Anigrand 1/144 HL-20 Personnel Launch System

KIT #: AA-5007
PRICE: $64.00 SRP (includes four other vehicles
DECALS: One option
NOTES: Resin kit

The Space Shuttle was a remarkable machine, but it was super expensive. Every mission cost a small fortune, and it was a lot of weight to put into orbit. If you just wanted to get a few astronauts up to a space station, then it was a lot of dead weight, too. It was also extremely sophisticated, meaning that there was plenty of scope for things to go wrong (and not just disastrously wrong like the two fatal accidents, but wrong enough to delay launches). 

So in the 80s and 90s, NASA was thinking about other ways to get astronauts into orbit - ways that were simpler and cheaper than using the shuttle, but more efficient than using a disposable spacecraft (like Soyuz) every time.

Drawing on research from the 60s conducted by lifting bodies - research that fed directly into the design of the Space Shuttle - they came up with the HL-20 "Personnel Launch System". This was a small space plane, which would be blasted into space on top of a regular rocket, then fly up to a space station (at that point, the "Freedom", which never flew but morphed into the ISS) and dock with it. Crew could switch over, and there could be a small amount of cargo too. Then, the HL-20 would undock and zoom back down to earth. Using its belly as a heatshield, just like the Shuttle, it would then re-enter and glide down to a normal landing on a runway somewhere. The whole thing could be done in 72 hours and the planned turnaround time was only 43 days.
A mockup was built and NASA teamed up with two universities in North Carolina to test out crew capacities and interior design concepts. Supposedly they figured out that 10 people could ride to orbit in this little craft. It would have been a tight squeeze, but hey, "it beats the airlines!" The craft itself was supposed to be able to fit into a Shuttle's cargo bay, with folded wings. That would have allowed a spare HL-20 to piggy back up to the space station and stay there, as a lifeboat in case of trouble (the Soyuz fulfils this role in real life). 
The second link under references has a few interior shots including of the cockpit and the passenger cabin.
Ultimately the HL-20 never flew and the only available ride for US astronauts up and down to the ISS is now the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, tried and true, but essentially old-school technology that can only move three people at a time. It's a whole lot better than nothing, but perhaps someday some variant of a lifting body crew transport vehicle will do the same job more effectively and economically.

And that variant might just be the "Dream Chaser". If the pictures of this thing, at the 3rd and 4th links under references, look familiar, it's because the Dream Chaser is really exactly the same concept as the HL-20, but with 7 crew and mission profiles that include operating as a small orbital laboratory as well as doing crew and supply runs to the ISS.

Drop tests of the Dream Chaser are due to start in the first half, probably second quarter, of 2013.

We shall see...


I previewed this cool little combo set from Anigrand right here on MM: 

The HL-20 has 15 parts, all resin, and a small sheet of decals to make the NASA version. Mine didn't have too many of the little air bubbles or pinholes that apparently blemish some resin kits, but it did end up with a big sinkhole right on the nosecone which I had to deal with when finishing up the model.
It has a rudimentary cockpit with two seats.
This was my first ever resin kit. 
Wearing a safety mask over my mouth, I sanded off the seams on the main fuselage and I used a blade to trim the winglets and the undercarriage parts. As there are so few parts and everything is small this didn't take too long, but I was a bit more cautious than usual with the sanding just to be sure I didn't get resin dust over everything. 
Assembling the HL-20 is pretty easy and the two little winglets and centreline tail fit very nicely. A little more sanding later and I thought the body was smooth enough to start painting. 

I sprayed the whole thing with Mr Surfacer (from a can), figuring it might need some kind of primer. I don't really know whether that was important or not but it didn't take long. I masked off the demarcation lines and then the underside of the little space plane was painted Tamiya matt black, with a brush. When that was done to my satisfaction, I masked up the whole thing and used Tamiya white spray (again from a can) to do the glossy white upper surface. I gave it two coats which seemed to be just fine. I used a fine brush and freehanded the little "steps" of black paint at the nose cone.
After that, I taped up the leading edges and brush painted on some light grey. Last of all, I used XF-20 for the nosecone. Here I discovered a really deep and quite wide hole, bang in the middle of the nose. I swear it wasn't there when I started - I suppose with more practice on resin kits I'll uncover that little mystery. Anyway I filled it up with Mr White Putty and then smoothed it over once it was dry. A quick repaint and it was finished. There are two little rockets that go on the back, along with what are supposed to be small manouvering rocket packs. I painted those a dark grey.
Last, I attached the landing gear, which I'd prepainted, and scratch built some wheel bay covers. I thought the resin parts for that were way too thick. I suppose these doors would be thick on the real thing, given they are part of the heat shield, but still, it looks better this way. The gear itself fits nicely into the holes, but I guess it's not as detailed (especially the wheels) as some more modern kits. But the wheels are tiny and it's hard to notice that from anywhere further away than "right up close".
The canopy fit very nicely, and I freehanded the black canopy frames with a fine brush. I think the superglue left a bit of a blemish on the front window panel. 
Decals were easy to apply, and  just a little dab of Mr Mark Softer was all I used, just to ward off any potential silvering.

Well, here she is, my first ever resin kit. I like it well enough, and it gave me a bit of confidence for tackling the other lifting bodies in the set.
Richard F
April 2013

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