Revell ‘Space Age’ Model Kits, 1957 – 1959

Exhibit / July 24, 2017


Object Name: Space-themed scale models
Maker and Year: Revell, 1957-1959
Object Type: Scale models
Image Source: Scale Model News, Old Model Kits
Description: (K.E. Roberts)

Southern California-based Revell started as a plastics company in 1941, established by Lewis Glaser only weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor. After a series of British-made “Highway Pioneer” replicas (including the Ford Model T) sold well in 1950, Glaser decided to try his hand at plastic model kits—soon-to-be competitor Monogram had been doing the same since 1945—and Revell’s first mold was 1953’s USS Missouri, the battleship on which the Japanese Instrument of Surrender was signed.

Over the next seven years, as the hobby took hold—over 80% of boys were model builders by 1956, claimed Boy’s Life—Revell produced commercial and jet aircraft models (leaning heavily toward the latter), military and sailing ships, rockets and guided missiles, “modern cars,” atomic power plants, and suburban homes, to name a few. Glaser promised “Authentic Kits,” and his engineers and sculptors could spend up to 7000 hours researching, testing, and molding the final result. The subjects on the covers of Revell’s distinctive boxes featured “what is historically important and what is exciting,” Glaser said. “It’s got to be both.”

In the fall of 1957, what is historically important changed dramatically: the Soviet Union showed up the United States by launching the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, into low Earth orbit, and the Space Race was on. Revell responded with a series of speculative “near future” kits that became the pride of the line, and probably the most detailed and scientifically sound space kits ever made. Three of those models, the XSL-01 (XSL stood for Experimental Space Laboratory), the Moon Ship (the third or upper stage of the XSL-01 released separately), and the Space Station, were designed by Ellwyn E. Angle, an aerospace engineer who had worked on the experimental Bell X-1 and X-5 projects in the late 1940s and early 1950s, respectively. (The X-1 is what Chuck Yeager was flying when he became the first person to break the sound barrier on October 14, 1947).

The Space Shuttlecraft and Helios, the “nuclear powered lunar landing craft,” were the designs of Krafft Ehricke, a rocketry pioneer who was working at the General Dynamics Corporation at the time. Ehricke is most famous for developing the Centaur, the first rocket fueled by liquid hydrogen, but he later became a diligent if frustrated advocate for space colonization, and his philosophy is encompassed in the still unpublished The Extraterrestrial Terrestrial Imperative: From Closed to Open World: “Man is at the cutting edge of terrestrial life, and has no rational alternative but to expand the environmental and resource base beyond Earth.” Going to the stars, in Ehricke’s estimation, was the difference between internal collapse and the “preservation of civilization.”

The contributions of both Ehricke and Angle demonstrate that neither they nor Lewis Glaser saw the model kits seen above as “toys.” The sophistication of the designs, and the progressive and achievable concepts behind them, inspired a new generation of rocket scientists. Here’s William Dye, a retired aerospace engineer who led the team that launched the IKONOS satellite:

Models brought my awareness closer to my dream of flying, and maybe even to becoming a test pilot. The more models I bought and built, the closer I felt to airplanes. Models allow you to own a three-dimensional image of whatever you want around you. It’s almost like collecting the real thing…

Among the models named by Dye is the “speculative” XSL-01, Angle’s Space Station, and several other Revell exclusives.

5 thoughts on “Revell ‘Space Age’ Model Kits, 1957 – 1959

  1. The “big name endorsement” aspect of the space model kits from this era is interesting. Other companies had space models based on designs by Wehner von Braun and Willy Ley around this time, also.

    Revell’s line of 1980’s space kits are among my favorites, as well. The SDI “Laser Battle Station” satellites are a bit of a cynical contrast to these 60’s designs which are all about the scientific optimism of the space age.

    • I totally hear you on that “scientific optimism” that was so prevalent during the atomic/space age. It was everywhere, from model kits and toys to books and even playground equipment…hello, rocket slide? =)

      These model kits are awesome. What I really love looking at are children’s books from the same era; those science books that discuss what life would be like in outer space, or on colonies on the moon or Mars. Man, talk about optimism…they really made it sound like it was right around the corner.

      These model kits make me miss Disneyland’s old Mission to Mars ride, which was my favorite one growing up in the ’70s. I’ve always dug that cold, super-factual ’50s narration voice, which is what I hear when I think about the description of these model kits, lol.

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  3. I have the space station depicted here; it came apart several decades ago, and I’m attempting to glue it back together. I’v e also got the manned Spacecraft model, which has not stood up well to 50 years of exposure to the air.

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