite, as the holes must be drilled so that the model sits squarely on the base and is also straight up and down vertically.





In conclusion, the Airfix is, arguably, the best Space Shuttle kit in1/144 scale and with all the aftermarket accessories now available you can really go to town on it.



Additional Images


Click on the thumbnails below to view larger images:

Model and Text Copyright © 2003 by John Darlington
Images Copyright © 2003 by Craig Sargent
Page Created 10 September, 2003
Last Updated 17 March, 2004

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