Last January, Lego promised that its 90th anniversary would be one to remember: the company agreed to revive one of its classic Lego themes (like Space, Castle, and Pirates) with a new adult Lego set.
But it turns out we’re not getting just one nostalgic bomb today – the company has decided to bring back the classic Space and the classic Castle at the same time. First, Lego unveils the Galaxy Explorer, a $100 scaled-up version of the original iconic Lego starship that will be available for pre-order today. And second, it announces the Lion Knights’ Castle, which – at $400 and 4,514 pieces – is easily the most intricate and impressive castle playset the company has ever produced.
I’ve spent days looking at the high-resolution photos of each set you’ll find below, marveling at the details and hidden play features. But I didn’t have to do it alone: I also spoke to their lead designers Mike Psiaki (see also: Titanic, Saturn V, A007’s Aston Martin DB5) and Milan Madge (Space Shuttle Discovery, Pirates of Barracuda Bay, Central Advantage). I even spoke to Niels Milan Pedersen, a 44-year veteran who co-created Lego Pirates and Forestmen, worked on many classic space themes, and designed many of the most iconic fortresses, castles and ships, including the Castle of the Black Knightthe Royal Knight’s Castle I was lucky enough to own as a child, and the legendary Black Sea Barracuda†
With the Galaxy Explorer, Psiaki says, the goal was to instill nostalgia by building the ship you have think you remember – not the one that really existed. Most people have only seen pictures of the original 1979 set, and even the kids who have held one are no longer kids. This is what he told me:
We’ve found that adults generally remember the Lego kits of their childhood as much more impressive and immersive than they actually are – and our big guess that we’re taking with this model, the hypothesis we’ve come up with is how big they are. So when you’re a kid, you’re a lot smaller. Now you are just physically bigger and take up a lot more space. When you see that same set through an adult’s eyes, it essentially doesn’t define that much of your field of view, does it?
How much bigger though? When Psiaki realized he was 50 percent taller than his own seven-year-old son, that became the reference point. The new 1,246-piece Galaxy Explorer is about 50 percent bigger in every dimension – “motors with two modules close by, we make three modules, the width of the wings gets wider, the thickness of the plate”, and all the others that designers could stretch.
As you can see, the airframe of the Galaxy Explorer has some height now – in 1979 it was largely made of thin, flat gray sheets. The new one is also 20.5 inches or 52 centimeters long.
In the end, the Galaxy Explorer mostly ended up being a scaled-up version of the original, “so we almost imagine we’re looking at the Galaxy Explorer with a high-definition camera.” They kept it sharp and angular, with as few newfangled bends as they could. I think it looks incredible, especially next to photos of the original.
But interestingly enough, it wouldn’t always be that way. “We originally went this route of, okay, how do we modernize the Galaxy Explorer,” says Psiaki. “How would this actually work as a spacecraft?” But that approach was abandoned after they found themselves essentially building a new Space Shuttle Discovery, and they also threw out modernized designs for the space travelers.
But Psiaki’s team did find a few spots to modernize the set where it seemed thematically appropriate. Some of the original printed Lego computer bricks have returned – but now as flat tiles instead of angled monitors, making them look less like CRTs and fit more of them into the cockpit. Not only do you get the classic Lego space helmet, but a newer version with a thickened chin strap that is less likely to break. “That was the joke in The Lego moviewhere Benny has the shaped helmet with the broken thing, because that’s how everyone remembers that helmet,” says Psiaki.
And where the original only had a handful of stationary detachable columns to serve as landing gear, you can fold the new set’s landing gear straight up into the frame. “I just liked vehicles where you can fold all the landing gear; I remember being very disappointed with the first Lego Millennium Falcon that the struts were all just attached. Like, come on, those are supposed to fold!” Please, Lego, let him work on an Ultimate Millennium Falcon wherever they do.
Not every part of the classic Galaxy Explorer made the cut: the original came with a landing pad – you can see a thematic nod to it in the image below, as well as what appears to be a few alternate builds, but it’s not clear if it’s official parts be of the kit. And while the new cockpit can fit four minifigs at once, it doesn’t quite have the retro feel of the original’s flat-top lifter.
Unfortunately, I was unable to speak to the original designer of the Galaxy Explorer to ask what he thought of the new build: Jens Nygaard Knudsen, who created Lego Space and designed the original Lego minifigure, died in 2020 at the age of 78. his longtime collaborator Niels Milan Pedersen says he sees a lot of Jens’ personality shining through — and if you’d like to learn more about Jens and Niels’ work on Lego Space, including prototype sets, I highly recommend this profile (pdf) by their colleague Mark Stafford.
When it comes to those early days of Lego Space, Pedersen remembers most of it being weapons — or the lack of them. Back then, designers had to pretend to add antennas to spacecraft: “We weren’t allowed to make weapons, even though Jens fully realized that the kids would use them as laser cannons.” Pedersen ended up sculpting many, many iconic Lego parts over the years, but his first was the space camera† “Most people call it the space bazooka. We shouldn’t call it that, that’s for sure!” he says with a laugh.
The new Galaxy Explorer should be available for pre-order today on Lego.com for $99.99, £89.99 or €99.99, and should go on sale August 1. I’m going to buy one.