Set 6544 Shuttle Transcon 2, which contains 342 parts and was released in 1995, is one of a total of ten Space Shuttle sets that LEGO has released over the years. That's a lot of shuttles, and indeed I'm struggling to think of too many other vehicles which LEGO has used as source material on so many occasions. Hell, even the Millennium Falcon has only appeared in 7 sets to date, and one of those was a bag charm....
You can see the box below (click pics to enlarge), a little the worse-for-wear after 16 years but still just about intact. Pleasingly, the box contains a sturdy cardboard inner tray which holds the pieces and helps to maintain the structural integrity of the flimsy outer box.
As well as showing off the inside of the shuttle cargo bay, the back of the box (below) shows a few alternate build ideas, including what appears to be a training simulator and control room.
The instruction booklet is large, clear and easy to follow. There are no part call-outs, but the build is simple enough that the absence of these doesn't really cause problems, and there are no colour discrimination issues.
In time-honoured fashion, the first step is to build the minifigures. The set comes with three of them - two identical mechanics in red caps and an astronaut wearing a lightweight space suit complete with with a lovely shiny gold visor
Once the minifigures have been assembled, it's time to get cracking on the plane, which is completed in just 22 steps. When compared with the likes of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner set and other recently available LEGO aircraft, it doesn't seem all that big. When I think back to the tiny LEGO flyers of my youth such as my much-loved Caravelle, however, I suppose this must in fact have seemed like a pretty substantial aircraft to LEGO builders in 1996. It certainly looks great to me - nice design, nice colour scheme, and critically, it's very swooshable....
Time has not been so kind to the shuttle, which is next in line to be built. As well as the marked discolouration affecting many of the white pieces, which I may replace in due course, the design itself isn't the best IMHO - it's a little too short and stumpy for my liking, although to be fair if the shuttle was much longer then it would be almost the size of the aircraft that carries it.... The cargo bay opens to reveal a small satellite plus an articulated Canadarm to manouevre it into position.
I was struck by how similar some aspects of the build were to that of the currently available Set 3367 Space Shuttle which I wrote about in March of this year. Still, I guess there are only so many ways that you can build a shuttle at this scale. What can't be denied is how much more imposing the newer version is when you put them side by side. Some including myself may grumble about the use of large, custom parts in the latest iteration, but there's little doubt which is the more faithful recreation of the subject matter.
The final part of the build was the small tug, which comes complete with an attachment to drag the aircraft and its massive shuttle payload into position, and then we're done.
The shuttle attaches to the roof of the aircraft below by way of a couple of Technic pins and we're ready to rumble !
One of the reasons I love this set is that it takes me back to my childhood, and specifically to one of the Bond films of my youth - "Moonraker". I can still remember how excited I was watching the scene in the film when one of the Moonraker Space Shuttles owned by Hugo Drax is being given a piggy back by a Boeing 747 and is literally hijacked in mid-air (pic below). Interestingly, the American Airlines-esque red, white and blue stripes on the aircraft from the movie just so happen to be a feature of the aircraft in Set 6544, which surely can't be a coincidence....
It might seem far-fetched to younger readers that Space Shuttles were carted around the country on the back of Jumbo Jets in the 'old days', but that's exactly what happened, and if you need proof then check out the amazing video below from NASA TV:
If you can't see the pop-up above then click here to check out the video on YouTube.
LEGO have therefore grounded this set in reality, and while the aircraft isn't particularly reminiscent of a Boeing 747 apart from the four jet engines, is it for me nevertheless the clear highlight of the set - nicely proportioned to my eyes, and to be honest something that LEGO could easily have got away with releasing as a standalone set, albeit with windows along the length of the fuselage rather than storage compartments.
And now for some good news : unlike some of the retired sets I've featured over the last couple of weeks, this one can be picked up relatively cheaply. I bought mine, which was boxed and complete exactly as you see above, from eBay for the princely sum of £8.25 + postage in May 2009, and while I'll probably need to spend a couple more pounds replacing the discoloured parts, that's still a massive bargain in my book. If you're patient, you may be lucky and find one on eBay for not much more than I paid. Alternatively, you can visit Bricklink and buy one right now; boxed examples start at around £30 over there.