Tranquility Base: from Pixels to Studs

This article originally published on the Brick Comic Network on 19th October 2010.

Biodome - Tranquility Base (NSC 2010)
A familiar building from the comic

A few months ago my LUG (Lego User Group), the Brickish Association, was offered the opportunity to put on a display at the National Space Centre (NSC) in Leicester (UK) on the 16th-17th October 2010. Tranquility Base at the National Space Centre? I could not resist that! The NSC and Tranquility Base have a history together - a "Sci-Fi Weekend" in 2007 was the first Lego event I ever attended as an exhibitor. That was when the comic was only a few episodes old and wasn't even really a proper comic yet! The display was a collaborative effort and mostly used official sets, so it was not technically "Tranquility Base" even. Even subsequent moonbase-type displays I've done have been in collaboration with others. This time the theme of the whole weekend was much broader: "Haycarts to the High Frontier", a timeline of models from the caveman and his wheel to, well, space and beyond! This meant that I was the only person doing the "space monorail" form of transport (although there was a town monorail earlier in the timeline), so it was time to pull-out all the stops! Tranquility Base was going on tour!


NSC 2010 Track Plan
Monorail Track Layout Plan

How to start making my comic into a physical reality? Well, I had to decide if I was going to show it "in canon" or not. I decided the easiest thing would be to ignore canon and just make a diorama including many of the existing characters and some new random characters. The majority of people visiting the exhibition would not have heard of the comic anyway! Also, many of the visitors would be parents with their kids, so it had to be child-friendly: so, fun stuff, funny scenes, pop-culture characters, flashing lights and things that move. Especially things that move! After determining how much monorail track I actually had, I set to work designing a layout that had two loops (for both my trains) and a siding for an optional third train anybody else should happen to bring along. After a while, I had a totally awesome track planned out, so next I planned out the... oh... wait a minute, I'd forgotten to check that the layout fit on the available tables.

NSC 2010 Baseplate Plan
Baseplate Layout Plan

After a quick email to the event organiser, I went back to the drawing board and rejigged my design to fit the tables I was getting. The next step was to plan out the baseplates - where to put my crater plates, t-junctions and launch pads, and how to fill in the gaps? Thanks to my fellow Brickish Association members, I borrowed some large 48x48-stud grey baseplates to fill out the remaining area. After a last minute BrickLink order, with an epic two-day turnaround from placing the order at 11pm on Sunday to receiving it on the Tuesday, three days before the event, I was set to go! Setting Up

Tranquility Base - my display sign ;-)
Cool, they were expecting me!

When we (that is, my mum and myself) arrived at the NSC on Friday evening, I was very pleased to see they had been expecting me and had set-up a suitable sign, even if they had spelt it wrong. Although, it was then pointed out to me that it was actually the entrance to a flight-simulator of the lunar landing. Doh!

My little corner of the exhibition was next to the Martian landscape display, slightly confusing, but never mind. It was a little dark there when were setting-up. Mood lighting is not good for putting together Lego bricks. Black pieces, like the 60 or so stanchions and supports for the monorail track are especially problematic! Never mind, we soldiered on and eventually got a spotlight to help us see. The tables I eventually got turned out to be a bit smaller than originally stated, but separating them out a bit so there was a gap in the middle and trusting that the baseplates would support the track over the gap and overhanging edges, we solved the problem. I really hoped that nobody would lean on the edge of the display! We didn't actually finish setting up before we had to leave the NSC for the night. We had to come in an hour before opening time the next morning to finish putting out all the figures and models on the layout. We were still adding finishing touches when the first visitors started arriving! In total it took about 4 hours to set up the display. At least I wasn't the only one finishing off their display on the Saturday morning.

The Exhibition

Bigger Dish - Tranquility Base (NSC 2010)
There is always a bigger dish!

Everything went very smoothly during display hours on both days. The public were very interested and amused by the layout. The little kids loved the trains going around the track -- they get mesmerised (hypnotised?) by it -- and the spinney dish and flashy lights. The older kids liked to work out how my "Bigger Dish" was working, as it wasn't constantly turning. Some of them even worked out that it had something to do with one of the monorail trains going past a certain point. They were right, I had a Mindstorms NXT ultrasonic sensor detect when a train went past it, which then made the motor on the dish rotate for 10 seconds.

Seriously Big Rocket (NSC 2010)
There's always a bigger rocket too! (Rocket built by Stuart Crawshaw)

A popular feature was the "crash test" rig. I had attached a small train wheel base to a Star Wars landspeeder and placed it on a steeply inclined track. When the "brakes" were removed, it rolled down the track and crashed into the barrier at the end. After a few crashes the barrier gave way and it ran over a taun-taun, to much amusement. This happened several times, almost as if I deliberately made the barrier weak. At the bottom of the rig were the Mythbusters, Adam and Jamie (with the Mime Collectible Fig's beret), which was made as a BCN joke (my fellow authors will get that). There were plenty of exhibits by other members of my LUG too, including a Mesopotamian ox cart, Hittite chariot, a Roman circus for chariot racing (based the board game "Ave Caesar") and Viking long ships. Then there were airplanes from the Wright Flyer to Concord, trains from Stephenson's Rocket to modern diesel trains, a paddle-steamer (with working paddle) and plenty of other modes of transport in between. Eventually the timeline ended up in the future, with a massive space rocket, a working Robot Turtle factory, all sorts of spaceships, and of course, Tranquility Base. The really cool thing was at the very beginning of the timeline, next to the caveman and his stone wheel, was a "Stargate" and at the very end of the timeline, next to an ultra-futuristic spaceship, was another "Stargate", linking the epochs together.

Space Police Prison Monorail - Tranquility Base (NSC 2010)
Nee-naw, nee-naw! Space Police III Prison Monorail

In my comic before the event, I asked any readers that intended visiting the exhibition to come and say "hi" and more specifically to exclaim "there is always a bigger dish!" On the Saturday, a reader did indeed do just that; so if you're reading this, hello J.M., I hope you enjoyed your visit? On the Sunday I think the highlight was a young boy who, upon seeing the Space Police monorail train with its flashing red/blue lights, made appropriate "nee-naw nee-naw" noises at the top of his voice, causing everybody to turn around and look. I expect his mother was thoroughly embarrassed, but he was enjoying himself. I think the most remarkable thing of all was that there was only one train derailment over the course of the whole weekend! That has to be a personal best for me, although it doesn't equal fellow Brickish Association member Stuart's record of zero derailments for his last monorail display. (I reckon he had a massive barrier around his display!)

Packing Up, Going Home

A rift in time and space opens-up over Sue and Lisa's town display

After an exhausting two days, it was time to pack-up, although not before my fellow exhibitors had some fun invading the town monorail with models from all over the timeline. It looked like a temporal anomaly had opened up above, like the Cardiff Rift. Packing up the display was very quick... just dump everything back in the crates! No need to be careful, as I'll have loads of time to sort at home (yay). So, half an hour later, we were packed and trying to fit everything back into the car, ready to head-off down the M1 motorway to home. All that remained was to thank the organisers: the awesome Brickish Association member Julie for corralling us lot (no easy task); and the NSC's liaison Malika for being an excellent host and not minding when we completely rearranged the furniture on Friday evening! And I would totally do it all again next year! Right... time to start planning a new extension to the Tranquility Base layout...

Tranquility Base - NSC 2010
Tranquility Base, "Haycarts to the High Frontier" at the National Space Centre, 16-17th October 2010