The Eagle Has Landed: July 20, 1969

Step-by-Step

By Jim DeRogatis

I was a few weeks shy of my fifth birthday on July 20, 1969, when Apollo 11 landed on the moon and Neil Armstrong took his famous “one small step,” but I vividly remember my mom summoning me to the living room to watch the historic moment on TV. As a result, I was fascinated with NASA and all things outer space for the next decade, and the interest still lingers: How could it be that humankind once dreamed so big and now thinks so small? I have long wanted to capture the scene as a box diorama, but unlike the one my MMSI pal Tom Surlak did some years back, I wanted to do it in 1/32nd. The problem was finding the Lunar Module, because scratch-building all those concave surfaces just seemed too daunting! I finally scored when I found an old, out of print, and extremely limited resin kit by Vista Replicas on eBay. Highly sought-after by space modelers, it wasn’t cheap, but I had some “mad money” from the sale of my last box (thanks again, Dan Bird!), so I jumped on it. The photos show the build in progress; highly detailed in some ways, and accurate compared to my research, a lot of the cast pieces were warped or otherwise troublesome, and I wound up replacing many with sheet plastic or brass rod, so it’s now 50/50 stock and scratch. At least I had templates! The figures are by Andrea Miniatures, with a few modifications. I added lighting inside the module, and borrowed a trick from Shep Paine, using mirrors to extend the surface of the moon. I always intended it as a gift for my friend Mary Kay Cobb, another big NASA buff, and I’m proud to say it’s now on display in her and Mike’s home.

 The Vista Replicas kit was a whole lot of (very heavy) resin! Many of the pieces were warped and required replacing with sheet styrene; others, in particular the landing struts, were never going to be strong enough to support the model, so those were replaced, too, with brass rod. And then there was all the filling…

 Here you see me starting to position the primed module and the figures on a sheet of Styrofoam, as well as tinkering to find the right-size viewing window. The figures were converted versions of the Andrea Miniatures astronaut, with a scratchbuilt camera modeled on the one that went to the moon.

 Early lighting tests.

 The surface of the moon in this box is relatively small, given how large the model is. To create the illusion of depth and endless space, I turned to two of Shep Paine’s tried-and-true “tricks”: a black velvet backdrop for the infinity of outer space (nothing “eats” light and creates the illusion of endless blackness better than high-quality black velvet, and Barry Biediger and I have tried many other fabrics, including photographers’ black cloth backdrops) and front-surface or front-silvered mirrors so that the surface of the moon and the blackness of space, if you peer closely, seem to continue far beyond the borders of the box to the left and right. This took A LOT of tinkering, testing, and re-testing to make sure that nothing I didn’t want visible in the mirrors (like the module, the figures, or a stray reflection) was visible. Nothing is more frustrating in box dioramas than messing with mirrors, but when you get it right, nothing is more satisfying a “gag,” as Dennis Levy calls it.

 The figures have been modified and painted, and the lighting is almost finished. On the right are my connections and circuit boards. Below: A close-up of the reflection of Aldrin in Armstrong’s visor. After numerous failed attempts to paint this freehand, I took a photograph of my Aldrin figure; dumped it into PhotoShop and printed to scale; made a decal and applied it to the visor, then painted over it, finishing with a few coats of gloss. A lot of trouble, but I was happy with the results!

Finally, here is a shot of the exterior of the box, which I finished with a nameplate and the Apollo 11 mission patch, and a great photo that Bob Sarnowski took when I displayed the box at the MMSI Chicago Show in October 2016.

 Photo by Bob Sarnowski

Photo by Bob Sarnowski