Design Preview Report: Scale model of long range spacecraft

To say my life revolves around space exploration is probably a bit dramatic, but I will say that a huge portion of my favorite things to discuss, think about, and even my career path involve space exploration. To me, it just seems like the natural progression of humanity’s journey: we have catalogued pretty much every square inch of Earth and we just keep growing as a species, now it’s time to explore space. It is pretty cliche, but I totally empathize with the phrase ‘Born too late to explore the world, born too early to explore the stars’. But thankfully, it seems we are currently living on the very cusp of that space exploration, and I just live for that.

So, for my project I know I want to do something along the lines of space travel, specifically future space travel, but not so future that it’s unrecognizable. I think what really engages me with space is the ‘how’ of getting there, and how it literally pushes the boundaries of human knowledge while simultaneously having to remain very human and intuitive. This conjecture is where I want to base my project, something that at first glance is technically advanced, but closer inspection reveals familiarity.

Space exploration design adheres to the aesthetic of practicality, one prime example that pins down practicality is the widespread invention of touch screen technology, but it’s extremely rare inclusion in aerospace hardware. While modern touch screens aren’t prone to failure, astronauts still prefer the reliability and tactility of dials, knobs, and switches to ensure mission success. That practicality shows up in nearly every aspect of aerospace design: visually exposed valves, pipes, fasteners, belts, plating, etc.

But while practicality is a huge driving factor behind space design, it doesn’t appear completely utilitarian; you know space exploration when you see it. There is a certain implicit stylization to all of it, demarcated by a color palette of whites, reds, oranges, yellows, golds, blues and blacks. While many will be quick to point out that most of these colors actually do serve a purpose, such as that white reflects the most heat from the sun off the object, why not choose bright neon pink as indicator for an important switch? Certainly its more visible than red; therefore I conclude that style does indeed play some role in space design.

In recent memory, one piece of media that comes to mind in embodying this space exploration aesthetic is the video game Starfield. Starfield takes place in the far but not distant future, around 300 years, and lets players explore the Milky Way Galaxy. Exploration is done via spaceships flying around solar systems and on-foot to explore planetary surfaces. The game has coined the term ‘NASA Punk’ to describe the very tactile, industrial, and practical aesthetic much of the design follows, and very heavily takes inspiration from modern spacecraft. All the machinery, hardware, tools and systems are visually recognizable on spaceships and spacesuits alike, just like today. While I am not a fan of the term NASA Punk as it seems that every discernable aesthetic has the term punk slapped onto it, this is precisely the aesthetic I am shooting for in my project.

Specifically, my final project will be scale model of a fictitious long transit spaceship (think flight to Mars and beyond). Currently there are no existing designs for a spaceship of this kind and size, and I have always wondered what they will look like, so I decided to do it myself! One of the alluring aspects of the spaceflight design that I cherish is its grounding in reality, so I am going to try to stay away from science-fiction technology as much as possible, and stick to existing or very near future technology.

My plans are to not only design the outside of the spaceship, but also create a low-resolution mockup of the inside of the vehicle and be able to take off the ‘roof’ to see inside. Additionally, I want the separate modules able to be attached and detached freely, as that is actually how real spacecraft like the ISS is built. In keeping with the realism, I am going to do a fair bit of research into what systems and contents are present on a spaceship and include those in the design. At CU I have learned a great deal about human spaceflight and I want to take everything I have learned and pour it into a physical artifact.

My main plan of production in all of this is a combination of CAD modeling, then 3D printing using PLA, and then finishing with detailed acrylic painting.

As for alternatives, I would likely stick with vehicle design as it scratch’s that engineering itch, but potentially take it in another direction. Since I love space and spaceships so much, I decided to sketch a spaceship in two aesthetics very different from practical space design.

60’s psychedelic: which funny enough was actually starting around the exact same time space design really took off. I took inspiration from the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine.


Cottagecore: I don’t think it gets any more different from the gigantic, industrial space structures than a quaint little cottage that probably inhabits a cute little grandma.


While these wacky spaceships were certainly fun to draw, I want to keep my design grounded in reality so I will not be incorporating any aspects from them.

As the previously stated, the main driving factor behind N.A.S.A. Pragmatism (closest name to the aesthetic that I can come up with) is practicality, so that means that everything has a purpose. Therefore, the design and contents of this spacecraft scale model will need to have a purpose. To get an idea of what the spacecraft and it’s contents will look like, I am pooling together what I have learned from my various Space Minor courses at CU in addition to doing my own research.

The contents of that research could fill an entire paper on it’s own already, but summarized, humans need life support systems, basic needs like water, food, and waste, energy,power, and propulsion, transportation to and from the spacecraft since it can’t land itself, lots of storage, laboratories to conduct science, workshops to fix problems, and potentially most importantly a place to live and relax! These necessities will be contained within five modules I’m planning to make the spacecraft out of. Propulsion Power and Energy (PPE), Orion (the next space capsule to be used in upcoming NASA missions), Laboratory and Workshop (LAW), [Resupply and Logistics for Interplanetary Exploration (RALPHIE), Crew Habitat for Interplanetary Program Spacecraft (CHIPS), and an Airlock to connect at a junction.

Overall vehicle sketch exterior view

(From left to Right) LAW, RALPHIE, and CHIPS module floorplans

To fabricate this project, I am first researching and hand sketching (this part is already complete). Then I will use Solidworks CAD to turn the hand sketches into digital 3D objects. I will then use a Lulzbot Workhorse 3D printer to print the designs using Polyterra White PLA filament. I chose Polyterra specifically to aid in the next process, finishing and painting, as this company’s filament produces a really nice matte look that is nice to paint. I am planning on hitting the entire assembly with a coat of white primer, and then using acrylic paint to add details. I know acrylic paint isn’t typically used in models, but I actually prefer it to the oil based standard paints in my past scale model building experience.

To make the project dynamic, I plan on two features being designed into my scale model. Firstly, the roof will be detachable on the modules to allow the viewer to look into them and observe the internal features. Secondly, I want the modules themselves to be interchangeable, using a turn lock system designed at their attachment points. This allows the spacecraft to have many more assembly orientations.

Furthermore, while the general process of this project follows the aforementioned workflow, in reality many of these tasks will be done parallel thanks to autonomy of 3d printing. I plan to start computer modeling this upcoming friday, March 15th, and be done by then end of the month, March 31st. I expect the last of the 3D printing to complete by April 12th, and the last of the finishing by April 22nd. Due to the large scope of this project I think very likely I will be working right up until the due date! Hopefully I will get a solid amount done during spring break as well, thankfully I enjoy this stuff so much it hardly feels like work!

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2 Comments. Leave new

  • Peter Arnold
    April 1, 2024 2:23 pm

    Hi Barrett! As I’m sure you know I love 3D printing as well, so I’m particularly excited to see where this project goes. I think the amount of research you’ve done so far is very clear and is impressive. One question I had is what level of detail do you think you will go to on the exterior surfaces? What type of details will you have here? Sleek like the American shuttles, or with exposed piping and paneling like the ISS? Exciting!

  • Alex Fitzgerald
    March 17, 2024 2:01 pm

    Hey Barrett! This is super cool and I’m excited to see the final product! How large do you think you will make the final model?


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