November 4, 2010
— When space shuttle Discovery lifts off on its final mission, it will have a small LEGO version of itself onboard to help launch a new partnership between the Denmark-based toy company and NASA.
The seven-inch long LEGO shuttle, which was assembled from about 60 of the iconic toy pieces, gives new meaning to the term "flying brick" as popularly used to describe the real shuttle given that it returns to Earth as a very heavy unpowered glider.
According to NASA, the snap-together shuttle may make a brief appearance in space during Discovery's STS-133 mission and will then be brought back to Earth for use by LEGO in educational activities.
A follow-on flight however will see astronauts onboard the International Space Station (ISS) build NASA and science themed LEGO sets.
"Our partnership will continue on [STS-]134, scheduled for February, when we'll be sending LEGO kits aloft and we'll be doing education outreach with students on the ground," said NASA spokeswoman Ann Marie Trotta.
Classroom of space
"We are going to use the classroom of space — the International Space Station — to help the next generation of explorers," explained Leland Melvin, a former astronaut who last month was appointed as NASA's new associate administrator for education.
"We'll be doing different activities, building demonstrations and then demonstrations with the models once they are built," added Debbie Biggs, an education specialist for the ISS National Lab education projects office.
More than a dozen LEGO building activities will be flown to the station over the next two years. The first three will launch with STS-134, shuttle Endeavour's final mission.
"The first set is actually just a workbench, it has pegs to help us control [the bricks]," Biggs told collectSPACE. "There is a space shuttle set and then there are two kits that are the space station."
LEGO's version of the International Space Station will be part of the company's City line of building sets in 2011. (LEGO)
The LEGO shuttle kit that will be aboard STS-134 builds a bigger model than the STS-133 toy. It features a payload bay that opens and reveals a satellite. The space station, which recreates the modules, solar array wings and truss segments on the real station, will fly as two kits due to its large size.
The shuttle and station kits are slated to be released for sale to the public in 2011 as part of the LEGO City line of toys.
An experiential opportunity
Once delivered to the station, astronaut Catherine "Cady" Coleman will be the first to attempt building the LEGO models, based on special training she is receiving now on the ground.
"She has the first three kits with her right now and her 10-year-old son is training her on how to use them," said Biggs with a smile.
Melvin, who last flew in space in November 2009, expects the weightless environment to slow Coleman's progress building the toys in space.
"If you are trying to duplicate what a child has done on the ground in a one-G environment, it can definitely be done but the question is how long it will take," said Melvin.
LEGO's Stephan Turnipseed (center) with NASA's Debbie Biggs and Leland Melvin at the Kennedy Space Center (collectSPACE)
This is not the first time that LEGO products have flown in space or have been themed around the space program. LEGO has produced space-related sets since 1973 and most recently, two astronaut minifigures "hitched a ride" with the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity that arrived at the red planet in 2004.
Setting this new partnership apart is the focus on science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, disciplines. By using the toys and their construction in space, NASA and LEGO hope to encourage children to take a greater interest in engineering and design principles.
"We need something that they can hold in their hand to have an experiential opportunity," said Melvin, explaining why the LEGO brick sets were the "perfect fit" for NASA's STEM educational outreach goals.
"We did not have the good fortune to have LEGO bricks on our [STS-129] mission, but I am glad that STS-133 and follow-on STS-134 will have the opportunity to take these building blocks," said Melvin. "I can't wait to start playing with my LEGOs."