LEGO Ideas feels right at home in orbit with 21321 International Space Station [Review]

Many of us here at The Brothers Brick are space fans in one way or another, so we were pretty excited to see that the next LEGO Ideas set would be 21321 International Space Station when it was proclaimed the winner of the 10th-anniversary fan vote last summer. Now less than a year later, LEGO is revealing the final version of the set today, and we’ve got our hands on a copy to bring you a full review. Retailing for US $69.99 | CAN $99.99 | UK £64.99, the newest model from the LEGO Ideas crowdsourcing platform has 864 pieces and will be available starting Feb. 1.

The box & contents

Although the finished model is quite large at 19 inches wide (49cm) and 12 inches deep (31cm), the box is fairly compact, with a solid heft thanks to being packed full. Like all but the largest Ideas sets that preceded it, the International Space Station’s box has a hinged flap that lifts the front panel.

Inside you’ll find six numbered bags and an instruction manual about the same size as the box. However, one thing is–beautifully–missing. Rarely before have I been so relieved to have something not included in a LEGO set, but there’s no sticker sheet to be found here, despite the set having 122 decorated elements! Of course, the huge bulk of those elements come from the gorgeous solar panel elements, which come in three flavors.

The first is a printed 1×4 tile that’s appeared in a number of sets since it was introduced with 21312 Women of NASA in 2017. There are enough of them here (64) to merit their own bag. Then there’s a new print for the dark blue 2×3 plate with clips. This piece appeared with solar panel stickers in last year’s City sets, so I was worried it would get the same treatment here, but thankfully LEGO has saved us from the grim task of applying stickers to all 46 of this piece. Finally, there is a pair of 8 x 3 flags with the panel design, though it’s sadly on one side only. The set also includes four of these flags unprinted in white, and while the solar panel design is new, neither color is.

In addition to the solar panels, there are several other printed elements. The existing soda can lid design is used as a detail, as is the mechanical pattern 2×2 round tile that was introduced with 21311 Voltron and has been showing up in a variety of sets since. Then there’s a new print for the 2×2 truncated cone element for the ISS’s famous cupola that faces Earth. With just two pairs of windows printed on opposite sides instead of the cupola’s six evenly spaced windows, it’s oddly missing the final two windows despite having space for them. It’s a disappointment for what is almost certainly the window with the best view in history.

The final printed element is the one sure to be exclusive to this set. In a move that we’d like to see Star Wars UCS sets imitate, the nameplate is beautifully printed in silver.

Although not particularly rare, you’ll also get four 2×2 radar dishes in metallic silver.

Let’s turn now to the manual, which is a 128-page perfect-bound booklet (note, LEGO’s press release says it’s 148 pages, but this seems to be an error). The booklet starts off with a number of spreads about the ISS, the fan designer, other LEGO Ideas space-related sets, and a few important anniversaries. Not only is the model the result of the LEGO Ideas 10-anniversary fan vote, but 2020 also marks 20 years of continuous human occupancy aboard the International Space Station. It’s a mind-boggling feat of human ingenuity that a mere 59 years after the very first human entered space at the height of the Cold War, we’ve got a permanent space station that’s had people aboard for 20 years, thanks to the cooperation of five space agencies and 19 nations’ astronauts.

The build

It’s only natural that before you can build the International Space Station, you need a way to get space, and a reason to go there. So Bag 1 contains precisely those things, with the three spacecraft, the space shuttle, and two astronauts to live on the station. Although the official set descriptions shy away from naming the spacecraft, the recognizable vehicles span many decades of space exploration, from a Soyuz capsule which began development in the 1960s; to an iconic Space Shuttle, the pinnacle of the American space program from the 1980s to the early 2010s; to what appears to be a Boeing CST-100 Starliner, which underwent an initial test flight just a few weeks ago and has yet to make its maiden flight to the ISS. There’s also a SpaceX Dragon capsule.

The two astronaut microfigures are identical to those included in 21309 NASA Apollo Saturn V, so their spacesuits are Apollo-era rather than either the orange jumpsuits of the Shuttle crew or the current generation of blue uniforms. However, at this scale they’re a decent stand-in for the ISS’ EVA suits, so perhaps the astronauts and cosmonauts are just permanently on a spacewalk. Although only two are used in the set, there’s an extra included.

Next up is the stand, which is a sturdy Technic affair that’s surprisingly small considering the large span of the finished model’s solar panel array.

Finally, then, on to the Space Station itself. The build starts with the main supporting truss, which is not habitable and simply serves as a power conduit and rigid structure to tie the solar panel array and living spaces together. Lots of 1×1 plates in warm gold give it depth and the appearance of details, but don’t accurately represent anything on the real ISS (the gold details on the real ISS main truss would be so small at this scale as to be invisible). The two ball joints at either end will later connect to the solar panel arrays, giving them full 360° movement on a single axis.

Next, a segment of the habitation corridors is created, mostly a variety of 2×2 round elements and tiny greebly bits.

Once that’s connected to the main truss, it’s time to mount it on the stand. The ISS mounts to the stand easily with three attachment points: the outer two lock on with two studs each, while the center cradles the lower habitation corridor and is tiled.

The habitation modules are strung together with Technic axles through the center, the same technique I used on my own ISS-inspired spaceships. Here you can also clearly see the white Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) on the left. Although it doesn’t get nearly the press coverage of SpaceX or Blue Origin, Bigelow Aerospace is a similar billionaire-funded private space company, but instead of rockets, its aim is to create modular space habitats. The BEAM was added to the ISS in 2016.

Compared to the overall size of the Space Station, the habitat segments are quite small and we quickly move on to the real bulk of the solar panel array. The support structure comes first, along with the prominent white photovoltaic radiators on the bottom.

Finally, the solar panels themselves, which are a bit of a slog to build. You’ll need to create eight of the panel arrays, each of which contains two identical long solar panels. Get ready for some repetitious building.

However, I think we’ll all agree the result is worth it.

The completed model

This isn’t the first time LEGO and ISS have crossed paths. In 2012, Japanese astronaut Satoshi Furukawa brought some LEGO aboard with him–and it wasn’t just any LEGO. He brought an impressively large model of the ISS and assembled it in microgravity aboard the real station. Then in 2015, Andreas Mogensen, the first astronaut hailing from LEGO’s home country of Denmark, brought LEGO minifigures with him to the International Space Station, capturing this amazing photo from the cupola floating 254 miles above the Earth’s surface.

Image courtesy of ESA/NASA

So now it’s only fitting that earth-bound fans of the ISS can experience a bit of that space thrill themselves.

The base of the stand holds the Dragon and Starliner spacecraft and the two astronauts. The Space Shuttle can also slot in between the stand uprights.

The Space Station balances well atop the stand. Although the small scale precludes too many fine details, there are enough that the model feels accurate and intricate.

I’m particularly fond of the light grey struts attaching the habitat modules to the main support truss, made with the “espresso filter” element. The black docking port on the front is where the Space Shuttle would dock, although the microscale shuttle model included doesn’t attach since it would be a male-to-male stud connection. It would be an easy fix with the addition of a black “nipple” element or replacing the port with a black 1×1 Technic beam, something the set should have included out of the box.

The Canadarm folds up next to the main truss, ready to extend out for remote-controlled work.

The famous cupola is a detail that’s awesome to see in LEGO form (even if the inaccuracy of the window printing is annoying).

Underneath the back, you’ll discover that the ISS model includes a lot more than the three spacecraft noted in the official set documentation. In fact, there are at least four Soyuz/Progress spacecraft docked to the ISS, along with what I’m guessing is a Northrop Grumman Cygnus NG-10 spacecraft at the bottom right (although the solar panels are the wrong shape). Since Progress is a modified Soyuz craft, at this scale they’re identical when translated into LEGO. In real life, there are never this many spacecraft docked to the ISS at any given time. At least one Soyuz is always docked as a lifeboat, plus one or two additional craft for crew changes and/or resupply.

The Cygnus and one of the Soyuz/Progress ships are built into the model and don’t easily detach, but the others come off easily.

Here’s a closer look at the other two spacecraft as well: the Boeing CST-100 Starliner on the left, and the SpaceX Dragon on the right. I would have liked to see printed details on their noses, but it’s easy to forgive the lack of details on a model that’s two bricks tall.

The unnamed Space Shuttle is a fantastic model. It’s nearly the same scale as the one included in 21312 Women of NASA and shares some design elements, but is an updated version with more details. Specifically, it includes the small side engines thanks to roller skates, something previous models have always lacked. Sadly, it can’t actually dock to the ISS model

Although at first the orange backs of the Space Station’s solar panels seem like an odd choice, comparing it to official photos it’s clear that it was probably the best choice from LEGO’s existing palette of part/color combinations. The back of the panels is covered in reflective gold that shines with a distinctly orange hue in bright sunlight. Warm gold would have been the best choice, but LEGO has continually shied away from producing large plates in that color.

Each side’s solar panels can be rotated front-to-back, while each pair of panels can also tilt left and right, letting them turn to catch maximum sunlight just like the real station’s.

Compared to the original fan design submitted to LEGO Ideas by Christoph Ruge, the official set shares relatively few direct design solutions, with almost every part of the set swapped out for different elements. However, the model’s scale is nearly identical, and LEGO’s designers have been able to take advantage of some new elements and printing that weren’t available to Christoph, resulting in an even better model than the one fans voted for last year.

Finally, I couldn’t resist taking a photo next to one of my own NASA-inspired futuristic spacecraft. My models tend to be more detailed than the official ISS set, but I can guarantee the official model will stand up to rigors of play (or even movement) far better than my own.

Conclusion & recommendation

It will come as no surprise at this point that I highly recommend this set. It’s a fantastically designed LEGO model of one of mankind’s most impressive achievements of the modern age, representing a true high-water mark of international cooperation. The model is sturdy despite representing something that was built in microgravity and has loads of great details, including at least five different spacecraft from Soyuz to the Space Shuttle (six if you assume at least one Progress capsule).

With 864 pieces for just $70 USD, the ISS carries on the LEGO Ideas tradition of great value for the price, with a cost-per-part coming in at just $0.08, despite one out of every seven pieces in the set being printed. The parts themselves are fantastic, too, with very few “filler” pieces. I already plan to pick up one or two extra copies just for parts to build my own space creations.

21321 International Space Station has 864 pieces. It is available Feb. 1 from the LEGO Shop Online for US $69.99 | CAN $99.99 | UK £64.99.

The LEGO Group sent The Brothers Brick an early copy of this set for review. Providing TBB with products for review guarantees neither coverage nor positive reviews.

9 comments on “LEGO Ideas feels right at home in orbit with 21321 International Space Station [Review]

  1. JBB

    I’m curious about the recommended age. So you agree with their assessment of 16+? I’m very interested in this kit for my son, but I’m worried about the difficulty.

  2. Chris Post author

    JBB: I should have addressed it in the review, but honestly I’m a bit baffled in the 16+ age rating. There are more difficult techniques to build in sets like the Speed Champions line, which are rated 8+. Perhaps the one difference is that the ISS model doesn’t have much in the way of “play” features, but if your son is into space stuff that won’t matter to him.

    If your son builds other LEGO sets on his own, then he likely won’t have a problem with this one. And if there is a difficult portion then it’s a great opportunity for some father/son bonding as you help!

  3. JBB

    @Chris: thank you so much for that. He’s a big fan space and Lego, so it’s a very natural fit. And his birthday is on February, so even the timing is perfect.

  4. Jacob Lyman

    A few things of note:

    If that capsule with the BB9E head is supposed to be a SpaceX Cargo Dragon, and the one with the R4 Astromech head a Boeing Starliner; the scale is a bit off… The Dragon’s are slightly larger than a Starliner, not the other way around! However, I love that the Cargo Dragon stand in has a piece allowing it to be grabbed by Canada Arm 2… that has been such an iconic part of the Commercial Cargo missions and its super neat to see it replicated in the set! The inclusion of the last ship, either a Cygnus as you mentioned, or possible a European ATV is a nice addition too.

    I personally think the Soyuz/Progress minis need more black in them. The insulation around a Soyuz makes it look kind of like a black kitchen trashbag in real life. I do think the way the Soyuz docks in a few of the segments, means that the Poisk and Pirs modules are sadly missing. But yes, there have been times where almost every docking port on the ISS was occupied! Take this example from December 2018; two Progress, two Soyuz, one Cygnus and one Cargo Dragon all at the station with only one vacant docking port (which was partially out of use at the time since it was awaiting a new adaptor piece so it could dock with future Dragon and Starliner flights):

    I don’t know why, but seeing BEAM in the model makes me very happy.

  5. winston

    i’d guess the age rating has less to do with the complexity of the build and more about this being a display piece instead sturdy car and a kid can vroom around.

  6. Nischal Samji

    Can you confirm the dimensions of the box?
    Want to carry it in my check-in bag and want to see if it occupies too much space?

  7. Brian H.

    Was this scaled to the same scale as the Apollo 11 Rocket? If they are the same “size” would be nice to see a side by side comparison. If I buy this I plan to display side by side personally but it would be nice when people ask to know the answer to this.

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