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Pat LeBlanc's Project Mercury Capsule!

Here Pat LeBlanc does his best work by creating a Major Matt Mason sized replica of the Mercury program capsule...

Mercury Matt Mason

If you read the Yahoo MMM board, you may know that I started working on a 1/12 scale Gemini capsule earlier this year (2004). I had gotten as far as vacforming the pieces of the capsule and cutting out the doors. The next step involved a concept borrowed from card modeling. To represent the corrugated surface, I tried gluing large decals on the outside of the capsule. Unfortunately I started running into problems with the lines not matching up and the decals not staying on the model. As much as I hated to do it, I decided to set the Gemini aside for a while.

The problem I was experiencing with the decals on the Gemini stemmed from the fact that the styrene capsule's contours didn't match the decals very well. I had taken this route because I wanted printed surface details but was skeptical that paper alone would be tough enough without a styrene shell underneath.

After struggling for weeks with whether or not it would work, I decided to try a simpler project to see how durable paper would be. I settled on the Mercury capsule because of its smaller size and similar appearance to the Gemini. I figured I might learn some valuable lessons in construction before tackling the more complex Gemini (just like NASA did).

As has been mentioned on the Yahoo board, there are other Mercury models out there: some super-detailed, most are not in the right scale. I wanted to build something for the Major with the level of detail that Mattel might have made.

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The Basics
I started by getting the basic dimensions (diameters, lengths, etc) and external views from the internet. It took a couple of weeks to lay out the capsule "skin" in Freelance. Because I'm limited to 8-1/2" x 11" paper in my HP printer, the capsule is formed by printing and rolling two sections into a cone.

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Printed Exterior Panels
The image is printed on heavy photographic quality paper and allowed to dry for a day. I spray on three coats of clear lacquer with a few hours in between coats. Once the lacquer is dry, you can sprinkle water on the page and it just rolls off. The capsule halves are cut out and laminated to another piece of photo quality paper to add strength (waiting another day to allow the glue to dry). The excess paper is trimmed away (including the window and the hatch) and the assembly is rolled into the shape of a cone. The edges of the capsule are glued and clamped and allowed to dry for a day (yeah, there's a lot of waiting involved).

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Scaled to Fit
A separate hatch is printed on the same type of paper with a piece of balsa wood attached to provide rigidity and curvature. A clear piece of plastic is installed inside the capsule for the window (not much visibility!). Having sat in a mockup of the Mercury at Kennedy Space Center I can attest that there wasn't much room in there.

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I'm 6'-2" and it was hard enough getting in there bending my arms and legs. A MMM figure just makes it through the hatch and you've got to bend his legs just so beforehand to get him to lie down. A "head rest" is provided to help keep the figure in place.

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Recovery Section
The recovery section (the cylinder that sits on top of the capsule) and the antenna section (the smaller cone) are printed and formed in the same way as the capsule. To improve strength, 1/16" thick balsa wood strips are glued inside the capsule and the other sections. Plexiglas (.1" thick) or wood (3/16" thick) disks at the top and bottom of each section provide rigidity and help form the round shapes of the pieces.

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Heat Shield
The real heat shield was spherical but it can be approximated well enough as a flattened cone. The heat shield is cut out from a piece of thin cardboard and painted a dull gray. It is glued to the disk that forms the bottom of the capsule.

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The final piece is the retropack. I figured since there wasn't a lot of detail on the surface of the retropack, it was a good candidate for vacuum forming. The main piece was turned from a balsa block. The retrograde rockets were turned from smaller pieces of balsa.

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After forming and trimming, the retropack is attached to the heat shield. The real Mercury had straps that held the retropack on until just before re-entry. I decided not to include the straps in order to keep things simple.

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I have to admit I was really surprised by the feel of the paper after it has been lacquered, laminated and reinforced. It might not stand up to playtime with a 7-year-old but it just might be able to handle a flight on top of a rocket!

X-Prize is in the Bag!

NEWS RELEASE - Cape Canveral, Florida. Major Matt Mason, US Air Force (ret.), announced today his intention to enter the "X" Prize competition to make a sub-orbital flight in a reusable spacecraft. Mason will be flying the "Phoenix 7" a refurbished Mercury capsule which will duplicate the earlier flights of Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom. Asked about why none of the previous Mercury capsules were reused, Mason replied, "They were always intended to be reusable but someone at NASA realized early on their future value as collectables. Heck, the royalties from museum fees paid for the R&D ten times over!".

Mason then introduced the team of "old hands" he's assembled to help get this effort off the ground. Sergeant "Stormy" Storm, US Army (ret.) is responsible for mechanical integrity. "Stormy's been in charge of getting this old girl ready to fly. Which is no easy task considering it's been sitting in my garage for over 40 years", said Mason. Radiologist Doug Davis is in charge of shielding. The final member of the team is Jeff Long. "You know the old joke: it doesn't take a rocket scientist to . . . well Jeff is here because this DOES take a rocket scientist!" Mason quipped.

Asked about the significance of the name of his craft, Mason turned serious.

"Everyone knows the legend of the Phoenix and it's past time we picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off and got back into space. The original Mercury's had a 7 in the name representing the first seven astronauts. This 7 commemorates not only the Mercury 7 but the Challenger 7 and the Columbia 7 as well."

Mason then donned a "retro" silver spacesuit similar to those worn by the original Mercury astronauts and posed with his crew alongside his craft. Details of the booster and a launch schedule were not available.

All Mattel images and captions are copyright Mattel and used without permission. All other content, including images and editorial is Copyright © 1997-2018 John Eaton or Pat LeBlanc. If there are any comments or objections, please contact John Eaton, by clicking here or Pat LeBlanc by clicking here.

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