It is space week here at True North Bricks. We are celebrating the launch of the NASA Artemis I mission and its crew of four Minifigures. Consequently, we’ve shared space themed LEGO® content everyday this week. Today, we have something extra special. We have an exclusive interview with Milan Madge, the LEGO® designer behind epic sets like Pirates of Barracuda Bay, Lion Knights Castle, and the topic of today’s discussion, the NASA Space Shuttle Discovery. Of course, we have already reviewed the set. In fact, the LEGO® Group sent us a pre-release copy. However, now we revisit the set with a unique new perspective. We chatted about Milan’s childhood experiences with LEGO® bricks, the ins and outs of making a set like Discovery, what it was like to design during lockdown, and how the process compared to other sets. So, strap yourself in and start the countdown. We have lift-off in 3… 2… 1…
In the instruction manual for the Discovery set, you mentioned that you built a lot of space themed items as a child. Is it safe to assume that you’ve been a LEGO® fan since you were small?
Yes, absolutely. The first space sets I remember are the 2003 Discovery series with the Lunar Lander (10029) with all those tan bricks, and the original Discovery model (7470) with the doors made out of the bows all the way along. I remember desperately trying to build those as a kid and just not having the bricks to be able to do so. So, having a very partially built lunar lander with a couple of minifigures or something.
But, yeah, I’ve been a LEGO® fan all my life, but I went through my own dark ages. In my dark ages, I kind of switched gears into more art and design, and model making was more of my hobby. I went into industrial design as a career, and then kind of fell back into LEGO® after that. Actually, it was coming to LEGO as an intern that pulled me out of my dark ages as a LEGO® fan, I think.
Was space your favorite LEGO® theme growing up?
No, it wasn’t actually. Pirates, Castles, and Adventurers were my favorites. When I built stuff that was not from an official LEGO® set, normally it was kind of realistic space stuff. But the LEGO® sets I was always interested in were from the more historical themes. That kind of real-world stuff was what really hooked to me.
What was your favorite set?
My favorite set when I was a kid? I mean it is a cliché, but I got the Black Seas Barracuda (6285) gifted to me second hand. It was missing a few bits. But even in my dark ages, that was the one set that still sat on my shelf built. The sails are all gross and dusty now, which is a bit of a shame. I can’t clean them, they yellow. But that was definitely my favorite one that kind of stuck around.
You mentioned going through a dark age. How long was it?
How long were my dark ages? That is a tough one. I haven’t ever quantified that. Probably around five years. Not ages. But, it was when I was going to university, and I stepped back from the bricks for a while.
At the LEGO® Group, you’ve created a number of sets for a bunch of different themes. Of the sets that you’ve designed so far, which one is your favorite?
That’s easy, it’s Woody and RC, 10766 I think it is. It’s a very small box, but for me, it’s kind of what LEGO® is about. Nice, big shapes, basic colors, and lots of little play features. Good fun for $10.
How did you get involved in designing the Space Shuttle Discovery?
I’ve been on the team focused on adults for a little while now, ever since being involved in LEGO® Ideas with Central Perk and Pirates of Barracuda Bay sets. Every year, we go through phases where we create loads of concepts. Discovery actually wasn’t Discovery at the start, it was just a space shuttle. It was something that one of our colleagues, Mike Psiaki, actually built that a few years ago. It was hanging around in the office, and we were sparring on how we could bring that set to life for the fortieth anniversary [of the NASA space shuttle program].
I guess I wasn’t necessarily just picked for that set. We were all working on stuff together and sparring. Then, when you have a real passion for something and that shows through, you can get the opportunity to work on stuff. So, with me it was sparring with Mike on different shapes and details for that set that sort of landed me on it in the end.
In the instruction manual, you mentioned that the room requirements for the payload and the functionality of the landing gear made designing Discovery daunting. Can you elaborate on that?
Yeah, so one of the things that we really wanted to do was to keep the scaling right between everything. Often on LEGO® vehicles in general, but space shuttles in particular, the cargo that goes inside is normally smaller than it should be. It’s so challenging to get it to fit properly in the bay. The other thing with making these big models is, you know, that LEGO® is designed to make small toys for kids. So, there’s all these like structural considerations to take into account when you’re really pushing the boundaries of what the LEGO® bricks can do.
With the payload bay, the problem for me was the nose of the shuttle is this super heavy, dense mass of bricks. Then, the back end with the engines and the wings is the same. But you have to make the whole of the middle almost totally hollow. You also have to pick the model up and not have it break in the middle, or grab it from the middle and not crush it, So, to do all that while maintaining a rigid structure, that was a challenge.
“We wanted working landing gear… If you had to pull the landing gear out, it would be a little bit sad.”
Also, we wanted working landing gear. We thought that if we were going up to that size, it would be a real shame if we didn’t have a landing gear function. If you had to pull the landing gear out, it would be a little bit sad. So, getting the front and back wheels coupled was super difficult because we were filling the entire payload with the telescope. We had to find ways to trigger the front landing gear off the rear landing gear. We had a few versions with worm gears to drop them. But, you had to turn it for ages to get the landing gear down. And there were push-pull mechanisms too. But we settled on this one with the floor moving because it took up the least amount of room from the bay and still didn’t compromise the structure of the of the model.
You mentioned some different designs that you had there. Approximately how many different iterations of this shuttlecraft did you go through?
That’s actually a difficult question because the development of this model overlapped a bit with lockdowns and things. So, it was really difficult at the time to build up a full model because we had limited access to the LEGO® bricks. It was a lot of designing bits of the model and iterating bits of the model and then trying to bring it all together at the end to build a full shuttle.
The landing gear definitely was the thing that had the most iterations. Behind my desk there’s probably 15 different options of ways to deploy landing gear. It was really a balance between the structure and the room required in the model. Also, we do loads of testing internally to make sure that if someone, for whatever reason, chooses to fire the landing gear 10,000 times, will it still work? So, we send the model to robots that do lots of testing to see where the stresses might be on the elements. We made perhaps 15 iterations, tested them, and then picked the one that was going to be the best in the long run.
On some of the other models, did you have any other features that you wish you could have included on the final model, but that had to be cut in the end?
Yeah, actually there are. The one that kind of broke my heart to kill was the elevons. When you rotate the center engine, I guess you’ve seen that the elevons do a roll control. But, when you’re building it you might notice that it has a little bit of play in it. With some simple modifications, you could get it to do pitch as well. And that was something that we had to remove in the end just because the complexity was getting far too high for that little contained area.
But, for a long time the elevons had pitch and roll control. And I would love to see some LEGO® fans put that feature back in. It’s built on ball joints, right? So, theoretically you can just move the engine around in two axes and it should be able to have a pitch control as well.
Are there any other parts that you designed so that people could modify them for other purposes?
Not per se. But I think one of the other things that would be kind of interesting to see is different versions of the telescope. The Hubble also changed over time. I think there’s one or two inaccuracies on our Hubble to the Hubble at the time of that mission. So, it would be really nice to see people make some different versions of that as well. Especially now that we’re getting more silver parts from different sets trickling into the portfolio. So, it could be nice to see a Hubble with the updated, big, robust blue solar panels, and some nice details like that.
The thing that I would love to see, and I would like to build eventually, is a portion of the International Space Station built at that scale. I would really like that. It would be massive. We’ve got a lot of bricks here, so I kind of want to at least build part of it and see what it would look like.
One of the things that I found really amazing when I built this was how it really impressed upon me the scale of the actual ship. I knew that the shuttle craft were big. But it never dawned on me how big until I put those tiny little seats in [both laugh]. So, I’m wondering how accurate is the scale of this model?
In terms of the seats, it’s pretty accurate. There are a few details that we took liberties on. Like the cameras in the payload bay. They are realistically the size of a human, which is just not all correct. So, there are a few things that are little bit off. But generally it’s all as accurate as we could get.
One of the questions I’ve actually been asked a couple of times now is why did we not just put a minifigure in a seat in the cockpit, and I appreciate that. I love the idea of having a real nice astronaut minifigure as well. But what we’re really trying to do is to get it as accurate as possible. I really actually like hearing that you enjoyed those lovely seats because that was the best bit for me. It’s the idea of the human element, and for me, that’s why the blue seats were super important to put in.
How did you settle then on the scale for this set?
The scale was determined by the telescope, actually. We had a really nice concept model for the Hubble. We were trying to figure out if we were to make it eight modules round, how big could we scale a shuttle off that? The size we landed on worked really well for the telescope, but also the geometry of the wings on the shuttle and the leading edges. We were able to get some details that we have normally missed, because LEGO® has made loads of shuttles, right? But, all the extra details like the reinforced wings and an accurately sized telescope were things that we thought were important enough to scale the whole model up and lose the external fuel tanks and the rocket boosters.
We did go back and forth for a while about what scale it should be. We talked about doing one in scale with the Saturn V. Also, we talked about doing one similar in scale to the Adventure and Expedition shuttles that we released in the past. But, we kind of thought we’ve done that. Also, the Saturn V set a precedent for how true to the real vehicle we can get if we go big. So, we figured for the fortieth anniversary, we’d really just focus on the orbiter and make it as packed full of details as we could.
When you were designing this model, where you able to visit any of the real shuttlecraft and go on board, or did you talk to some of the NASA engineers involved?
It was a lot of correspondence with people at NASA. Unfortunately, we were in Denmark the whole time. It would have been amazing to go and see the real Discovery. The process involved talking with technical advisors at NASA, which was a little bit of a childhood dream come true for me. But it was also amazing to see how excited they were to be working on something with LEGO®. It was a bit humbling because, for me, I am looking at NASA with total awe. But they were looking at us with an equal amount of respect, which was, I thought, a bit bizarre (laughs).
It was good fun to talk to them about the design. They were able to offer insights that maybe we’d have missed otherwise. They were really pointing out layouts of certain things for certain missions. You know, like getting the seats in the right position for that specific mission, or all the logos, things like that. Trying to get it as true as we could to one specific mission.
That’s actually why we picked to do a specific mission. They were saying if we narrowed it down and just focused, instead of saying Discovery in general, then they could really give super precise feedback to get the whole shuttle laid out exactly as it should be. They don’t change the shuttle a huge amount between missions, but it’s enough to be noticeable. I mean the big thing for us was the iconic meatball logo, as they call it. The big blue NASA logo. That wasn’t on this shuttle mission. So, it’s interesting things like that, little quirks, where it was really nice to have them involved.
Speaking of logos, as a Canadian, I noticed that the Canada flag is missing from the manipulator arm in the cargo bay. Is that one of those things that wasn’t there on this mission?
No, that was there on this mission. I’m in the unfortunate position that I’m not the one dealing with the licensing stuff. I am a model designer, putting the bricks together. I’m only allowed to put the branding on that we have the legal, what do you call it, permissions for. So yeah, I’m missing the Canada logo too [both laugh]. That’s my diplomatic answer [more laughing].
Can you walk us through what the design process was like for this set and how long it took?
Hmm… How long did it take? I actually don’t know how long it took. It was a really weird process. Very, very unusual for us because, as I said, it hit lockdown as well. So, we had to work very differently to how we would normally work. A lot of this model was done in the office, sparring with my colleagues. But a lot of it was done more digitally, you know, working from home and not necessarily having access to all the stuff that we would normally have access to.
That certainly changed how we work. For example, when building the model for the first time out of physical bricks, I was pretty happy with the design. But I remember there being a section in the model that wasn’t attached. In digital space, it looked great. But when you built it physically, there were all these issues that you hadn’t spotted.
In terms of the process, it really started with the concept model that Mike had made. But, then it was trying to get in the features that we wanted. The first thing was the landing gear, and that took up a good chunk of the development time. The landing gear changed the entire structure of the base of the model. So, lots of different versions of that and different iterations of what should be inside the payload bay.
“We had to work very differently to how we would normally work.”
There was an early version that wasn’t STS-31 [the mission that launched Hubble]. It was actually the servicing mission the fixed Hubble. That’s another option that we played with where we had a much more detailed bay. We had more of the dark orange servicing equipment and things like that. But, we chose to focus on the Hubble in the end as a kind of icon, especially after we realized that we could make it nice and shiny.
It was an interesting process of also working with element design because there’s three new elements. That was really interesting to be able to get the cockpit right. The cockpit was something that we had a lot of issues with when we were making different concept models. We couldn’t find a LEGO® cockpit that really did a good job at that scale of representing the shuttle windscreen. There’s one that was used in speed racers at some point. It’s like a short cockpit without studs on top. We had to go with that, but we really wanted to be able to print the black and white borders around the windows and get those six different windows. So, it was very fun working with element design.
“It was a bit of a roller coaster.”
We reached out to other projects as well. We talked to projects that deal more with Minifigures to design the windscreen to make sure that we can get two Minifigures side by side if people choose to do that in the future. Sorry, I’m going all over the place. I’m not really giving you a very concise answer here. But, it was a bit of a roller coaster. Much like the design of the real shuttle. I’m not at all comparing this in terms of complexity. But, in terms of the number of challenges we were facing, it felt like it for sure.
You mentioned that there are three new elements. How did those come about?
The payload bay door was one reason. Getting the telescope and the arm to fit in the bay and still be an accurate size compared to the rest of the orbiter. We also made a new windscreen and the roof element. We had different options and different versions for the front of the shuttle. Essentially, we landed on the build we have because it looked the best, it was the most “LEGO®”, and the most fun construction.
We did some iterations of windscreens and tried pieces we currently have. None of them looked that good. We thought the cockpit is always front and center for these models. If the windscreen on the cockpit is wrong on a vehicle, it suddenly doesn’t look like the vehicle anymore, you know? The cockpit turned into a really important question, how to get the window to actually look like a space shuttle?
Then from that, the bow element on the roof. That’s one that has been on people’s wish lists, at least on the company side, for a while. It’s been something that people have always talked about, “How do we finish our bow family on corners?” So, when we created that new windscreen and saw the opportunity to introduce a bow to really tidy up the top, we though we’d do it. That’s how the three elements came into existence.
Were you given any design limitations when you were starting to imagine up this set?
In some sense, there’s always limitations when we’re making stuff. I mean, at the end of the day, there’s always a budget of some kind. There’s the number of things you can change color on, and the number of things you can print. Talking to the IP partner, there’s also what they want. Also, the functions, to make sure that they work reliably for you guys. And the stability. So, there’s always limitations, and really its our job to accommodate that stuff.
It’s interesting building a model like this compared to how I would have built it as a LEGO® fan as well. It’s super different. We had a really nice version of the payload bay that was beautifully curved with nice bows and smooth the whole way along. But then, we found if you were to pick the model up and kind of fly it around, you could easily break it in the middle. So, there’s considerations we take when making something that’s going to get a bit of use from a consumer. Those differ from how I would design it for myself when I know where to handle it delicately. Things like that.
So, that’s not very specific, but there are always limitations. It’s our job to find a balance between them so that we can get the best product for you, for the IP partner, and for us at the end of the day.
Was there a particular limitation that changed how you wanted this product to end up?
The payload bay is what sticks with me as a limitation. If we weren’t made to fix it, it would have been very nice. The current model, you can display the Hubble outside the bay on its own with the unfolded solar panels, or being deployed out of the bay, and it’s got the two rolled up panels. Our first version of the bay was super smooth and had so much room. We could actually accommodate the whole telescope with the solar panels on.
But, in order to make it strong enough to pass all of our internal tests, we had to put reinforcing in the middle. That unfortunately means that you have to remove the solar panels now to put the telescope in. Which is something that hurt to do. But at the end of the day, it means that if you pick the model up by that point, it won’t fall to the floor, and you have to rebuild the whole thing [laughs]. So, there’s always compromises, but hopefully it works out for the best in the end.
When I reviewed this set, some readers asked why the black bits on the side were not white. Can you give us some insight?
The actual shuttle has black bits that are actually hinges on the door. They are not at all as prominent as they are on the LEGO® model. But for us, we also have to consider the build flow. So, when you’re building it, we have to make sure that you’re not going to be missing bits. For example, with this model, if you’re looking at the pile of bricks, it’s quite easy to get snow blind. You’re looking at all these bricks and you can’t see the piece that you need. So, that was a very deliberate decision to make it black. One, to kind of mirror the real shuttle, but also so that when you have this sea of white parts, you’re really able to see where the hinge parts are when you’re building.
At the end of the day, there’s always an argument for “if you did this a different way, it would look better.” But then, if you’re building it and you’re being frustrated because you can’t find that white piece, that’s not an experience that we want people to have. The building experience is just as important to us as the final look of the thing.
Is that the same reasoning for the olive-green bricks that were found inside the build?
[Laughs] I’ve had that pointed out to me by a couple of people. It’s actually kind of a funny story. The actual interior of a space shuttle, all the structural components, are olive green. That’s part of the reason we chose to do that, as kind of a fun nod to the real shuttle in that sense. I mean, obviously you never see any of those parts. But for those people that know, it’s kind of quite a funny little nod to it.
And then also, when we’re using kind of filler to make the insides, it’s maybe more easy to find pieces and build. I quite often think about when I was a LEGO® fan, what were the pieces I wish I had? For sure, I had a bunch of 2×8 plates in red or blue. So, being able to throw in a fun color like olive, something you don’t normally get in a LEGO® set… I quite enjoy that because I know as a LEGO® fan, I would be super excited to get different color parts like that.
If you could go back and change something about this set, what would it be?
I honestly don’t know that I would change anything. There’s always this thing when a model comes out that you look at it and think: “Why did I do it like that? This would have been way better if I had done it this way instead.”
But, really, I think the compromises of getting the building experience, the aesthetics, all the features that we want, and functions is a delicate balancing act. There are certainly things that I would like to be different, but I don’t think I would go so far as to say I would change anything if I was to make the model again.
When I built the model, one of the bricks separates on the maneuvering thruster housing. One brick is pressing against another in an odd way. Is that something I did wrong, or something you knew could happen?
It’s something that you did wrong [both laugh]. But I also know about it. You just need to move some of those pieces one module further. It was something that came up when we built through these models to make sure that everything was working. That was something that was flagged as a bit of a tricky area, and we didn’t have time in the end to get it working as well as we would have liked to.
What are the three things you like the most about the model?
The seats, as you mentioned. Definitely. When everyone asks what’s my favorite detail, it’s that. As a kid, I got into space travel because you see these vehicles, these enormous things with fire coming out the back. It’s easy to just look at them as that, as a super-powerful, amazing vehicle. But I think now that I’ve grown older, I’m interested in space for a different reason. That’s the human element, the idea that the space shuttle, Hubble, and all that is happening for the benefit of humankind. So, for me, the cockpit with the seats in it is definitely my favorite bit because it speaks to that continued relationship between human beings and space travel.
I also think the landing gear is a super fun solution. Having everything spring open at once is something that I’m very happy with after the amount of headache that it caused everyone. The solution we landed on was very nice.
The third thing that I really like is the fact that the Canadarm can fit next to the telescope in the bay and be nice and enclosed. That was a bit of a challenge because if you’re making the telescope the right size, what about all the other details in the bay? Just having the Canadarm folded up next to the telescope caused a real headache in terms of how to get the door to hinge and to close just over the arm. It’s like a twentieth of a millimeter gap or something, so it’s super, super close. It’s always fun when we are able to push the LEGO® system to its limit and get things to just fit.
You also designed one of my other all time, favorite sets: Pirates of Barracuda Bay. How does the design process of a set like that compare to design process for a set like the Space Shuttle Discovery?
They’re similar in the fact that we had something really solid to start on. With the space shuttle we had a really solid model that Mike had built as a staring point. That mapped out the size we were going for and some of the features. The same with Barracuda Bay. We had Pablo’s submission on LEGO® Ideas for that. Certainly, having a solid start makes the job much easier and gives us time to focus on things like the functions and the details. Obviously, if we had to build a concept model as well within that time limit, then we would spend less time refining some of the nice details. So, from that point, they are quite similar.
After that, I would say totally different. Working with reference material is always really interesting. So is working with an IP partner, and also on something that people know and recognize like the space shuttle. There is a huge history and people that are experts in that. So, for me, I really have to thoroughly research every single detail and make sure we’re doing it right, and the talk to NASA about if it’s a correct representation.
When we do something like Pirates of Barracuda Bay, we get a little more freedom…”
When we do something like Pirates of Barracuda Bay, we get a little more freedom in that sense. If something doesn’t work a certain way, then we just change it. It doesn’t matter as much what it looks like. We can define those parameters a lot more than when you’re trying to follow the reference to an actual thing, like the space shuttle.
With Pirates of Barracuda Bay, the modularity aspect that we added caused a headache. I guess it’s similar to Discovery in that regard. I talked about the shuttle being that size, and how you have to be really careful with structure and making sure its strong enough. It’s kind of a similar thing with Pirate Bay, I suppose. Getting the ship to click together and stay solid when you actually pick it up in boat form instead of island form was a similar challenge.
That’s all folks!
A really huge thanks to Milan Madge and the LEGO® Ambassador Network for setting up this interview. It was amazingly insightful to talk to an actual LEGO® designer about all the considerations that go into a new set. It was certainly great to get this interview for Space Week and the launch of the Artemis I mission. Hopefully, you’ve all found it interesting too! Be sure to let us know what you think in the comments below or reach out on social media.
Until next time,
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