Building the Revell 1/48th Scale Mercury Capsule

By Michael J. Mackowski



After publishing a book on how to build an accurate model of the Mercury spacecraft, I decided to do just that. Theoretically, one should build the model first, then write the book. But life doesn't always allow ideal schedules. I was doing the research, and that was the best time to write the book. In building the model, I did note some things that would have certainly helped me write the book, and I will try to share some of those observations here.

I like building spacecraft in the "on orbit" configuration. That is, as they would appear in space, as opposed to in a prelaunch state or some museum display condition. For the Mercury spacecraft, I wanted to use the classic Revell 1/48th scale kit, and that would mean making a number of significant changes. A number of things are deployed on orbit and there were several details that were incorrect on the kit. The good news is that the hatch could remain closed and I would not need to worry much about the interior.

First, the launch escape tower was omitted and the front of the capsule had to be modified to show the extended destabilizing flap. There are two sections of the Mercury capsule forward of the conical astronaut compartment (see figure above). The antenna fairing is the slightly tapered portion at the very front. There is an aerodynamic cone that is actually attached to the escape tower. The kit part for the antenna section has this cone molded on, and the kit version is too narrow. In researching my book, I found several different dimensions given for the diameter of this section. The kit appears to have correctly used an older version, which also makes it easier to wrap the fragile tower struts around it. But a look at photos of the real capsule (like the unmanned MA-2 capsule #6 at left, McDonnell photo D4E-244971, via Ron Downey) with the antenna compartment still attached suggests that the kit proportions are wrong, and flight capsules used a wider version. Other references I found support this, and these differences are dicussed in my book.

  There were similar dimensional problems and discrepancies with the Recovery Section. The kit part is too short. This, too, is apparent in photos and seems to be the result of a design change at some point in the program. The kit seems to have picked up an earlier version. Also, the details in the kit's antenna compartment were poor and I would need to add the on orbit features, anyway. So I decided to scratchbuild a new antenna compartment and completely redo the recovery section.
lexan nose
New lexan nose after initial shaping on a lathe.

 Antenna Fairing

First, I turned a new tapered section using a piece of lexan. Then I had to reproduce the raised stiffening dimples. After much trial and error, I wound up using stretched sprue, gluing on something like 42 separate pieces, each very, very tiny in diameter and maybe a third of an inch in length. That was lots of fun.

Nose detail Of course, the nose had all sorts of wires and other details. I scribed some circular lines to represent the raised dimples on the front face. There was no way I was going to do that in stretched sprue. I added some fine copper wire for the cables and a disc of plastic for the drogue parachute cover.
recovery section
New Recovery Section after joining two kits' parts together.

Recovery Section

The kit part was too short, so I combined parts from two kits.

lexan nose

Molding the Originals

Since I though I might someday make more Mercury models like this, I decided not to use these original parts on the model. Besides, I had not played with resins and castings in a while. So I got a fresh set of Ace Resin and their RTV molding mix, and set out to copy the parts. (Note that RealSpace Models is now - or will be soon - selling very similar replcement parts.)

I built a box out of Lego blocks (strong, easy to build and reuse, etc) and set it over the two parts. After filling it with RTV and allowing it to cure, I popped the parts out and got the results you see at the left.


Making Resin Duplicates

Next I made several resin casts and picked the nicest ones for the actual model.

(Sorry for the low-contrast photo)

 Mercury capsule 1

Main Capsule

The capsule portion was nothing special. I only gave the interior a basic coat of gray paint, although I did put in an astronaut in a silver suit with a face painted as well as this non-figure painter could muster. I even painted the instrument panel in several shades of gray and tan, and dry brushed the raised controls, even though I don't think you can see it.

The three pieces that make up the exterior of the conical section really don't fit all that well. I had to fuss a bit to get them to line up and there were still some gaps that needed a little CA filler and even a little putty. I installed an interior window pane after painting the dark gray around the window area. I also added some red highlights to match the features I saw in color photos of Glenn's capsule. At this point I gave it a primer of light gray (just some Testors Model Master enamel) to ensure there were no gaps or scratches. After gluing on the new nose sections it appeared as seen at the left.

Retro section

Retro pack

The next area that needed a lot of work was the retro section. This was surprising to me as I had not seen any one else point out the problems there. There were two major features on the kit that needed revision. First the straps that hold the retro pack to the heatshield go all the way to the center of the retro pack. The kit has them ending near the three rocket covers. So I trimmed off these round ends and added little strips of Evergreen plastic to bring them together in the middle of the retro package. See photo at left.

I also noticed that only two of the straps had any cabling on them. Which was not really a problem, since the kit does not do these cables very well, anyway. So I cleaned off (one actually broke) the cables completely on one strap and partway on the others. I then added some wire and was able to actually route it all the way to the side of the capsule where the cables actually connect to the capsule. The kit makes it appear that these connectors sort of hang near the edge of the heatshield.

 Mercury retro 2


I painted the retro pack with a metallic aluminum and applied the wonderful New Ware decals for this kit. They were fantastic. Tom Kladiva provides all of the black stripes needed to do the retro pack. There are lots of pieces and it took several evenings to apply all of them, but the results are very impressive. They fit great and look painted on. The photo at left is slightly out of focus and does not do these decals justice. I will try to get some better pictures soon.

Note that I painted the heatshield a rusty brown color. The overall capsule was painted a mix of Gunship Gray and gloss black. I probably should have made it a bit darker, as I think the gray is a bit light. I used the New Ware decals for the UNITED STATES lettering and other small stenciling on the capsule. While the decals are thin and of fine quality, it took a lot of setting solution and Q-tip and toothpick work to get them to conform to the corrugated capsule surface.


Finishing the Nose Section

This picture points out some of the other details on the Antenna Compartment. The destabilizing flap was made out of several pieces of thin styrene sheet. The antenna radome is the white band that goes all the way around this section. It was painted gloss white and masked off while the rest of the capsule was being painted gray. After the painting was complete, I added three thin strips of white plastic strip (actually sanded-down Evergreen) to represent the straps that helped attach the Antenna Compartment to the Recovery Section of the spacecraft.

 Mercury side 2

Other Capsule Details

In this photo you can also see the cabling coming around from the retro section to where it actually goes into the capsule. One thing I missed was that the kit detentes for the heatshield are clocked wrong. The heatshield needs to be rotated just a bit to have these line up better. (I don't have details of that revision right now, but I will dig it up.)

 Mercury umbilical

Umbilical Door

Another significant modification from the kit was to open the door used for the umbilical and periscope. I scored a rectangle and shaved a depression into the kit part before it was assembled into the rest of the capsule. I added some stretched sprue to represent some of the exposed internal stiffeners of the interior pressure vessel. After all of the other construction and painting was complete, I added the periscope from a piece of aluminum tubing, a hinge and some cables. The interior area was painted metallic aluminum, the inside of the door was white, and I highlighted the cables using a flat red color.

Mercury model Mercury side 1


I was really quite happy with how it turned out, and the model won the Best Spacecraft award at the IPMS Region 10 convention in August 2000.

And maybe next time, I'll build the kit before I write the book.

Mike Mackowski
October 2000


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This page revised Nov. 23, 2000