A Lego designer talks about designing spaceships and collaborating with NASA

Image: LEGO

In 1978, Lego launched the first sets in its line of space toys, almost a decade after the Apollo 11 mission landed on the Moon for the first time. Since then, the company has consistently released sets featuring spaceships, astronauts and lunar bases, including detailed sets that draw on the hardware from real space missions.

The Verge spoke with Lego designer Simon Kent recently, who explained that he and his colleagues recently visited with NASA engineers and personnel to compare their toys against the real spaceships, rovers, and space stations currently in operation today. “Across the company, space is such a big theme, that we can tap into it in many different ways, whether its a plaything like Lego City, or a display model that goes into the fine details of the spacecraft’s design,” like the recently-released Apollo 11 Lunar Lander.

“Space is a theme or subject that appeals to kids and adults alike,” Kent explained, “there’s always this sort of need for kids to have space toys to pique that interest.” He noted that over the last four decades, Lego has explored many corners of the universe, from more fantastical sets about aliens, space police, or martian colonists, to more some of the more realistic sets that he and his team are responsible for with the company’s Lego City sets.

He says that in 2019, they’re continuing in this tradition “with a more and more realistic picture of actually what what space agencies like NASA are thinking of doing in the near future.” As such, the company’s latest releases include some fairly realistic-looking playsets: There’s a deep space rocket and mission control, a modular space station, space shuttles, a rover, and more. These sets aren’t exactly like what is currently fielded by NASA and various private companies. There’s “a sort of artistic twist that we tend to put on these themes, where we don’t want to focus necessarily on the pasts; we want to be relevant and future-looking. So we’re looking into what might be launched into space in the next few years.”

The design for the sets started out with a timeline for what might be coming in the next couple of years, and what vehicles are out there, and building something similar. Kent says that they want to “support the stories that kids hear at school or in the media about space agencies like NASA the European Space Agency of SpaceX.”

As such, Kent and his team recently traveled to NASA to gather some inspiration for their latest and upcoming sets, looking at its facilities and some of the projects that they were working on. “The irony is that the stuff we thought pushed the far-future a little too much, when we saw what they were exploring, we were taken aback that they were doing a lot of this stuff already.”

The visit to NASA inspired some small changes to increase the toys’ realism

Kent noted that the trip yielded some cool insights that allowed them to make some of their sets more realistic. One such example appears on the Deep Space Rocket and Launch Control set: they included a small vehicle with four, independent wheels, inspired by an experimental rover, and after learning that white paint adds a lot of weight to a rocket, opted to change the color to orange to show that it’s unpainted. Another instance was with the Lunar Space Station model: Kent says that they changed the color of the handrails to better reflect what’s used on the space station. They also incorporated a wide range of characters into the sets, showing off the huge number of people that it takes to support a space mission, from engineers to administrators, scientists, trainers, and more.

Those little differences help provide a bit of an educational aspect to the sets. By adding a bit of realism to the sets, they’ll provide a way for kids to get interested in science and space. They already know that they’ve done that. Kent said that when they visited Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center, “nearly all of them had Lego space stuff on their desks,” and that many were inspired by the toys they played with as kids. Hopefully, the latest crop of Lego toys will inspire the next generation of rocket scientists and astronauts.

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The administration has taken steps to withdraw from the WHO, which it claims failed in its coronavirus response by being too conciliatory to China. This is a massive move because of how much the United State contributes to the international organization, and how much of its work already reflects US interests. It is also a profound misreading of how global institutions work: Power comes from powerful member states, and the US walking away only cedes more leverage to countries like China who might make up the gap. This is why Trump’s speech could very well signal what another four years of his presidency means for the UN. The Trump administration already withdrew from a bunch of UN agencies, including the Human Rights Council, but leaving the WHO is a much more dramatic step. The administration has, so far, snubbed cooperation on Covid-19, specifically the WHO-affiliated effort to distribute a vaccine globally. Other nationalist and populist leaders have also pushed back against multilateral efforts, but none have the influence or financial clout of the US. And if the US refuses to work within the system, why would any other country agree to do so? “I think it’s a pivotal moment,” Patrick told me. “The next couple of months are going to be absolutely critical in deciding the future directions of the US-UN relationship and conceivably, even the fate of the United Nations as the world’s premier body for international cooperation.” The UN is struggling to meet this moment. But the organization still matters. This United Nations is facing some of the greatest global challenges in decades. A pandemic has killed more than 950,000 people worldwide and will demand an unparalleled mass vaccination initiative. A global economic catastrophe, a hunger crisis, an education crisis, a domestic violence pandemic and more have all sprung from Covid-19, and the outbreak has either compounded or sidelined other global emergencies like war, and migration, inequality, poverty, and climate change. But the UN is struggling to meet this moment, even as its member states commit, in principle, to the institution. On Monday, the UN hosted a high-level meeting to commemorate the body’s 75th anniversary, and adopt a resolution reaffirming the necessity of multilateral cooperation, with the UN at the center. Though this is meant to be pretty uncontroversial, in drafting the resolution, the US objected to language about the commitments in the Paris Climate Accords. (Ultimately, references to the Paris deal and to climate change more generally remained in the resolution, but the language was watered down a bit.) 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But again, the US has already said it won’t participate, and China also doesn’t appear to be on the list, which the WHO is releasing Monday. That doesn’t mean real progress can’t be made at the UN this year, but much of the hard work of diplomacy usually gets done on the sidelines, at informal meetings. And that can’t happen this year. This is the world that nationalistic politics has wrought, playing out in real time. The UN has many flaws, but it is now trying to withstand an unprecedented crisis at the same time many of its members are turning inward. Its ability to overcome them is ultimately going to depend on how seriously member states take this recommitment to multilateralism — if it moves beyond principle, into practice. There are glimmers of hope, like cooperation on a Covid-19 vaccine, and the European Union trying to assert a greater leadership role. But there are also real danger signs. It sounds dramatic to say, but this week may offer a hint at whether the United Nations can, even in its imperfect form, withstand these challenges, or whether three-quarters of a century after it was formed the world will see it slide toward true irrelevance. “Institutions rarely, completely disappear. They just become shells of their former selves,” Weiss, the UN expert at CUNY, said. “But the organization can be considerably less visible, vigorous and important than even it is now.” Help keep Vox free for all Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. 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