The Jupiter 2: An icon of spacecraft design

More than any other vehicle I was exposed to as a boy, the Jupiter 2 from Lost in Space captured my imagination and held me in thrall. I searched in vain for a model kit of this venerable spacecraft for many years. Every time our family travelled to a new city, I’d always ask at the local hobby shop if they had a model of the Jupiter 2. And the answer was always no.

Issue #29 of Sci-Fi & Fantasy Models magazine sheds light on the mystery of the kit that never was: “Aurora actually considered releasing a Jupiter 2 kit during the 1960s but decided not to do so because they felt the simple saucer lacked commercial appeal.” In retrospect, this was possibly the dumbest business decision ever made in the history of the plastic model kit industry.

Sometime in the early 1990s, I happened to see an ad in a scale modelling magazine that brought to mind the phrase “better late than never.” It was a kit of the Jupiter 2 from a company I had never heard of: Lunar Models. I placed my order immediately and waited three long months for the product to be delivered. What eventually arrived was a plain white cardboard box with two wobbly vacuform pieces of the top and bottom of the hull, poorly cast resin landing gear, and a transparent circular piece for the engine. Given the exorbitant cost of the kit and the ridiculous wait time, I made a note to myself never to order anything from that company again.

I was able to find an LED chaser kit to animate the engine lights, carefully placing 32 LEDs in a circle and wiring everything together. My Jupiter 2 is unique in that the LEDs are red and orange, which is how I imagined the lights to appear when watching Lost in Space on a black and white television as a kid. A plain lightbulb was used to illuminate the top dome and the interior. I cut out a hatch for the battery pack in the bottom hull and positioned a push button switch to be flush with the hull when in the “on” position. The viewport and interior were scratchbuilt since none were supplied. Although the project took about ten times longer to finish than I expected it would, the results were worth it. I finally had a replica of the Jupiter 2.

The Jupiter 2 design owed a debt to the C-57D featured in the classic sci-fi film Forbidden Planet. (The name of this ship makes you wonder what happened to the C-57A, B and C . . . and for that matter, what happened to the Jupiter 1?) UFO mania was rife in the 1960s, and both the C-57D and Jupiter 2 capitalized on this. What helped make these terrestrial UFOs unique was the spinning lights on the bottom of the hull which somehow provided propulsion for interstellar travel. Those mesmerizing lights hypnotized a whole generation of Lost in Space fans, and the Jupiter 2 still retains its status as a classic of sci-fi design today.

A circular spacecraft has a certain elegance which no other design can match, because the circle is the most perfect geometric shape. It has no sides or corners. A saucer shaped spacecraft can change direction seamlessly, unlike a conventional ship, which must point its nose in the direction it wants to fly. If UFOs do in fact exist, then it would make sense that a race advanced enough to create such a craft would choose a circular design.

The Jupiter 2 was a much better design than the C-57D. It had a viewport, which was not only practical for astronauts who like to see where they’re going, but lent visual interest by making the interior of the ship visible. And the contours of the hull looked just right, whereas the C-57D came across like a child’s drawing.

I also liked the Jupiter 2’s landing gear, a tripod arrangement which was much more stable than the C-57D’s central column. If you made the mistake of landing the C-57D on a surface less than perfectly level, the whole ship would be in danger of toppling over. Although the C-57D had three boarding ramps, these were not meant to support the ship, since they were extended after the ship landed.

Designing fictional craft that are grounded in real world physics is vital if you want to broaden your audience to include not just laymen, but technically minded people like scientists and engineers. This is one reason for the widespread and enduring appeal of Star Trek.

But most movie and television producers are not big on realism, or even common sense. A frequent gaffe is not checking that the miniature of a fictional spacecraft matches the full size set, and that the interior of the ship is spatially compatible with the exterior. Looking at the Jupiter 2 from the outside, it’s obvious that a ship of its dimensions and layout would have room for just one level, since the lower part of the hull would house the propulsion system.

It should also be obvious that there would be no room for niceties like a chariot and space pod. But this didn’t stop Irwin Allen and his producers from including them in the Jupiter 2. Allen, a graduate of journalism school, had no technical savvy. Nor did he have the business sense to hire someone who did. This resulted in glaring scientific inaccuracies that plagued most of his productions.

The biggest mystery of the Jupiter 2 is how that array of spinning lights on the bottom of its hull can propel it across interstellar distances. A quick search of the Internet shows that there are almost as many explanations for the propulsion system as there are LEDs on my Jupiter 2 model, and none of them are plausible.

Oh well, you can’t have everything. Quibbles aside, the Jupiter 2 remains a classic which has stood the test of time. Although this elegant craft didn’t emerge in kit form until many years after Lost in Space was cancelled, several companies eventually got around to it. The current Moebius kit is the best of the lot, and is still being sold today. Aurora, you really blew it.

-Ivar

Scratchbuild case study: Phoenix

The Phoenix is an original design I came up with for a teaser promoting a feature length screenplay I had written called Test Pilot. Although the screenplay was never made into a film, it won a Toronto International Film Festival screenwriters’ competition.

The Phoenix is a lifting body design inspired by experimental NASA craft such as Northrop’s HL-10 and M2-F2. If you remember the TV series The Six Million Dollar Man, one of these craft was featured in a spectacular crash landing in the show’s title sequence.

Lifting body spaceplanes were developed to demonstrate the feasibility of unpowered re-entry from space using a piloted craft which could land like a conventional aircraft. These craft were never put into operational use, but they paved the way for NASA’s Space Shuttle, which utilized unpowered re-entry. The Space Shuttle had a career spanning 30 years, from 1981 to 2011. It was originally to have been replaced by the Lockheed Martin X-33, but that program was cancelled due to technical problems. The latest potential replacement for the Space Shuttle is Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser, a diminutive lifting body vehicle which could fit into the Space Shuttle’s cargo bay if the wings were folded. Time will tell if the Dream Chaser program will prove successful.

Using sheet styrene to build the Phoenix resulted in an origami style design with lots of sharp corners. If I were to do it all over again, I’d add some sculpting clay to smooth out the shape. The canopy glazing was frosted to eliminate the need to detail the cockpit interior. You can just make out the pilot’s white helmet if you look closely.

The rear landing gear feature solid rubber wheels (radio control aircraft parts) and the front landing gear wheels are from a 1:32 MIG-21 plastic kit. The engine is also made up of pieces from the spares box. The Phoenix is quite heavy due to a solid block of wood in the interior which was the attachment point for the support rod used to position it during filming. The model appeared in three shots in the video teaser: a static hangar shot, an in-flight shot showing the ship in a flat spin, and a lift-off shot which used a dry chemical fire extinguisher to simulate the exhaust blast.

Since the ship is designed to operate in the Earth’s atmosphere, it has to be streamlined to minimize friction. This means no Star Wars-style detailing like you’d see on a Y-Wing or Millennium Falcon. I applied a two-tone orange paint scheme to add some visual interest to the wide expanse of flat surface, and weathered the nose and underside of the ship to suggest scarring from the intense heat generated during re-entry.

Like many designs, the Phoenix looks better from some angles than others. The rear three-quarter view is probably the best, as it shows the massive engine bell with surrounding detail and the rear landing gear.

-Ivar