1/48 Mercury Atlas

As usual (!) I am using David Weeks’ excellent drawings available from Realspace Models.

For this project I expected two major challenges: constructing the engine fairings and the paint job.

The engine fairings are complex in that way that they don’t have a simple circular cross section and they extend down below the bottom of the booster. I tried in various ways to bend 0.3mm sheet styrene over cross sections taken from the drawings, but the edges that will meet the body of the rocket have a strong tendency to warp no matter how precisely I glue the sheet to the sections. Adding strips to the inside of the fairings to stiffen and straighten the edges works ok, but obviously there are no internal stiffeners on the part that extends below the booster bottom.

I also tried to heat shape the fairings over a balsa mold, but did not have much success. I ended up with this solution:

I glued a large chunk of balsa between the top and bottom cross sections cut from styrene and sanded it into the shape of the fairings. The piece is then covered with a sheet of 0.3mm styrene which is wrapped and glued tightly around the mold with enough styrene extending beyond the mold at the bottom of the fairing to later cut this end into the correct shape. It is important that the balsa mold is very smooth and without any edges left behind after the sanding. These will show through the styrene. This works quite well – even the part that sticks out from the bottom of the mold keeps its shape and does not warp. Once the balsa chunks are covered, I sanded the inside to make the fairings fit the rocket body.

Most Atlas models I have seen – in any scale – are painted a very bright metallic color or even covered with metal foil to make it look like the real polished stainless steel rocket. I think that bright, shiny foil in large quantities looks out of scale. And also, the color of the booster has to blend in naturally with the different metallic shades of the pods and fairings that are going to be brush painted – in my opinion, metal foil does not do that. And somehow it should also be visible that the booster itself is made up of several sections.

I decided to use Testors stainless steel metallizer – and brush paint it! The paint is intended for air brush use only, and it is quite difficult to achieve a reasonable result with an ordinary brush. Also, the paint is quite aggressive (it smells really bad!), at least when brush painted, and there is a big risk that  it will dissolve any layer of paint used as primer. So I masked off the individual sections along the booster and painted directly on the bare styrene. It is important to leave the painted sections to dry for a couple of days before applying masking tape to them. This automatically gives the sections different shades and makes the whole thing look not-so-clean as many of the models I have seen. I quite like it. But I am sure you could argue that the model looks a lot less neat than the real thing. But then I would argue, that what I am looking for is something that looks well in 1/48 scale and at the same time looks like sections of stainless steel. Modeler’s artistic license…

Experimenting with paint and building the fairings were by far the most time consuming parts of this project.

The conical upper section of the booster is simply made from two layers of sheet styrene - like the cylindrical body. I calculated the shroud to be a little too large at the bottom so I could just trim it to fit the rest of the booster - instead of making cones again and again until one of them would fit. The cone is held circular with two inserted balsa discs. When test-fitting the top of the cone to the space craft adapter, it turned out that the diameter of the cone was too large. I added discs of styrene to extend the cone upwards and thereby decreasing the diameter. Even the smallest imperfections will be visible through the metal paint, so I took much care to fill and sand. The end result is not perfect…

Once the engine fairings are done, the rest of the propulsion section is straight forward. After a coat of gloss white, it's painted with various metal shades and then sprayed with clear flat.

The equipment pods on each side of the booster are made from sheet and tube styrene with the pointy end sanded from balsa.

Pictures of the space craft adapter and vernier fairings:

The engines are made of balsa:

I am using the old Revell kit for the Mercury capsule. (I used decal from Rick Sternvabch's Space Model systems.) Far from being perfect, I decided only to modify the escape rocket:

I printed my own decals for the booster:


 And now it all comes together:

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