We Celebrated the Moon Landing Anniversary by Building the Lego Lunar Lander at NASA

By Tom Pritchard on at

As many people will already be aware, the year is 2019. 2019 is not only the last year of the 2010s, and the 50th anniversary of that time Bryan Adams got his first real six string, it also marks half a century since human beings first plonked their feet on the moon. 20th July 1969 was the day that happened, and we thought we'd do something special in the best way we could think of: with Lego.

Lego released a new version of the Apollo 11 lunar lander at the beginning of June, and as happens frequently with these big sets we managed to get our hands on one for review. But we weren't happy with just building it and writing some words: we decided to do something special. So we went and built it at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida - the same place (more or less) that the Apollo 11 crew blasted off on their mission to the moon.

I can tell you, building Lego in 30+ degree heat and over 50% humidity is not fun. Especially not when you have to worry about losing all your pieces, and the fact people will be giving you funny looks for going to a tourist spot to build Lego. Okay, that last one I wasn't so bothered about, because YouTubers and Instagram influencers must pull weirder shit all the time, but it was kind of a pain.

This bit was pre-built the night before, to save me time.

For one getting the Lego there wasn't easy and I had to double-bag everything just in case one of the bags of pieces got crushed and exploded thanks to some manhandling by Gatwick and Orlando baggage handlers. Then I had to make sure not to lose any pieces during the build, and then again on the way home. Basically the whole trip became an exercise in not losing pieces of Lego, which is no easy feat on a set with a lot of extruding parts like this. Thankfully I managed to get everything home, though it did need some reassembly when I got home. I don't know which airport decided to play football with my suitcase, but it's a good thing I was sensible enough to put the really fragile stuff in my hand luggage.

But I digress.

I had the Eagle built, in Florida, and I was already inside the visitor's centre complex. The only thing to do is carry it around and take pictures next to Apollo artefacts - including a moon lander just like the one that actually got sent to the moon. That was easier said than done, though.

Well this is bullshit.

Turns out the lander was closed off, because KSC have organised a special anniversary exhibit ready for the Apollo anniversary. And it was set to be closed until a special ceremony, presumably where it will be unveiled for a group of politicians, journalists, the two surviving Apollo 11 astronauts, and maybe some other people. That was very annoying to be honest, though an unsupervised curtain isn't the best of barriers.


I wasn't spotted by anyone important thankfully, though another tourist did see me pull the curtain aside and take pictures. He then promptly did the same thing, and I'm sure he also felt a dash of kinship during that moment. Just don't tell anyone important what I was up to, or I might not be allowed into Florida again.

That was just about the best thing I could get, and that involved watching a dramatic recreation of the moon landing in a theatre too dark for this kind of photography. By the time the lights came back on that lander had already been whisked away, so use a bit of imagination. Thankfully there were still plenty of other artefacts I could snap pictures of with a Lego set in my hand.

Not many people know this, but this is the actual spot where Stanley Kubrick didn't fake the moon landing.

Apollo 11 didn't have a rover, but whatever.

Contrary to what my video said, this is the only part of the Apollo 11 craft to return. It's the command capsule that orbited the Moon while Armstrong and Aldrin had fun on the surface.

Yeah it was dark, OK?

Yes that is the Saturn V, which was about the size of the warehouse all this stuff was in. It gives some perspective on just how big the bloody thing was and how much power was needed just to get to the big grey rock in the sky.

The Build

The build wasn't too difficult, and it took me just under an hour and a half to build the lander itself - plus maybe an extra 30 minutes (tops) to build the base the night before. So it's not the most difficult thing to build as far as the Creator Expert range goes. And while there's plenty of repetition in the Descent Stage (the bit with the legs), it's nowhere near as bad as some of the larger sets like the Saturn V, the Taj Mahal, or the more-recent Stranger Things Upside Down. And that makes it rather pleasant, even if you're doing your best attempt at speed building like I was.

I did find myself with a few extra pieces leftover at the end, thanks to me not checking the instructions properly. In my defence all those grey and black pieces look basically the same on paper, so it's not entirely my fault that I had three extra pieces.

Thankfully we didn't have to deal with an awful lot of stickers, though unlike the Saturn V rocket Lego clearly opted not to exclusively use printed pieces this time around. Any special designs had to be stuck on, be they American flags, computer console screens, or the metallic gold effects meant to mimic the golden foil wrapped round the real thing.

Saturn V microfigure model for scale

The Set

I took these pictures yesterday. NASA didn't have a replica of my desk and my Lego collection, annoyingly.

The thing I like most about the Lunar Lander is how it uses Lego's blocky design to its advantage. We all know that Lego, by its nature, is blocky and isn't always that elegant - especially on the smaller sets. But here it works because the actual lunar lander has such a weird design. It too is blocky and strange looking, and that means Lego has gone a great job of capturing that feeling. For a set that looks like it was made for display, that's exactly what you need.

And yes while you could run around and play with the Lunar Lander, it does come on a base similar to those from the Architecture range. In other words Lego expects this to be a display piece rather than something you hand over to a kid to build. The lander isn't locked in place, like an Architecture set tends to be, but the little nameplate is a dead giveaway. The ascent module also has a lot of insecure pieces that can flick off quite easily, which did happen right before a dark presentation at the KSC. So be careful.

As you would expect, though, the two modules aren't locked together and they do come apart. So if you want to recreate the lunar landing zone after Armstrong and Aldrin left, you can, though if you want to go for pure historical accuracy you'll need to remember that the flag was knocked over as the two astronauts left and was likely buried under a cloud of moon dust. But that also means it's probably the only flag that hasn't been bleached white by solar radiation. So there are some ups and downs.

Sadly the Lego version can't quite grasp how fake the actual Lunar Landers look. I saw the LM-2 in the Smithsonian on holiday when I was a teenager, and I was convinced it was fake because of how tacky the gold foil-covered exterior was. But nope, it was the back-up lander in case the tests carried out by Apollo 5 failed. Sure it never went into space, but it was built as though it was going to - much like the LM-9 on display at Kennedy.

Image: Mike Cannon/Flickr

Short of covering the Lego set in actual foil, you're probably not going to get the same sort of effect. The gold pieces and metallic stickers are the best we're going to get.

The only real problem has been pointed out before, and that's that the two non-descript astronauts don't actually look like they're wearing Apollo space suits. They're just wearing the same stuff as the new Mars Research sets. Their torsos have NASA branding on them, which the generic space-people don't, but that's all covered up by the helmet section anyway. Plus both minifigures are identical, so it's impossible to tell which one is Armstrong and which one is Aldrin. So you'll just have to use your imagination.

The Ascent module can be opened up and the astronauts do fit inside, but that's just about all you can do with it, there isn't a whole lot of interior detail despite the time you need to spend applying stickers in there. But the good news is there are a couple of secrets hidden away, and there are two folding storage areas on the outside of the lander that house them. There's a mini camera which Armstrong used to snap pictures, and a tiny version of the plaque the two left behind. You can't read it, but it's a nice little touch.

The anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing isn't until tomorrow (20th July), so you still have time to pop out to the Lego store (or some other toy shop that's still managing to stave off high-street collapse) and build one for yourself. If you don't mind it arriving a bit later you can buy it online, but in both instances it'll cost you £90