Retro-Review:928/497 Galaxy Explorer. A Set That Defined A Generation

There are a lot of classic LEGO® sets. There are a good number of LEGO Space sets that might be declared to be classic. But there is probably only one set that is almost universally recognised as being emblematic of not only Classic Space, but perhaps the entire early Minifigure era. Bringing together a ship, a buggy and a base, along with 4 astronauts, 928 Space Cruiser and Moon Base, also known as 497 Galaxy Explorer was not the first playset of the era: you might consider the 374 Fire Station or the 375 Castle as being the other sets with this position – and they were released a year earlier, in 1978. And they contained more elements. Galaxy Explorer was not even the first of the space playsets – we had the 483 Alpha-1 Rocket Launching base come first. But still, there is something about the set which just says ‘This is Classic Space’.

I would dare to say it might even be iconic!

I have admitted in the past to be somewhat of a fan of Classic Space – but as a child my sets were somewhat limited. I have managed to pick up a few larger sets in recent years, including a 918 One Man Spaceship, 6927 All Terrain Vehicle and the 6970 Beta-1 Command Base. And while these are all great sets, with much to recommend each of them, 928 has been a set I have longed to build for a while: the first of the great Space Flagships, it was in the catalogue for 5 years before retiring.

I obtained a copy of 928 a couple of years ago when a friend was clearing some >Ahem< space. I paid a reasonable price, and was delighted to find a set in good condition: The figures were all present, with varying levels of wear. The printed elements were intact. The transparent yellow plate was intact. And most importantly, the antenna, due to be placed on the base at the end of the build, had no damaged prongs. There were a few cracks in some of the transparent elements, but nothing untoward, in my mind. The baseplates were clean, and the print on the landing pad was remarkably well preserved. It did not, however come with instructions. I believe it has sat in its box for Way Too Long.

I have been wondering: how does this set stand up today, after another 40 odd years (well 20 odd years, and 20 even ones…)? Is it a satisfying experience? Would I be fulfilled with the knowledge that I had just put one together, or would I be deflated, experiencing somewhat of an anticlimax? I decided to bite the bullet, and go to peeron.com to access a scanned copy of the instructions.

The Elements

In the meantime, Ann knolled out the elements, and a couple of things became rapidly apparent. Today, if a set’s model features a definite colour scheme, we will typically see elements in other colours to help orientate our building experience. This set is all grey, blue and transparent yellow, along with come transparent green and transparent red elements.

There are a few elements here which scream ‘Classic Space – the grey cones, the grey 8×8 radar dish; blue slope and the iconic prints, all of the wedge plates and tail planes, support elements and everything in transparent yellow. As far as minifig accessories are concerned, we have radios, a spanner and a ‘raygun/scanner’ element.

And so we start: it is a little harder, using an enlarged version of the online instructions. the resolution if limited. And the colour could be been a little brighter.

The Minifigures

So, as I prepared myself, I put together the minifigures. After 40 years, these needed no instructions. here they are, front and back, a little faded maybe, but happy to be here.

No matter how worn they are, these guys are all happy to be here.

The Build I. The Space Cruiser

I gathered together some of the grey plates, and began.

Construction of the ship is quite different to what I would expect today. Mercifully, there is a callout for each step pointing out the required elements. We build up the wings with 4 layers of plates, ultimately placing the wedges which give the wings their classic silhouette.

Then, we start to build up the fuselage walls in blue, with the iconic 3x6x1 slope, incorporating the classic space logo, on the front. You can tell this is an important spaceship because it incorporates not one but two computer screens in front of the steering wheel. We build up the layers of the front cabin, including transparent yellow bricks in the walls.

We add the opening doors which attach to the rear end of the spaceship. This involved stacking up elements around the hinges, which in turn attach to the fuselage of the ship. It feels a little strange while we do this, but they take their place, adding a significant play feature to the craft.

The tilting roof for the craft has its fulcrum just ahead of the end of the transparent yellow 4×10 plate. There is a small gap left above that end of the plate, as we stack up the rear cabin.

We add in the jets over the wings, and this starts to look like a ship that will be going places. Steering might be difficult, so we add some thruster elements, left and right, and use a 2×2 bracket to attach the jets to the read of the craft. Multiple tailplane elements are used over the rear of the cargo bay, and a tile will be used to hold the cargo bay doors closed.

We turn the ship over, and add the landing gear as well as some intimidating thrusters to the underside.

A quick flip and a couple of antennas and the craft is finished. Stranded on the kitchen table – with no one to direct it, and nowhere to take off from.

The Build II. The Moonbase

And so we take one of our baseplates: the one with the built-in moonscape. To be honest, it is a bit challenging to know exactly where the footings for the control post should be laid. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter, so long as you keep the elements arranged appropriately relative to each other.

We build up the walls of the very small hut: with an internal floor space of 2×4 studs, this is not a place for people to hang out and have fun, It is a place to get your job done, as quickly as possible. I love the way the computer operator has the option to look out the windows, and admire the view.

The roof is simple: a plate with the antenna attached. The seperate radar dish is huge, held up using the 2×2 square bracket, similar to that holding the jets on the rear of the ship. I did find that several of the brackets in this set (there are 3 in total) had started to lose their relative clutch power, and gentle bumps could knock down the radar or dislodge a jet.

Finally, we build a buggy. Almost identical to the 886 space buggy, save for the use of an antenna on the back, and an absent glowing transparent round brick on the pilot’s scanner

This buggy is great fun: after 40 years, I can still rebuild it by heart.

And it happily fits into the cargo bay of the Space Cuiser. Always important to take your wheels with you!

We add some lighting (around 12 1×1 round bricks in transparent red) around the edge of the landing pad. I have vague memories of visiting a friend who lived up the road when I was younger, and he had this set. His dad loved electronics and wired up the landing pad baseplate with red LEDs that actually glowed.

And here we have it: the 928 Space Cruiser and Moonbase, also known as 497 Galaxy Explorer.

I paused, and took a breath in.

But what about the ship?

Wow. My first impression is that, even by today’s standards, this set is massive. It might only have 338 parts but the 2 baseplates mean that it occupies a huge 32×64 stud footprint. The small control centre feels like it acts with authority, while the landing pad looks just right.

It is certainly a very stable and solid craft. With 4 layers of plates making up the wings, the ship is remarkably robust. The cabin of the ship is of its time: greebling – that attention to fine surface detail – is limited to a brick with vertical lines, small doors as well as lights attached to thrusters.

Otherwise, the fuselage is pretty flat and bare. It is functional, but essentially a box with a huge windscreen, windows and hinged doors. In those days, the windscreens were fixed, while the roof was able to tilt upwards. But we had seen so many innovations occurring in the LEGO system of play in 1978 and 1979, that I don’t begrudge the relative simplicity of the spaceship fuselage design.

With the final ‘blue flagship’, from 1986, the 6985 Cosmic Fleet Voyager, we finally see a ship with angled walls, rather than vertical stacks of bricks. but there is certainly some development that takes place between 928 and that revolutionary ship.

The moonbase, or control station, is small but functional: it is a small outpost. I feel it is really here to fill a gap until you build a larger base – either from a set, or using your own elements, taking the steps and tail fin supports as a starting point. Perhaps for the set to be referred to in some markets as ‘Space Cruiser and Moonbase’ is a little dramatic – control tower, sure. One thing I love about the structure is the massive radar dish – the distances involved must be huge – you need a big dish to amplify the received signal. I was a little disappointed that this dish does not move at all – I am inclined to make it rotate and tilt, perhaps more like the one in the 926 Command Centre.

The included buggy has become a LEGO design classic. The template served for several years, in space as well as town sets with little modification. This version has such clean lines: it is simply for going from point A to Point B – no extra mission, no extraneous functionality, compared to some others of its lineage.

Overall, I find this set offers mixed blessings: I am delighted to own it and to have (at long last) built the Galaxy Explorer: It is a grand ship, an icon, and a prototypical space playset. It was something to aspire to in 1979, and it is now.

But overall, it is a lesson in contrasts between the building styles of yesterday compared to today: There are few extraneous sloped bricks, and virtually no greebling. The walls are vertical, with brick and plate stacking being the main techniques used to build the cabin. The only SNOT elements in use are the 2×2 bracket elements. The fuselage is quite boxlike.

As I said earlier, it is interesting to compare this ship with the latest ‘fantasy spaceship’ – appearing in the Monkie Kid Theme. It’s kind of like comparing a Volvo 245 station wagon from 1978 with a 2022 XC40 SUV. It might be more boxy than sexy, but it’s good.

The instructions, onscreen, are challenging to read, compared to today’s digital instructions, and it is frequently a game of hit or miss to work out if I placed the plates in the correct area during the first page or two. And when I have the finished product, it looks marvellous on the pad BUT is near impossible to swoosh singlehandedly, and just a little bit small for 53 year old me to be able to feel comfortable using both hands to fly it around the room.

But I will still give this set 5/5 Arbitrary Praise Units: it’s not all about how it stands up against contemporary building techniques, the variety of minifigures or the swooshability – it is what this set represents. This set, singlehandedly has given LEGO Classic Space a touchstone, recognisable by AFOLs of any age. As the largest of the first generation spaceships, it dwarfs the 918, which I think is a more swooshable craft. It carries an explorative buggy and can carry the entire complement of figures for the set, albeit in somewhat cramped conditions.

It is an icon of late 1970’s LEGO set design.

Back in 1979, we didn’t know any better, and we had great fun setting up a moonbase on my neighbour’s shagpile carpet in front of the fire. Being able to see it then, and build it again today makes me feel like a more complete AFOL. It also reminds me how we look at the days gone past through rose coloured glasses, remembering sets to be slightly more epic than they actually were.

This set would be unlikely to be released as it is today. But we certainly see sets today that were designed by people inspired by this set, and those that followed. And I am glad that they were.

This set reminds me how LEGO elements and construction techniques have evolved over the last 40 years. While this set is an icon of Classic Space, and I enjoyed putting it together, I did not find it to be the same fun experience as one of the smaller sets, BUT the set as a whole brings a great play experience.

For the smaller ship, the fun lies in flying it around. With the 928, the fun lies with landing the ship somewhere and launching an expedition: exploring the new worlds. It almost feels like a moonbase in itself.

Whoops… bumped a light over.

I do seem to have some mixed feelings about this ship. However, in its place, it looks magnificent. The way that it hangs over the edges of the baseplate gives it a feeling of grandeur. Yes, it’s not the most swooshable set of its time, and it is not as interesting to build as many contemporary LEGO spacecraft, but it occupies a special place in the history of LEGO Spaceships. It has set the template for large playtheme sets: Vehicle, base, smaller vehicle or two. Today, we would also get a couple of enemies thrown in, for an instant story (and it would all be based on an animated series).

I’d love to know how you feel about this 928/497 Galaxy explorer: Did you build it as a child? Have you built it since? Did it stand the test of time? Please leave your comments below, and until next time,

Play Well!

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One thought on “Retro-Review:928/497 Galaxy Explorer. A Set That Defined A Generation

  1. My first Lego set (first of many, many more over the last 40 years!); Santa brought it to me for Christmas in 1981. I recently picked up a set in excellent condition…and I plan to display the 10497 Galaxy Explorer next to it on or around 1 August!

    Like

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