Lego bricks are beloved all the world over — now they have made it into orbit as part of a joint NASA-Lego educational project. The model of the International Space Station (ISS) was created while in orbit as a way of engaging children as to what it is like living and working in zero gravity.
Satoshi Furukawa, a Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) flight engineer took on the role of chief architect. He assembled the two-foot long toy version of the ISS from some pre-assembled pieces and used additional bricks to finish the job in space.
The process took some two hours and was filmed so kids would see how it came together.
What's so complicated about created a toy model? When working on the ISS in zero gravity, there are a few concerns.
Because of the sensitive equipment all over the inside of the ISS, having Lego bricks bouncing around in zero gravity presents a real risk. Floating bricks could land just about anywhere, creating a fire and safety risk. Plus, imagine trying to corral all the little bits and pieces just to build to complete the project.
Furukawa solved this problem by putting the model together inside a "glovebox." This is a clear-sided box with gloves built into the sides — the box keeps the pieces contained and the gloves allowed Furukawa to put them together.
"The challenging part was using the thick rubber gloves in the containment system because it made me clumsy in building the Lego space station," Furukawa told collectSpace.com after the mission. "I needed to use the system to put many small pieces of Lego under control in microgravity."
The partially completed sections helped give Furukawa a head start in handling the many small bricks.
In addition to teaching kids about the effects of weightlessness, the Lego ISS project helped teach kids about gravity. Just like the real ISS, the unique shape means the model couldn't bear its own weight if completed on the ground and sent fully built. Another reason the sections were useful.
The completed ISS model — and other LEGO models Furukawa created to demonstrate scientific principles — was allowed out of the glovebox and in the open cabin for a few hours. Then the models had to be broken down and stored for safety.
Ironically, the parts for Furukawa's ISS model demonstration were delivered on the same mission that declared the ISS "assembly complete," on May 29, 2011.