Apollo 11 CSM

Dragon 1/48 Apollo 11 CSM – part 1  by Gray Sharpling

After my epic (for me at least) Phantom build, I thought I would make something simpler.  So for a complete change of genre, as well as change of pace, and magnitude, I went back to the late 1960’s and my childhood.

For those of you who don’t know, “CSM” is the NASA acronym for “Command and Service Module”, and Dragon’s latest offering looked to be a superb rendition of the classic Apollo spacecraft in large 1/48 scale.  Previously, 1/72 was the biggest easily available without searching-out rare and expensive resin offerings from garage firms.  In the box are just 59 parts on three sprues, including the four etched-brass S-band antennas and the four, four-part RCS (Reaction Control System) thrusters, plus an aluminium stand.  Surprisingly, the engine bell of the SPS (Service Propulsion System) was moulded as a single casting – Dragon’s slide-mould technology coming to the fore here.  As it also was in the tiny RCS thrusters, where the ribbed, hollow thruster-cones were perfectly moulded little works of art.

Yes I know, NASA just love their acronyms.  I promise not to bore you all with any more explanations from now on; if you’re interested, you can always look them up here:  http://history.nasa.gov/EP-95/acronym.htm.

The Apollo spacecraft is a very simply shape, basically a cylinder topped by a truncated cone, and the SPS engine bell.  Apart from a few small bits of greebly (RCS thrusters, grab-handles, and the S-band antenna) here and there, that’s about it!  So there isn’t much to add detail to, therefore this kit would be all about the finish.  It was clear from the references that NASA didn’t bother with much paint, leaving the spacecraft almost all bare-metal.  The CM was a very highly polished silver colour, effectively almost a mirror-finish chrome, and the bulk of the SM was a not-quite-as-shiny polished aluminium.  So I decided to use this kit as my first ever experiment using Alclad2 metallic lacquers.  Their ALC-107 High-Shine Chrome, and ALC-105 Polished Aluminium.  Having never tried any Alclad2’s before, I could only hope these two shades wouldn’t end up too similar to each other?

 Future-Proofing – Service Module (SM) Construction and Modification

There was very little to the kit generally.  Certainly a complete change of pace from the Phantom.  Two large rings act as the “chassis”, with six panels attached to make the basic service module cylinder.  Then simply add a top and bottom end-cap and the main construction would be done.  So just ten parts altogether: two interior frame pieces, six side panels, and two end-caps.  To try and preserve the surface finish as much as I could, I did all gluing from the inside wherever possible.  The plastic was surprisingly thick in places, which made for a very sturdy model.  However, as you will have seen, I do appear to love to make life difficult for myself.  Read on…

I also had the Dragon 1/48 Apollo 11 Lunar Module kit in the stash, and so I had the idea of potentially displaying the two docked.  However, this presented several problems.  The first was that it would mean I had to complete both kits before I could display either.  Then there was the fact that when docked, all the lovely detail of the docking probe on the CM would be lost, effectively hidden inside the LM.  Lastly, there was the question of simple structural strength.  Once docked, all the weight of the LM would be pulling on the glue joint at a fulcrum-point of the docking ring on the CM, and I was certain there was absolutely no way this could stand the strain.  So I had a think.


Interlocking brass tubes will act as internal support for when I eventually “dock” the LM to the CSM.

The solution I came up with seemed to solve all these issues in one go – brass tubing.  I bought two sizes of brass tubing that exactly fit one inside the other.  Then the plan was to mount the larger of the two inside both the CSM and the LM (when I got around to building it).  The docking probe assembly on the CM could then be used as a simple “push-plug” to cover the end of the tubing when/if I were to display the CSM on its own – in case I didn’t finish the LM in time for example, you know how slow-a-builder I am after all!  The CM docking probe detail would be visible, and the tubing would be hidden.  Then if I wanted to “dock” the LM to the CSM, I could simply remove the docking probe plug, and insert a length of the slightly smaller brass tubing into the top of the now-open CSM, and then “dock” the LM to that.  The two kits then become properly docked, and the brass tubing takes all the weight of the LM and avoids any strain on the CM’s plastic docking ring.  I was quite pleased with myself at the idea.  Now I just had to put it into practice.

First I started trying to cut a hole in the centre of the SM top-plate.  As already stated, the plastic in this kit is surprisingly thick in places, and this was looking to be a long and tedious job.  So my impatience got the better of me – out came the Black & Decker!  It worked well though, and I got a nice hole of just the right size for my brass tubing in the centre of the SM top-plate.  There was actually some quite nice detail on this top-plate that, even building this kit straight out-of-the-box with no modifications, would be completely hidden once the CM was installed.  So I wasn’t sure why Dragon bothered to include it in the kit in the first place – just to make up the parts-count perhaps?

SPS Heat Shield and SM shell.

SM top-plate detail,
with new hole for brass tube.

Internal bracing for the brass tubing.

 With the bottom end-plate (the Heat-Shield for the SPS) of the SM cemented into place, I then super-glued the brass tube to the bottom of the kit, pointing up through the top like a large lollipop.  Once this had set, I used old sprue to make some reinforcing bracing inside the SM to hold it in place, as this tube could be taking a fair amount of strain once the LM was docked to the top of it.  Only then did I drop the top-plate over the end of the tube and cement that in place, adding lots more superglue around the brass tube, now poking out the top.  I wanted this to be as sturdy as I could get it, as I wouldn’t be able to take it apart if anything broke later on.

                   lollipop anyone?

Command Module (CM) Construction

The basic CM was ever simpler than the SM.  Just two parts, the CM cone, and the heat shield, as opposed to the SM’s massive ten pieces!  The SPS engine bell is a single piece.  The rest of the model is basically just the greebly dressing, which was mostly to be added after the main painting and construction was done.

Feeling a bit like I was committing sacrilege, the Black & Decker again drilled holes through both the top of the CM and the heat shield to allow passage of my brass tubing.  The “butchering” now complete, I cemented the heat shield to the CM and (hated task!) putty’ed the seam between the two.  I wasn’t sure if this seam would even actually be visible once the CM was installed atop the SM, but I made the effort anyway, “just in case”.  Then I simply placed the CM into it’s socket to get the correct height to cut-off my brass tubing.  That done, I removed the CM again, it wouldn’t be fixed in place until almost all the painting had been completed.

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Committing sacrilege on a perfectly good model?

Main parts primed with Tamiya Fine Surface Primer.

Knowing that I was intending to use the Alclads for most of the painting, I knew that the model needed to be primed.  A rattle-can of Tamiya Fine Surface Primer was purchased, and I retired to the garage for a few minutes.  I wasn’t going to even try using a rattle-can inside the house, that’s for sure.  At least with the brass tubing, and holes for it, I had convenient places to hold the various sub-assemblies whilst I carefully sprayed the primer.  That done, the remainder of the “normal” painting could be done using my trusty airbrush.

The heat-shield of the CM was first.  Even though only a sliver of the edge of it would be visible where the CM nestled into the top of the SM, that edge still needed paint of course.  In real-life it was a sort of off-white cream colour.  So I added just a very few drops of Tamiya XF-60 Dark Yellow to XF-2 Flat White, and mixed thoroughly.  The result was very pleasing to my eye, and once dry I gave it a quick coat of protective Valejo acrylic matt varnish before I masked it off in readiness for the dreaded Alclads.

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CM Heat-Shield masked off.

SPS Heat-Shield masked off, leaving hole for SPS mount.

I ran into a small problem here, as the Valejo varnish seemed to gum-up my airbrush a bit – the next colour I tried, even after a thorough run-though with thinner, was very reluctant to come out, and when it did it splattered a bit.  So I was forced into a complete strip-down-clean of the airbrush before I could continue.  I discovered that the previously superb Valejo varnish had gone into a sort-of rubber-like compound inside the airbrush.  I never had this problem when I did my old T-55 last year.  Maybe I just hadn’t thinned it enough?  I guess I’ll find out next time I try to use it?  Anyway, cleaning chores done, I pressed on.

I sprayed the SM bottom heat-shield with Tamyia X-32 Titanium Silver, let that dry, and then some tricky masking to paint the SPS engine mount X-31 Titanium Gold.  Then the whole lot was masked for the next stage – the dreaded Alclad’s, for both the SM and CM.

On went the Alclad black gloss base.  Very nice, very smooth, although for some strange reason Dragon had moulded a slight texture to the surface of the entire CM, which actually isn’t accurate!  It should be perfectly smooth, but it was far too much work to try and sand the texture off, especially with all the other moulded-on surface details, so I left it.  There is a limit to how far I will go for an accurate model, and as I had already mentioned previously, I wanted something simpler after my Phantom.  This is supposed to be fun, not work, after all.

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CM with Alclad black gloss base.

SM with Alclad black gloss base.

I let the black base dry for a full day, and then went at it with the infamous Alclad’s.  Chrome for the CM, and Polished Aluminium for the SM.  I had worried that they might be too similar, but I needn’t have concerned myself.  They were quite distinct from each other, the Chrome being satisfyingly bright and shiny, although not quite the “mirror-finish” I was hoping for.  On a smooth, rather than textured surface, it would probably be superb.  The Alclad Polished Aluminium I was less satisfied with.  It was hardly any different to the standard Tamiya X-32 Titanium Silver, so the SM bottom heat-shield is a little too close in colour and shine to the side panels for my liking.  I’m hard-pressed to see any difference between the Tamiya acrylic and the Alclad lacquer.  Anyway, I let that all dry for two whole days before coating it all with Alclad’s Klear Kote varnish.  Note that this was not their “Aqua” Gloss.  I had both available, but this was very clear in the bottle, whereas their “Aqua” Gloss looked a milky-white in the bottle.  So I thought the clearer variant of the two would be better.  Wrong!  After a week of drying, it was still very slightly tacky!  But I pressed on regardless.

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CM with Alclad Chrome.

SM with Alclad Polished Aluminium.

Post Script

As I write this, I see that Matt Irvine has just built the Dragon 1/72 Apollo 11 CSM/LM combo-set for the latest issue of Airfix Model World Magazine.  Whilst I can’t even hope to compete with a professional like Mr Irvine on quality, I can at least beat him on one point – mine is bigger!

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