LEGO 10283 NASA Space Shuttle Discovery designer interview & detailed building review

Here is my detailed building review of the fantastic LEGO 10283 NASA Space Shuttle Discovery set!

I had a chance to talk to Milan Madge who designed this amazing set, please find the interview below:

Balazs

Hi Milan, thank you very much for this opportunity!  First of all, can you tell me a bit about yourself? What is your background, since when do you work as a LEGO designer?

Milan

Thanks for having me come! I could say I came from the LEGO fan community and LEGO was something that I was obsessed with as a kid, and then into my teenage years and early adulthood as well. And then  my interest in LEGO kind of led to a passion for design, so I trained to be an industrial designer.

At the time I did not have the time to think of going into LEGO as a job, but then someone approached me and offered me an internship for LEGO. So that was that was five or six years ago, and that kind of evolved into a full time job, So I’ve been a designer at the company for I think five years. I started in Creator 3-in-1, and then moved into 4+ or Juniors at the time, and in there I got to work with some really interesting projects like Disney and Star Wars and the LEGO movie.

After that into LEGO Ideas when I got to work with some really awesome fan designers, Aymeric and Pablo on Central Perk and Pirates of Barracuda Bay. Since that I’ve been in the Adult team which is led by Jamie and now I’m designing sets specifically for adults, so that’s my journey to where I am now in a nutshell.

Balazs

Is there a favorite set among the ones that you designed?

Milan

My favorite one always surprises people, there’s a set that I did in 4+ called Woody and RC. It’s a $10 set that’s just RC from Toy Story and a minifigure of Woody. But that’s my favorite because it’s all really basic bricks and it kind of reminds me of the LEGO I had when I was a kid.

Balazs

That’s a cool one! Now let’s talk about the Discovery. First of all about theme because I’m a bit confused. I tried to figure out what is the official theme of the set and I was looking at lego.com and checked the Creator Expert section but it was not there, so is there a category now for 18+ or what is the official theme of this set?

Milan

Essentially now we are looking at adults as a demographic instead of kind of pursuing the Creator Expert that we used to and the reason being is that we’re finding that a lot of adults are super interested in getting back in touch with LEGO after having it as a kid or getting it for the first time.

But they’re not necessarily experts of the LEGO system, so we’ve been moving into this this new space away from the Creator Expert brand in order to be able to offer LEGO models and builds that are tailored to adults that are maybe not super comfortable with the crazy complicated level of building. So it’s part of a new team we have in LEGO that’s catering towards adults, but isn’t necessarily defined as Creator Expert.

Balazs

How was the Discovery and especially the STS-31 mission chosen from all the different possibilities when you decided that you want to build a space shuttle? There was set number 7470 that was already commemorating the exact same mission, so were there any other candidates or how was the selection process?

Milan

There are so many options to choose from, but yes initially we built the Discovery with the Hubble in the bay. That was the concept model that kind of kickstarted this whole project and that was built for fun by Mike Psiaki, who is the designer of lot of the Creator Expert cars and the Saturn V. That kind of floated around the office for a while and we kept adding to it and building it to a point where we thought this should actually be a set!

And then when we decided that we needed to make it a set, that’s when the discussion opened as to whether it should be STS-31 or whether it should be a different mission. Actually, one of my personal favorite ones was Endeavor, we actually explored doing Endeavor with all the servicing equipment to fix the Hubble in the mission where they went and fixed the flaw with the lens.

But in the end we decided that we really wanted to tell a super clear story through the model and hopefully you can tell that through the build of the model when you’re building it.  There are little tips and hints all the way through the building instructions that kind of tell the story of one of the shuttle’s greatest achievements of deploying the Hubble Space Telescope, and also then going to fix it several times.

So that’s why we focused on the Hubble as an icon. There’s also the set from 2003 and I think from our perspective, that was 20 years ago and a lot of people that really wanted that set maybe didn’t get it, myself included. So this was a good opportunity to do a new take on it, and also April 1st when this model comes out is also the anniversary of the launch of the deployment of the Hubble, so it kind of all tied together nicely and we went back to the original concept model and went with The Hubble Space Telescope.

We realized that with the silver elements we could do a version of the Hubble that we haven’t been able to do until now. It is such an icon of space exploration. It seemed fitting that we do it justice.

Balazs

It was definitely a good choice!

Milan

Thank you, I’m glad you think so!

Balazs

So you had a concept model, I guess that was built at a scale that was Mike’s choice, but how did you define the scale of the final model? When a LEGO car is designed, there is a key element that defines the whole scale, with cars it is usually the wheel. Was there any specific element that defined the scale of this model or how did you decide it?

Milan

It wasn’t so much an element that defined the scale, it was the storytelling that I mentioned. We really wanted to be able to include all the details to be able to tell a story and teach people a little bit about the shuttle. We thought in order to celebrate the 40th anniversary and to celebrate the history of the space shuttle, it wasn’t enough to just make a space shuttle, we wanted to ensure that when people built it, they learned something and I think that sort of speaks to the partnership LEGO has with NASA.

It’s not about just creating NASA branded stuff, we really want to inspire people to get involved in STEM. Get interest in space exploration and the future of that. To pick the scale we decided to go big in order to include the some of the details that we would normally miss. So things like the crew cabin that normally is very simplified on a LEGO model, or like the leading edges of the wings, by being able to go big we could add these extra details.

When we first started we had a few different versions. We had the one that you see now, the fuselage of this one is 10 bricks wide. We also had a version that was 8 bricks wide and one that was 12 bricks wide in order to see how big or small we could get it. We also had a version in scale with the LEGO Ideas Saturn V and we just found that at that scale we couldn’t tell the stories that we wanted to be able to tell, and we couldn’t capture all the little details that we wanted. And then if we went with a really big one, it was just massive. It was so huge that I don’t know where anyone would ever put it in their house. So that’s why we kind of settled on the scale we went to, it was big enough to put in the extra details but any bigger would have been crazy. We built also the external fuel tank and the solid rocket boosters for this one, nut it was so big that you wouldn’t want to build it. It was too much and it didn’t really contribute to the story in in the way that we would we would want, so that’s why we went for the scale we have.

Balazs

I’ve seen a lot of comments about the Saturn V and how the scales don’t match. People were also speculating if it had the scale of the Saturn V, probably it could have included the boosters and the fuel tank. So I guess it’s a compromise but it’s understandable.

Milan

Yes it’s a compromise, but it was a decision that we took to say – if we were to add something new, what’s the reason for doing a new space shuttle rather than celebrating the 40th anniversary? And the reason is that now we can add in all those extra details because the Saturn V I think really elevated the level of accuracy that we should be able to achieve in a LEGO space set, that thing is amazing. So the goal was to not make something that could just sit alongside it as in scale, but to sit alongside it in terms of the level of detail and the storytelling. And for a shuttle to in order to get that detail you have to go big.

Balazs

To be honest I was also a bit disappointed that the boosters and the fuel tank were not included, but at this scale they would simply be enormous.

Milan

Yes, it would be massive. The thing that I really want to see is, you know, hopefully discussions like this inspire people in the fan community to start building things, I want to see a row of all the shuttles lined up. You know people modifying them to be all the different shuttles, from specific years with the external fuel tanks on a launchpad, that’s my dream to see a full diorama of these things.

Balazs

During the design process, did you have a chance to work with anyone directly from NASA or the National Air and Space Museum to get all the details you require?

Milan

Yes, we actually got to work with NASA, which was amazing! A bit of a childhood dream come true, you know. NASA was really good at pointing out super specific details in the STS-31 mission. So getting like the seat layout correct and getting the right logos on the shuttle, because obviously the Hubble and the shuttle have also changed over time. So NASA was super helpful in making sure that we could make our Discovery look like the Discovery in 1990 when it launched Hubble.

And it’s such a privilege working with people with such intimate knowledge of the shuttle program. They were able to provide us with such precise feedback and it is such a joy to work with people that not only have this knowledge, but they’re passionate about being curious and about space exploration. That not only rubs off onto us, but it goes hand in hand with LEGO’s message trying to get people to be creative through building and to learn new things. And in that sense the partnership with NASA is a perfect match and working with them I think is a partnership in which we just understand each other, so it’s really good fun.

Balazs

So if I understand correctly, it was not just a one way information stream, but were you sharing your development and were you asking them for feedback and ideas during the process? Did they actually share their opinion about the different variations?

Milan

Yes, exactly that! As we were building the model we would be sending them videos and pictures of it and they’d be coming back to us saying like: Oh yes, this this great! But actually, in this version of the shuttle, this logo should be here, or this seat is correct for 1993 but not 1990. Yes, it was a two way thing and it’s great.

Balazs

Did you ever have a chance to see the Discovery in person?

Milan

Not in the development of this model, but I was fortunate enough to be in the US a few years ago where we saw an orbiter. But I think if I had known that we’d be making this model when I went to the States, I probably would’ve spent a lot more time with Discovery. Because I did it when I was on a personal trip going around the Aerospace Museum and I had to see everything there in a day. I think if I knew I will work on this model I could have spent the entire day with Discovery trying to understand all the fine detais!

Balazs

I know exactly what you mean, I was also there on a family trip and one day for the for the whole Udvar-Hazy Center is nothing, you’re just running around and try to consume everything, it’s an amazing experience for sure!

How long did the development process take from the start to the to the very end?

Milan

People have asked me that and it’s actually super difficult to put a number on it. Lots of people at LEGO have a deep interest in in this sort of stuff and we enjoy building these for fun. A lot of us are still LEGO fans, you know, and we’re just really fortunate enough to have access to a lot of LEGO. The model was actually built by Mike Psiaki as a concept model and it was like 3 years ago, and instead of being like a process where we just made the model it kind of sat on the shelf and grew. When people would be making new parts or new colors, we’d just be adding them to the model, so it kind of grew from there.

It is difficult to put a date on it because we also had a bit of time where we thought this ready and good to be a model, but we want to wait a little bit so that we could make sure we released it at the 40th anniversary instead of the 39th anniversary, so it’s hard to put a date on, but it’s been kind of a passion project for a few people for a while.

Balazs

Can you think of a part or section that was the biggest challenge to build during the design process?

Milan

Yes, and I keep going back to the landing gear, that was tough. Getting the landing gear to fire is not a huge challenge, but the issue with the shuttle was that we had this super heavy nose section, there’s a dense stack of bricks and then the engines and the tail and wings are also like a super heavy stack of bricks, and everything in between has to be totally hollow to fit the telescope.

Milan

So we had a problem with getting it structural so that it was super strong in the middle to support itself. But how do you get the front and the rear landing gear to be coupled, to be triggered at the same time without taking up any room in the middle of the model? We had so many different versions with worm gears or levers, and in the end we settled for putting springs and just having this button at the back that fires everything at once. It allowed us to keep the inside of the payload bay as empty as possible and we wanted to get the Hubble to be accurate to the correct scale as well. So it was important for us that we still had that full room inside the bay.

Balazs

Then I assume the position of the landing gears is also related to the to the possibilities where you  actually could put the springs and all parts because I saw some comments saying that they are not in the exact same position where they are supposed to be.

Milan

Yes, the rear landing gear is I think like 3 or 4 bricks further back than they should be, but the difficulty is on the real orbiter. The wheel wells where the landing gear fold up are super close to the leading edge of the wing. On this model we wanted to get the gray strip of reinforced carbon-carbon at the edge of the wing which we haven’t been able to do before in a LEGO model, but in order to build all the bows at certain angles, we need that room to connect stuff in so that we also had to move back a little bit in order to allow that, and also to make sure that all the plates are layered correctly in the base. Because the plates in the base of the model would be basically the only thing keeping the whole model together because it’s hollow in the middle, so it was super important to not only get the landing gear in the right place, but also to get the plate layering arranged in a certain way so that it would stay together after you keep firing the landing gear. The worst thing would be if you fired the landing gear then stuff fell off the bottom. It took a bit of a bit of work to figure all that out, that was a bit of puzzle but I quite enjoy the solution. At the end it it’s good fun to fire the landing gear and it’s something that as a kid I would have been fascinated by like the kind of magic of being able to press a button at the end and then all the wheels come down.

Balazs

I saw that there are a lot of colorful pieces used inside the model in hidden places and I saw that the majority is olive green which was kind of surprising. Was it your personal choice, or as a designer are you encouraged to use specific pieces or pieces in specific colors in hidden places to optimize the part usage across different sets?

Milan

It’s funny because I’ve seen a lot of people guessing and speculating online, like what does the olive green mean, is it his favorite color, or are they trying to use pieces leftover from whatever model? Normally on the inside of a model we try and make it easy enough to find the bricks when you’re building it. If the whole shuttle was made out of white pieces, which almost is, it would be a nightmare to build. The olive Green was chosen simply because on the real shuttle, all of the structure inside the shuttle is olive green, so it was a little bit of a nod to the real shuttle. But then also from my experience as a LEGO fan, getting interesting colors is always exciting. So if I can put a lot of pieces in an interesting color that maybe people don’t have a lot of like olive green then I think that’s cool, because it means that people can use it to build other stuff.

Balazs

I didn’t know about that, it is very interesting! I saw the designer video that was that was published, and when you put the Hubble in the in the bay, you remove the folded arms with the solar panels. So are they necessary to be removed to fit in the in the cargo bay or does the model fit with them?

Milan

Yes, unfortunately they have to come off to fit in the bay. I mean originally they fit, but we do a lot of extensive testing to make sure that the products are of a quality that that you would expect from a LEGO set and one of the things that we realized after doing a lot of testing on this model, was that because the entire bay is hollow, we needed to reinforce the middle because we found that people were picking up the shuttle from the middle of the model. And when you do that, you’re putting quite a lot of pressure somewhere that has no support, so we had to add in these additional ribs to support the middle of the bay. And unfortunately, adding that additional material meant that it reduced the amount of room we had, so the solar panels had to be removed.

But we decided to still include them because we know that for a lot of people it is really important that you can display the Hubble in the bay, you can display it on its own stand. But then, if you were to display the Hubble being deployed out of the shuttle payload bay, it should have the rolled up solar panels, so we decided to include them. As you said earlier there are always compromises, and this was one where we decided that the quality was not high enough without the extra support.

Balazs

On the real shuttle the payload Bay doors have two sections, so there are actually 4 separate sections opening instead of 2 long sections. As I saw in the model there are 4 curved pieces on each side, so technically it would have been possible to mimic the behavior of the real doors, so what was the reason for this design choice to make them a single long piece?

Milan

Yes, it all comes down to what I was saying about the difficulty to get the middle of the model to be totally hollow and how there’s just air there. There’s no supporting structure, so in order to make sure that when you picked up and moved it around the room, you didn’t crush the middle of the model, we needed to make some decisions in order to strengthen that area so that you can pick it up and move it without having to spend an entire day rebuilding everything that you’ve just dropped.  

That is not the best experience if you take something up and it immediately falls to the floor and you have to redo it, so, that’s the reason why there’re a few compromises made on the inside of the bay. But what we really did not want to do was to change the scale of the Hubble, because we could have made the Hubble smaller, which is what I think we’ve done on past models to get it to fit in the Bay with folded up solar panels. But what we really want to be able to do is to have a model that you would display in your home with the Hubble being deployed and have everything accurate so there’s a couple of compromises made on the middle there.

Balazs

Luckily in this case I think there are just a few tiles that need to be changed and if people want to be more accurate than they can easily separate the two sections.

Milan

Yes, it’s the same with the solar panels, in the middle section where the supporting ribs are, if you take those out and just replace them with the slopes, it’ll work great. It’s just not the experience that we wanted to give people, but I’m sure there will be plenty of fans that do that and then are able to be a bit more careful with the model.

Balazs

We talked about the about the landing gear as being the biggest challenge. Is this your favorite functional feature on the model or is there something else?

Milan

It is definitely my favorite functional feature, but my actual favorite feature is the cockpit with the crew cabin, with all the seats and the middeck, that’s for sure the thing that gets me most excited.

Balazs

In the designer video I saw an Easter egg being mentioned, the red heart in the wing. Is this the only Easter egg in the model or is there anything else that you can talk about?

Milan

I think the olive green is probably the big one, which only a few people have figured out. But there’s some weird stuff inside, like there’s a classic space slope printed inside the model because we had it available, and we thought it’s a space set, so it probably should have it. It’s the one with the grills on it that’s in all the old 80s based stuff. And there’s also the point in which you connect the stand to the base of the shuttle, inside it has this interesting tile arrangement, which is if we swap the colors to make it look like the symbol for center of mass, so it’s a little bit of an engineering nod.

Balazs

That’s very cool!

Milan

The heart is the funny one and it’s the one that Nico was super excited about. I think he’s actually referencing another designer video, I think it is in the Batmobile? There’s one which uses the heart in in a very similar way, and he thought it was really funny so he wanted to put it into this one too.

Balazs

As an exclusive 18+ set, the expectation of the fans is always to see only prints and no stickers. This model mostly has printed parts, but there are a few stickers here or there. I mean inside the payload bay doors, the reflective stickers are understandable because I think there’s no way to print on that surface, but there are a couple of other stickers like the name tag of the Discovery on the cockpit. How is that decided whether something becomes a sticker or becomes a printed part?

Milan

It’s a real complex puzzle for us to do that, but essentially the easiest way I can describe it is that when you’re designing something, it’s all a matter of choices and compromises to get together the things you want, and that’s both within one set, but also across multiple sets. So if I was to print something there, it would mean that someone else in another model maybe didn’t get a print. It’s always like keeping the books level that we need to do. In this particular one, one of the things that was a big challenge for us was to get the Hubble to be silver because initially it was just a light bluish gray. We made a couple of decisions, that we will sacrifice these bits in order to make sure that we can do full silver with the Hubble, because we think that’s a really important detail and that it can stand on its own as a display model. So some of the energy that we maybe could have spent on the Discovery name instead went into the Hubble.

Balazs

I see, and with the name tag being a sticker it is actually easy to rename the shuttle, so it’s easy to create another one!

Milan

That’s true yes, and I’d love to see those versions! I’d love to see the all the different ones and I really hope people do that and make different cargo and stuff as well!

Balazs

So now that you are finished with the Discovery, I know that you can’t talk about any future sets but here’s a question about your dreams. Is there any particular set that you would like to design, whether officially or unofficially?

Milan

Yes there is, and I’m very fortunate that I think I’m probably doing it next. It’s something that I’m not going to talk too much about, but you know in LEGO Ideas they had a vote for the 90th anniversary of LEGO Group where we’ll be designing a set based on what fans requested. So part of what I’ll be doing is working on that set, so I can’t say what it is but it’s something the fans have asked for, so that’s a bit of a dream.

Balazs

Can’t wait to see it!

A bonus question – there’s a very interesting and for a lot of people very exciting brick built helmet behind you in the in the designer video. It was already appearing in in previous videos, so can you tell anything about that one?

Milan

 When I was an intern in creator three and one, we had a team building afternoon where we all built accessories for ourselves. So I built a Leica camera and some other people in the team built funny hats and glasses and stuff. That helmet is from Mike Psiaki, he built that in 2015 for a team building exercise, and we think it’s so cool that we keep it in the office because we can wear it!

Balazs

I’m sure a lot of people would love to see that as an official set!

Milan

I can tell you it’s very uncomfortable to wear.

Balazs

I think it would not matter. Thank you very much for your time and for all the information, it was a great experience!

Milan

Thanks for having me! It’s super fun talking about this stuff, you know we work on it for so long, but to share some of the love we put in the sets with you is really good fun so yes, thank you for taking the time to speak to us!

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