1:144 International Space Station kit by Intermountain Railway & Johnson Engineering (preproduction release)

For a model whose finished dimensions are 30"x22"x15", the box it arrived in is surprisingly small: 5"x7"x12". Within this confined volume of corrugated cardboard rests all of the basic parts to build what promises to be the largest and heaviest space structure ever attempted, the International Space Station. Intermountain Railway, long known for its model railroad products, has collaborated with Johnson Engineering (a subsidiary of Spacehab Corporation) to bring us a clean, sharp, and intricately detailed space hobby kit.

The reviewed version of this kit has been many months in the making and is a fourth possible way the model is being marketed. Originally, the ISS would have been available in three modes: as a complete build-up, a partial build-up, and as a prepainted and predecaled kit. It is only by dint of some of us respectfully pleading with IMR's CEO Frank Angstead that IMR is releasing a totally unbuilt, unpainted, and undecaled kit. The first two modes are intended primarily for schools, museums, and similar facilities. The predecorated kit was devised for modelers who are more akin to model railroaders, used to dealing with ready-to-run locomotives and rolling stock. Angstead has graciously accommodated us with pristine white styrene (this kit is all injection-molded, with no photo-etched or resin parts).

The major assemblies of this 300+ part kit are all polybagged and numbered, and correspond to diagrams in the instructions. Angstead stated that for this prerelease kit, the "pretty box" wasn't finished, and that the instructions needed some refinements, but everything is included to complete the model (sometime around January 1, 1999 there will be an enhancement kit of additional panels, antennae, robotic assembly tracks, and the like). I immediately sought out the Zarya (FGB), Unity connecting node, and PMA (pressurized mating assembly) modules slated to go up first, and was thoroughly impressed with the clean molding with no flash. Details are crisp, and the parts fit snugly. While neither the intricate micrometeoroid shields and conduits are molded into Unity, nor are similar features on Zarya, the basic masses look very good. Dedicated space modelers will certainly be able to add these bits based on published photos and videos. The sprues are a bit tight up to some parts, and it may be a challenge to wedge in a sprue cutter, but an X-acto knife will work about as well.

Zarya and Unity are only the beginning. The Russian service module is equally well molded, with details protruding all around. In fact, all of the cylindrical modules are like that, hollow, one piece, with separate end caps. Whoa...how did they do that? Frank Angstead said, "It's a secret." However, he did explain, as I had guessed, that it involved a three or four part mold. "It's a lot more complicated than your normal flat mold," he said, "but the results are much better." In a few cases, like with the Soyuz and Progress supply ships, the molding is done in straight halves.

The modules all have 1/4" thick, sturdy square connectors, either molded-in or separate. The solar panel attachments are similarly sturdy, as is the overall truss structure, which mounts in three places to the display base. Earth gravity is not kind to large, spidery models, but the amount of sagging should be minimal. The very long rotatable solar panels at each end of the truss are printed in spot color inks on card stock, and are very light. Other panels are styrene, especially the zigzag deployed radiators and smaller photovoltaic rigs. The gloss blue ink is a good color, though one might opt for cutting a new piece of .010 styrene sheet and trying a blue metallic paint job. The gold-colored cell divisions could be redone with a ruling pen or fanatical masking, though the results might not be as clean.

The main truss and all other deployed masts are molded as solid. There has been some discussion about aftermarket photo-etched trusses and masts, but if you're not the adventurous type and will settle for a nice desktop model, the "open" areas can be painted a dark blue or black.

The instructions as supplied (twenty-nine pages) are very clear, full of clean CAD drawings of all the components on their sprues, in subassemblies, and in overall station assembly. You will definitely learn about the ISS as you build the model, and if you're a regular watcher of http://station.nasa.gov (and hit all of the related links), you'll know about EVA handrails, Space Vision System targets, robotic assembly, and emergency egress. Speaking of which, there's talk of a 1/144 X-38 Crew Return Vehicle, as well as a Venture Star to come later.

No painting instructions are present in this early release. Many references abound on the NASA and contractor web pages, so you won't have to wait until 2004 when the station is complete to get the colors and markings right, or at least close (then again, some of us might take that long to get around to building the kit!). A separate nine page decal placement document accompanies the very sharp water-slide decals, representing the international partners.

One of my first reactions to the kit was, admittedly, a mixture of elation over actually having one in hand, and chagrin at the current state of space kit manufacturing by the large hobby companies. Thankfully, we acknowledge that many space subject wish-lists have been filled by our resin kit-manufacturing colleagues. Revell-Monogram, I thought, will never produce an ISS kit as well done as this. Frank Angstead stated that as far as IMR was concerned, it wasn't their intention to outdo the hobby kit companies. The IMR/Johnson space station is simply the best ISS kit they can make. I for one am happy they did it.

This special prerelease kit can be ordered from:

Intermountain Railway Company: http://www.intermountain-railway.com/

RealSpace Models: http://www.nettally.com/realspace/

The predecorated full and partial build-ups of the kit can also be ordered from IMR, and:

Johnson Engineering: http://www.jecorp/htmls/modelkit.htm

Hubbard Scientific: http://www.amep.com/nasamodel.html

Rick Sternbach
Senior Illustrator
Star Trek Voyager
Paramount Pictures
Los Angeles