Started: Mar 2018
Finished: Apr 2018
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In 1959, the race between the United States and the Soviet Union to conquer space was heating up and NASA awarded the contract to build the Mercury capsule to the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation. The Mercury was to be the spacecraft that would fly the first American astronauts
The initial sub-orbital Mercury flights (Shepard and Grissom) were launched using the less powerful Redstone booster with the remaining four brave American Mercury astronauts (Glenn, Carpenter, Schirra and Cooper) acheiving earth orbit with the increased power of the Convair Atlas SLV-3D booster, a derivative of the successful SM-65D Atlas missle.
The Mercury space capsule was designed to carry supplies of water, food and oxygen for about one day in a pressurized cabin. Mercury flights were launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida where the capsule was fitted with a launch escape rocket to carry it safely away from the launch vehicle in case of a failure.
The flight was designed to be controlled from the ground via a system of tracking and communications stations. Small retrorockets were used to bring the spacecraft out of its orbit, after which an ablative heat shield protected it from the heat of atmospheric reentry. Finally, a parachute slowed the craft for a water landing. Both astronaut and capsule were recovered by helicopters deployed from a U.S. Navy ship.
After a slow start riddled with humiliating mistakes, the Mercury project gained popularity, its missions followed by millions on radio and TV around the world. Its success laid the groundwork for Project Gemini, which carried two astronauts in each capsule and perfected space docking maneuvers essential for manned lunar landings in the subsequent Apollo program announced a few weeks after the first manned Mercury flight.
Horizon Models is a relatively new Australian kit manufacturer, which for me is quite a novelty. Being local would be enough reason for me to try out their kits but when the subject matter is Real Space flight then they definitely got me hooked. To date Horizon have released four kits, each of which is related in some way to the NASA Mercury program. One kit is dedicated to the Mercury capsule itself (of which you get two in the box), two of the kits are focused on the Atlas launch vehicle (the Mercury version and the ICBM version), and the last kit so far is of course the Mercury + Redstone launch vehicle combination.
Once you crack the seal on the box of any of these kits it quickly becomes apparent the high level of effort the folks at Horizon have undertaken to ensure they deliver the most detailed and accurate space kits in 1:72 available today. Included in each kit are injection moulded plastic sprues, photo-etch detail frets for the Mercury capsule and launch vehicles and of course a decal sheet printed by Microscale in the US. The assembly instructions are logically laid out and more than gives enough detail to allow you to work out which options are appropriate for the particular Mercury mission you select to depict.
Of course no kit is perfect and I found a few areas that could benefit from extra detailing but everything I did was not to correct inaccuracies in the kit rather to enhance. I found the fit of the kits to be excellent, the parts layout and general engineering to be sensible. In fact the biggest challenge for the modeller will be in the painting. Natural metal finishes and white can be a bit daunting so make sure you are comfortable with your weapon of choice (I am an Alclad man for NMF and Tamiya Primer for White finishes) before taking on these subjects and you should have no troubles. I tackled both these kits at the same time as they are relatively simple with low part counts and because the mercury capsules are basically identical bewteen the two models which makes it quicker when building and painting them together.
Horizon provides everything you need in each of its kits to build any of the Mercury missions, including the unmanned and boilerplate flights. As I planned to build the very first Mercury flight (Alan Shepard in Freedom 7) for my Redstone model I thought it would be interesting to select the very last Mercury flight (Gordo Cooper in Faith 7) for my Atlas build. In this way I could nicely bookend the Mercury program in one project.
Mankind has always dreamed of space travel, to explore the moon and visit the distant planets. From 1962 this dream began to turn into reality, as the first Americans orbited the Earth using the Mercury-Atlas. Flying solo, they would pilot the Mercury capsule, which sat on top of the mighty Convair Atlas rocket, and experience extreme acceleration during the rapid ascent into space. Travelling at over 27,500 kilometres per hour, they would orbit the earth every 90 minutes. Upon re-entry, the ablative shield on the outside of their capsule would save them from temperatures of over 1,000 degrees Celsius. Once in Earth's atmosphere, a large parachute would slow them and their capsule to a safe speed, allowing a splash down in the ocean. The successful Mercury program paved the way for more ambitious manned spaceflight programs, which eventually saw man walk on the moon. [source: www.horizon-models.com]
I started my build with the Atlas launch vehicle, ie the Atlas missile body and engines. These early rockets were fairly basic single stage machines and the models are therefore equally straightforward to assemble as they consist pretty much of two halves. After doing some test fitting I felt that the Atlas body would benefit from some internal support to make it more rigid and I just happened to have been doing some gap filling around the house with self expanding foam. It seemed that this might be a good option to fill the body of the Atlas once I had glued the two halves together. I simply used masking tape to block off the bottom and filled the body from the top. As you can see from the photo this stuff expands a lot and as it dried it poured out the top of the rocket and even out through the small locating pin holes I had pre-drilled on the sides of the rocket. Its very sticky when wet so make sure you protect the outside of the rocket body with tape as much as possible.
Once the filler foam had dried it was easily trimmed use a knife blade, with the end result being exactly what I hoped for. The lightweight filler had pretty much eliminated any flex in the body tube and would make subsequent sanding and scribing work much easier.
As I began the seam work along the length of the rocket I wondered if the panel line detail was not a bit over scale for a 1/72 Atlas body. As best I can tell the real body was made from welded bands of stainless steel so any seams between the bands would be very minor.
To deal with the existing panel lines I decided to fill them and sand smooth as a starting point. I used Super Glue (CA) much like I had done on previous builds where I had a similar need to fill gaps or deep panel lines that would require rescribing later on. I have found that Super Glue works well in this role as a filler but can be a little unreliable when it comes to the scribing. The scribing blade can sometimes get caught in pockets where the glue has not cured consistently and this leads to badly formed panel lines (a pet hate of mine). Luckily this problem tends to happen very infrequently but I was still concerned on this model given just how much glue I was using and how many panel lines would need to be re-scribed.
With the main body of the rocket dealt with for the time being I turned now to the lower section of the Atlas. Kennedy Space Center has a display area with an Atlas (and Redstone) which you can get very close to for photos. It very likely that the Atlas at KSC is different to the vehicles used in the actual Mercury launches but I figured that using a combination of 1960's period photos and these KSC walkarounds I would not be too far off.
Comparing the kit parts with the reference photos I noted several areas that could benefit from some extra detailing and removal of over scale items such as those super heavy rivets. It's surprising how much difference it can make to a model by doing basic things like thinning down over scale parts.
To thin down curved parts I like to wrap the wet n dry paper around a section of wooden dowel. The curved surface ensures that the plastic part is consistently abraded and helps to minimise any high and low points. Once the part had been thinned to look more like the real item (which is clearly just sheet metal) I used some 30x30 thou Evergreen to fill in the ribs which run under the cover plate. These don't need to be perfect length wise as only the very top will even be seen.
One other difference I noticed between the model parts and the reference photos was that the kit had recessed panel lines on the bottom skirt section whilst on the real vehicle there were rows of raised rivet heads. I had an idea as to how I could represent these on the model and so the first step was to fill the existing panel lines. For this I used Tamiya Basic Putty, rather than Super Glue, as I knew I would not need to re-scribe over this area. Some raised ribbing and cover plate detail was added from 20 thou card and I was then ready for a coat of Tamiya Fine Grey Primer to test my work.
To make life easier to reproduce lines of raised (positive) rivet heads several companies (HGW, Archer and Micro Mark) make these available in decal form. I've a couple of sheets of the Micro Mark rivets for some time and have used them on very small projects. I saw an opportunity to try them out properly on the lower skirt of the Atlas and so I applied several coats of Gloss Clear over the primer to ensure the decals adhered properly. They are printed on a continuous carrier film so have be cut out in strips and applied like any other decal. They performed pretty much as you would expect but I was disappointed with the thickness of the carrier film which is quite noticeable in the close up shots. HGW uses a different approach by making the rivets like transfers which results in no carrier film. I'll have to try these out next time. Other small details were added from card and brass to match the photos I had on hand.
Next up was the Mercury capsule. Horizon have engineered the capsule sprues very cleverly to enable you to be able to make any of the variants of the manned and unmanned capsules. For the Atlas build I pretty much used the plastic parts as provided, later on when I built Freedom 7 I needed to use many of the provided PE parts to convert the capsule back to the porthole version used on Shephards historic mission.
The fit of the capsule segments is excellent. I would suggest you build the center core first, then attach it to the heatshield base and leave to dry. Next attach the skin of the capsule around the outside using thin liquid glue to secure the parts once you have everything aligned properly.
When displayed in a launch configuration, the capsule has a framework tower fitted to the top. This tower cotains 3 emergency rockets which are designed to fire and 'eject' the capsule from the rocket body in the case of an emergency. This safety tower is very visible on the finshed model because a) it sits on the very top and b) its painted bright red. Be sure to take your time to cleanup the parts of the tower and test fit them to ensure the alignment is square before applying glue.
Once assembled the tower is quite sturdy, the nozzles for the rockets around the top have a very small mating surface and I had mine come away a couple of times before finally getting sick of it and pinning them with brass. As I mentioned above its important that you ensure the tower is square because it will be very noticeable once fitted to the capsule and rocket if its crooked.
I had some difficulty sliding the tower base over the top of the capsule and so needed to sand down the capsule a small amount to obtain a proper fit. Go slowly here otherwise you could lose all the nice ribbing on the capsule cap. Horizon provides PE parts for the wiring harness but I just can't live with flat PE being used for round cables like this. Instead I used some 0.2mm copper wire to make up the cabling.
If you are modelling the capsule off the rocket then Horizon provides the retro rocket pack which is attached to the heatshield via metal straps.
As I was attaching my capsule to the Atlas booster I technically did not need to assemble the retro pack and straps but I was curious as to how it fitted and so spent 5 mins making it up for a photo. It actually looks very convincing with the use of PE for the straps. Everything fitted spot on, another testament to Horizons engineering skills. To allow the Mercury capsule to fit atop the Atlas misile NASA had to design an adapter which is shown here next to the capsule.
The capsule adapter has a few detail parts that need to be added. The LOX (Liquid Oxygen) vent has a cover which Horizon provide in PE. This needs to be bent to the correct shape and then glued to the adapter in the correct location. Like always in this hobby, measure twice and glue once.
I took the time to remove a square section of the adaptor ribbing which sits under the LOX vent and cover. This was simple enough to do with a sharp blade and looks way better than just gluing the circular vent on top of the ribs.
The last thing I took the time to attend to was reshaping the three capsule attachment points on the top of the adapter ring. These were hand shaped from Evergreen strip and you can see the difference in this before and after photo.
At this point the work on the capsule, its tower and the Atlas adapter ring was complete. These parts were now ready for painting.
The Atlas D had three engines and Horizon provides each of the engine bells in two halves. This of course means we get some seams which are a bit tricky due to the raised ribbing on the surface of the bells. To help me get in between the raised bands and sand the seam I made a small modification to one of Flexi File abrasive bands. I trimmed the width of the flexible abrasive band down so that it fitted nicely between the raised ribs and it did a pretty good job of sanding smooth the Tamiya liquid primer which I had applied two coats by brush over the length of the seam. This was the first time I had used the Tamiya Liquid primer and it behaves much like Mr Surfacer.
The main umbilical conduit which runs along the surface of the booster to the spacecraft is provided by Horizon as two parts, A10 and B8. When I test fitted these parts they did not quite meet in the middle which resulted in a small but very noticeable gap of about 1.5mm. To address this I dry fitted the two lengths to the booster body and then inserted some plastic card to fill the gap. This was glued (carefully) to fill the gap and why dry it was sanded to shape. Take careful note of the instructions on where to locate the Rate Gyro (part A3) on the umbilical.
It was now time to start the painting process and I tackled the main booster body first. I wanted to try and achieve some variation in the bands of the body (just like the real thing) without making them look too different as this would be to distracting. Having decided to use Alclad ALC-115 Stainless Steel for the main body I knew that with this paint it was possible to alter its look by simply varying the undercoat. I selected several random bands on the body, masked each off in turn and randomly sprayed some Semi Gloss Black in each band. I did not want to make these band solid black as that would look too uniform on the finished model once the Stainless Steel was applied. It actually worked pretty well even though in the pictures of the finished parts you can't see that much variation, it is there, just not obvious in the photos.
The Atlas decal sheet has been printed by Microscale in the US. I personally find Microscale decals to be some of the best around as they are super thin, respond very consistently and predictably to setting/softening solutions and the color opacity is excellent. Horizon provides options for each and every Atlas-Mercury launch.
With the parts painted I wanted to seal the Alclad Stainless Steel for general handling, masking and decaling. I have found that certain gloss clears do not lay down smoothly over NMF and so I did some testing of the clears I had at my disposal. Long story short the one that I found laid down almost perfectly over the metallic finish was the new Tamiya Lacquer LP-9 Gloss Clear thinned with Tamiya's own Lacquer thinner. I sprayed a couple of very light coats to protect the sensitive Stainless Steel finish and was then ready to apply the decals. Perhaps the trickiest decal to apply was the one designed to be laid over the LOX Pressurisation Line that runs over the top of the vertical UNITED STATES markings. Horizon provides this special decal for both words (Decal 10 a& 12) and you need to carefully wrap the decal around the thin tube part. I used liberal amounts of Micro Sol (softening solution) and patience to get these decals to wrap properly. Fit the line to the model to ensure the decals align correctly to the ones applied to the body of the booster (Decals 9 & 11)
After working with the Alclads on the main booster body I turned my attention to the Mercury spacecraft. I wanted there to be some visible contrast between the Atlas adapter ring and the capsule so I used a couple of different shades of black. Tamiya has several in their line up which range from pure blacks to what I refer to as "licorice blacks" in the form of Rubber Black and NATO Black. For the capsule I went with XF-86 Rubber Black with a couple of drops of XF-8 Flat Blue. The other parts were painted in Semi Gloss Black and Pure Red from the newer Tamiya Lacquer range (for no other reason than I wanted to try them out).
The lower section of the Atlas booster has a lot of stencils that need to be applied. For the two equipment pods on the body sides, the extensive stencilling is provided in a single (large) decal. I initially thought about cutting this decal up into smaller sections but given how well the Microscale decals had settled down on the capsule and upper booster body I decided to roll the dice and apply it as provided. By flooding the larger pod surface with Micro Set and then methodically squeezing out any liquid and bubbles from under the decal once in place I was able to get it down without any issues. I applied Micro Sol to the decal once it had dried a little to soften it and then used a sharpened toothpick to coax the decal down into the panel lines.
The lower skirt of the Atlas is covered with many small stencils as well. Once again I took my time using the Microscale Set and Sol solutions to position and soften each decal. In this way you can avoid silvering and other nasty problems in most cases.
I was getting close now to finishing the Atlas and wanted to see how it should be mounted in the display base. Horizon does provide a base for the Atlas which relies entirely on the strength of the center engine nozzle bell. I wanted to mount my Atlas on a wooden base and so cut the insert section of their base off and pinned it to the wooden base. Unfortunately this was not strong enough and the rocket teetered dangerously. I thought that if I could put a brass rod through the two outer engines it would be stable enough. Of course I should have dealt with all this much earlier in the build but sometimes you just need to put your problem solving hat one. Luckily I had not yet glued the bottom skirt to the booster body so was able to use my Dremmel to cut a hole in the top of the skirt and thus gain access to be able to glue some blocks of plastic on top of each of the outer engines. When dry I drilled a hole up through the nozzles and into the plastic blocks. This gave the brass rod a strong mount with the rocket and when attached to my wooden base solve the wobble problem.
Last step was to apply a light wash using MiG Ammo PLW which helped bring out some of the nice detail particularly evident on the Atlas lower section. The lower skirt was also sprayed with a flat coat of Tamiya XF-86 Flat Clear to further show the difference between it and the stainless steel body which was left untouched.
The completed Horizon Models 1:72 Atlas with Mercury capsule stands just a whisker over 400mm (15.7 inches) when fully assembled. I had originally planned to try out some metal foil for the booster body but am actually glad I went with Alclad instead. I have another of these kits in the stash and next time when I build the ICBM version I may have a crack at using foil.
In 1961, two brave men became the first Americans to fly into space. Launched atop Redstone rockets, they experienced incredible acceleration during 142 seconds of powered flight, after which their Mercury spacecraft separated from the booster to coast majestically to altitudes over 117 miles (188 km). From there they would experience about five minutes of weightlessness, and gaze down upon the Earth from their incredible vantage point. A short time later, their re-entry would begin - racing back towards the Earth until they hit the atmosphere, the deceleration building up until they reached about 11g, after which their parachute would deploy to slow their spacecraft so they could safely splash down in the Atlantic Ocean. Only two men would fly the Mercury-Redstone, but they paved the way for more ambitious spaceflights which eventually saw man walk on the moon. [source: www.horizon-models.com]
The Redstone kit is a smaller and simpler build than the Atlas due mainly to the lower part of the booster fins. The Redstone only has one engine with the nozzle contained within the rockets body. Two of the fours fins are moulded onto the body and as I was testing fitting I noted that much of the recessed panel and rivet surface detail was poorly formed. This was especially noticeable closest to the seam as the injection moulding process often struggles with faithfully representing detail on this part of kits (even Hasegawa suffers from this). I grabbed my trusty rivet tool (one of the Hasegawa Trytool series) and went over each rivet by hand. After only a short time (30 mins) I had sharpened up all the rivets such that I was confident they would hold a wash later on.
As with the Atlas booster body before I decided to fill the existing kit panel lines and rescribe myself. This time around rather than use Super Glue as the filler I decided to try something a bit different in the form of disolved plastic. I had seen this used with great affect before and the first step is to cut some spare sprue trees into small chips which you then place into a suitable container (I used an empty paint bottle made of glass).
To dissolve the plastic chips you need some sort of liquid styrene glue. I chose the Tamiya Extra Thin (Quick Setting) and poured this into the bottle till all the chips were submerged. Stir it around to get the glue into all the nooks and crannies and leave overnight. Next day you should find the plastic chips have melted and formed a nice paste. If your plastic has not melted completely then leave it a bit longer and continue to stir, adding more glue if needed.
Once the mix is smooth and consistent we can apply it to the model. I found that the ideal consistency is about that of honey, this means its thin enough to go into the gaps but not run everywhere. To apply the mix I used one of those pointed 'cosmetic' stye cotton buds. I dipped the pointy end in the mix and then smoothed it over the panel lines. Do not try and fill the panel lines to the top, just apply one swipe and move on. This stuff is not like putty, go will make one of a mess if you try and smooth it out with the appplicator. You can see the basic result in the picture below. You will need to leave the mix for one to two days to dry properly (it is basically styrene glue after all).
I started by sanding the plastic filler mix with 400 grade wet n dry emery paper. Wrap the paper around the body of the rocket to help avoid flat spots being sanded into the surface.It's pretty easy to sand, it is after all just plastic mixed with glue. I switched to 600 and finally 1200 wet n dry to smooth out the surface.
The final step was to replace the panel lines with new ones. Out came my trusty Tamiya Scriber and some 1/16" Pactra vinyl tape. I like the vinyl tape as it is very flexible while still providing a very distinct edge for the scriber to follow. Each horizontal panel line was re-scribed and I also added the missing vertical joins for each band. I will admit some of my tape layout was a bit wonky (more on that later) but I can tell you that the panel lines were far superior (consistent and sharp) scribing the plastic filler than any I had achieved using super glue filler. Whilst its more time consuming than simple super glue, for projects like this one the plastic filler mix is the way to go.
The Redstone missile had a simple pedestal base and Horizon have thankfully provided one in their kit. The fine detail around the circumference of the stand was achieved by photo etch parts. Taking the time to bend each of these prior to positioning and glueing will help you get a good result. I assembled the whole base and painted in one piece.
A light coat of Tamiya primer revealed some small areas that needed touchups. The re-worked rivet detail can now be seen to good effect. Don't forget to attach the PE Lox Vent part prior to painting like I did :)
It was now time to make my second Mercury capsule but this time around I needed to use considerably more of the provided photo etch parts to represent the very early 'porthole' version, which incidentally was only ever used in one of the six manned Mercury flights, that being the very first with Alan Shepard in Freedom 7. You need to add the two round portholes, a PE cover plate which hides the molded-in window (used only on the later flights) and the early hatch. Check the Horizon instructions and photos to make sure you place each of these in the correct position.
I next applied a base coat of Tamiya Semi Gloss Black and then masked off the tracking markings found on the propulsion section of the booster. Plenty of awkward angles here to get your tape around so patience and double/triple checking the alignment is essential.
For my favourite white I once again turned again to Tamiya White Primer (from a rattle can) which I now decant for airbrushing. I applied this over the black base coat in thin layers and being a "primer" the white covers even black in as few as two coats. As I was working my way up the length of the booster it was now that I realised just how 'wonky' some of those panel lines were !! As eager as I was get this model finished I could not live with those wayward panel lines and took to the rocket with 600 grade paper. I once again filled in the offending panel lines and re-scribed them properly. I used Micro Mesh cloth the blend the existing painted sections with the clean sections. Last thing you want is a visible 'step' along the paint demarcation line.
Thinking ahead at this point I wondered if it would be wise for me to use the provided single piece decal which is designed for use on the top of the rocket (it actually covers the Redstones Instrument section). My main concern was if the white on this decal would match the white of my painted body. Rather than take the risk that it would not match I decided to take the longer road of masking these complex black and white alternating stripes.
I spent quite some time experimenting with different methods to get the spacing for each strip to be consistent and in the end opted for making a photo-copy of the decal, cutting this to size and taping it to the model. With this as a guide I then marked with pencil where each piece of masking tape was needed. This worked very well with all the stipes coming out just as they should :) Several passes where needed to get both the vertical and horizontal sections painted properly but I believe that in the end the result was worth it.
The decal sheet for the Horizon Models Redstone is printed by Microscale and includes options to build any one of the six Mercury launches. A small correction sheet is also included but is only applicable if you are building MR-1, an unmanned craft which suffered an aborted launch.
Painting now completed I applied an overall coat of Tamiya Clear (X-22) and began the decaling process. Once again the Redstone was considerably easier than the Atlas. The Microscale decals performed well once again.
I applied a Medium Gray wash from the MiG Ammo range as this seemed the best shade to cover both the black and white areas. Using the right wash is important as too dark or too light can ruin all the work you have done before if not careful.
Last step was to apply a couple of coats of Tamiya Flat Clear and then final assembly. Horizon provides fine PE parts for the antennae found on the exterior of the instrument section. As with the Atlas build I painted the capsule with Tamiya Rubber Black with a couple of drop of Blue. The portholes were oversprayed with Clear Blue and left gloss to represent glass.
The Medium Gray panel wash did a good job of helping to highlight the surface rivet and panel line detail without jumping out at you. I selected a Medium Green to paint the launch pedestal but of course as always happens later found color reference which showed perhaps a medium blue would have been more appropriate for the MR-7 Freedom 7 launch.
I started these two kits primarily to take a break from my aircraft centric build schedule. Somewhere along the way I picked up a new appreciation and admiration for the men and machines who pioneered space flight and had an enjoyable time building these kits to boot.
I'm pretty proud to be an Australian and when it comes to domestic plastic kit manufacturers, we are pretty light on. So when a company comes along like Horizon Models I'm all for throwing my support behind them. What makes supporting this company super easy for me is that their product is so darn good.
Sure I added some bits and pieces to my build (that's just what I do) but at no point did I catch myself thinking "what a chore this is", in fact I found myself planning out my next Horizon projects.
I highly recommend these kits. Even if real space is not your thing, you can literally build them in a weekend and who knows, you may just find yourself, like me, drawn into the fascinating world of manned space flight, heck you might even enjoy yourself along the way.