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Making Moonscapes and Marscapes
Settings for
Moon & Mars Habitats, Outposts, and Settlements
(e.g. for Artemis Moonbase or M.A.R.S. Hab Storyboards)

Posted November 6, 2002


Foreword: We hope others will contribute to their ideas to this page, or to separate pages that we can link to. There are many ways to approach this subject, and various levels of geological fidelity. We start this page with one contribution.

EZ-make Moon & Marsscapes


Effective Easy to make Moonscapes & Marsscapes
"Good enough" is "easy enough"

by Peter Kokh

Many people have tried their hand at reproducing table top renderings of Moonscapes and Marsscapes, using various materials and various techniques. Some of them have achieved a high degree of fidelity to the types of actual terrain found on these worlds.

My approach is simply to create lightweight, durable, portable, inexpensive, and simple to make table top terrain settings for models of Moonbases and Mars Habitats, where this diorama is not the end in itself, but merely serves the purpose of catching the eye of the passerby and turning it to a vertical storyboard that explains what you see in the diorama and has much more information. Not being a skilled model-maker, this is a practical approach for me, and I suspect for the vast majority of public space outreach activists.

If the purpose is just to catch the eye for a moment, just to stop a pedestrian long enough to lure him or her into scanning the real exhibit itself, then the terrain-scape only has to be "good enough." And that is "easy enough" for most anyone to do.

Lightweight, inexpensive materials, that are easy to work with

The heavier your diorama is, the less often you are going to feel like hauling it out of storage, taking it to tan outreach opportunity location, then taking it home again. That's simple human nature. Why work against the grain when you can do a great job working with it?

  • use wood, metal, and other dense materials sparingly
  • use foam and other "expanded" materials preferably

I start with a 3/4" sheet of low density styrofoam, the kind that comes 14.5" wide by 4' or 8' long and is sold by your home center for basement wall insulation between 1x2" firring strips. Whether or not this is going to be a difficult item to find in warmer basement-free zones, I wouldn't know.

This I mount on whatever I can find in my pack-rat catch-all storage area(s) (or, if that search turns up nothing) whatever I can find at the Home Center or salvage yard that is lightweight yet rigid (won't bend or twist) and cheap.

  • pieces of salvaged hollow core doors. This was our choice for the Marsscape we had done earlier, simply because we had some on hand.
  • several layers of corrugated cardboard that you can laminate together (into an "organic spaceframe") with spray adhesive or a thin bead of liquid nails

    If the all the corrugated cardboard pieces you have are too short, you can still use them, staggering the joints in running bond brick fashion. You can get extra strength by running alternating corrugated plies perpendicular to those of the other layers.

  • white plastic "waffle" grid, 24" x 48", used for diffusers below fluorescent fixtures in drop ceilings would seem ideal, but are not sufficiently stiff and difficult to cut.
  • If plywood is your only option and you have a piece that is not warped, you can reduce its weight without affecting its strength by cutting holes in it, circular ones with a hole saw, or free form ones with a jig saw. Apply a generous sealer coat (or two) to all exposed surfaces to try to prevent later warping.

  • you get the idea: find something, make something, or buy something - whatever fits the bill: lightweight and firm.

  • What we did, however, was buy a framed cork bulletin board. We found one 23"x35" at a local Home Center, framed in vinyl, for $7.94. (This is nearly the same size as the 24" x 36" folded trifold display board, making co-storage a snap.) At first, we thought of cutting it down insize, but then realized the extra depth could be put to work. Our foam board strip came 14.5 " wide. We placed this on the cork board within the frame. Then opening up the display board we marked where we should cut off corners of the foam. Then we placed some wood stops (any scrap wood will do, the smaller the better) behind where the display board will sit, with a sixteenth inch clearance.* The exposed foam board of the diorama is then edged with mitered wood or plastic shoe molding (quarter round or cove will work as well if the right size: 5/8x5/8 min., 3/4x3/4 max.) glued to the vinyl frame (use a few brads as security.) The display board now sits on the diorama board, but behind the moonscape or marsscape, making for a very stable and neat display. -- Setting the trifold display panel to the side, and masking off the back portion of the framed cork board, we painted the sculpted and primed diorama scape, the shoe molding and the exposed front sections of the vinyl frame all together, so that this framing and edging disappears into the diorama. See sculpting and painting hints and instructions below. (*Note: if you use hot glue to apply these stops, do so without the display board in place, lest excess glue seep out under the display board, and then you have a problem!)


Cutting the foam board to size (if you are not following the plan above)

Determine the size and shape of your planetscape. Various factors can influence this decision:

  • You may want the diorama to fit in the same box or carton as the storyboard panels to which it is designed to call attention.
  • You may have been able to find only so much foam or so much of substrate material.

Cut the foam slab and the substrate to the same size and shape, either before bonding them to one another or after - whichever seems most practical. Note than some common adhesives act as a corrosive when they come into contact with styrofoam.Use a caulk gun adhesive that is clearly marked safe for foam board. Liquid Nails Heavy Duty is one of these. Let this adhesive set up overnight.

Note: while hot glue works quite well bonding smooth foam board surfaces, you won't be able to use this handy adhesive to attach your moonscape or marscape foam board to the substrate simply because it is too large. By the time you finish applying the hot glue to the board, much of it will already be no longer sticky.

Later, we will put edging around the diorama, both to protect it, and to hide unseemly edges. But not yet.


Sculpting and shaping your terrain.

Styrofoam is easy to work with. My favorite tool of all is the serrated steak knife. But a deft hand can do a lot of tricks with a hot steam iron, minus the steam. After you have cut your foam board to the shape you want, save the scraps to practice with. You don't want to dig into your diorama surface until you have some confidence in what you are doing.

Craters and craterlets and gullies: Practice carving these, holding your steak knife on a shallow angle to the foam board, being careful not to go all the way through.

  • If you need to smooth things out, practice doing so with a hot dry iron. You will learn quickly how light or heavy or prolongued a touch is needed to get the effect you want.
  • If you want to roughen up a surface that seems too smooth, hold the knife on its side, and gently scrape or abrade the surface with the serrated edge. Learn how much or how little pressure you need to apply to get various effects.
  • Do use this technique to roughen up the perimeter around any craters you carve. This will give the appearance of an ejecta blanket.

Boulders: we see a lot of these on both the Moon and Mars. Not any stone you find outdoors will do. You don't want anything smooth and rounded. You don't want anything flat like "slate." You don't want anything heavy. Lava or pumice rocks with angular pitted faces are ideal. You can find rust colored ones at your garden center in the mulch section and are frequently used in landscape beds of commercial properties. These are typically about ice-cube size. For smaller ones, try the various sizes of aquarium gravel. Actually, you don't want to overdo the boulder thing. just a few will do. More than a few, however accurate, will distract from your display.

Rock outcrops: for that "geological" flavor, a not too overwhelming rock outcrop conveniently off to one side of the diorama is a nice touch. And as you guessed, both easy and fun to make. Take a piece of molded styrofoam that came encasing some piece of electronics equipment, cut off a piece of the general size you want, and have fun playing Michaelangelo. piecesUsing your trusty steak knife, get rid of the right angles by carving slopes this way and that. Make crevices here and there in flat surfaces. Finally roughen up any remaining smooth surfaces by scraping them gently with the edge of your serrated knife.

An alternative to carving a molded foam protection piece, you can build up two or three layers of the scrap foam board, and carve that into the shape you want. (A hot glue gun works well with foam for small pieces. If you try to use it on a large piece, some of it may harden before you can attach the pieces together.) Once you are pleased that you have something that can pass the inspection of a fleeting glance as "natural", you are ready for painting. But first:

  • Make sure that the height of your outcrop is not so great that it will cause problems when it comes time to find a box to store or transport your diorama. If it needs to be cut back a little, first see if you can set it into, instead of on top of, your styrofoam terrain. Simply set it on top, trace the edge gently (your steak knife again), set the "outcrop" aside and remove that part of the stryofoam board. Set the outcrop in the vacated space, securing it with the proper caulk adhesive to your chosen lightweight stable base. You can use that same foam-safe caulk to disguise any gaps between the outcrop and your foam board, smoothing or roughening the caulk right away, but waiting to the next day before painting.
  • The texturing of your diorama is not quite finished. There are a couple of additional tricks you may want to try.


Using Paint as a texturizer:

  • Only latex paints are foam-safe. Solvent-based paints will corrode the foam, causing mini-pits all over the place of varying sizes. But, if you want to do a moonscape or Marsscape that has lots of craterlets, this is a good way to do it. Use a non-latex spray metal primer, gray for the moonscape, rust for the marsscape. Apply the spray unevenly so that some areas will be more pitted than others.
  • If you want to soften the effect here and there with smooth drifts of moondust or marsdust, while the primer is still wet pour out some painter's sand, the kind sold as a optional texturizer to make "sand finish" wall and ceiling paints.
  • One option is to follow up with a brush-on latex base coat, gray tone for the Moon, tan-brown-rust for Mars, and pour the sand on top of this coat while it is still wet, in patches here and there. What doesn't adhere, you can either shake off later, or affix with a matte finish clear coat later.
  • For your final coat, there is nothing so effective as the multicolor spray paints: Zynolyte Fleck-it Spray or Krylon Make-It-Stone Spray. They are pricey, $8-$12 a can, but worth it for that unbeatable "natural" look. Note that this multicolor fleck spray takes several hours to dry, very much unlike most spray paints. That's because it is a texture finish that goes on relatively thick. Be patient and let your planetscape dry overnight before handling it.
    • For moonscapes, there are about 3 different gray shade ranges (at least from Krylon, the cheaper of the two brands) and by sweeping different areas of your diorama with different cans, you can get an interesting look. But if you can only afford one, you can vary your final look by varying the shade of your base coat. If you are using a brush on latex, and presumably mixing black and white to get your gray tone, you can simply vary the B:W proportions to vary the base coat, then go over it gently with your spray finish coat, so that these varying base colors show through.
    • You won't find as much choice of color range for Mars, But here too, if you can vary a latex brush-on base coat from tan to brown to rust etc. and use the fleck spray gingerly to blend, you should be happy with the result.
    • In either case, you may want to make your rock outcrops and boulders darker than your general terrain. You can do this either by masking them, or by setting them in place after the rest of the terrain is finished. You may have to remove some of the paint finish to get a good adhesive bond, however.

Framing your work of art: (if you do not use the pre-framed cork board suggested above) -- a "frame" finishes off the appearance, and makes it easier for you to safely handle your diorama.

Measure the height of your diorama, most likely an inch and something. Cut two pieces of scrap paneling or thin Luan or plywood to attach to the sides. Holding these in place and measuring the width of diorama (both side edge pieces included), cut two more strips to cover the front and back. If you have added a rock outcrop and it is along an edge. You may or may not want that side edge to be taller to protect it. With your pieces cut, prime them and paint them. You can use gloss black to dress it up, or use the same paint scheme that you used for the diorama to make them blend in. (If here and there your sculpted terrain dips a bit lower than your edging, just pre-finish the exposed back edge to blend in.)


Adding the Icons of Human Presence

Now your diorama is ready for the star attractions: your vehicles and habitats and anything else that shows the new dawn of human presence. Affix them to the terrain at your own risk. I prefer to pack and transport them separately and to set them out only when on display.

Not everything has to be 3-D. Secondary items can be pictures mounted on foam core or cardboard and set upright using toothpicks into the "soil." The idea is just to get the attention of the casual visitor. Unless, of course, you intend your model hab or outpost or settlement to be the star attraction.

Finding a box for your diorama. U-Haul sells a "Medium Mirror" box, 27" x 37" by 4" (interior dimensions), for $4.25. It will neatly hold a folded 48" x 36" trifold presentation board for your main exhibit and your diorama, if you have taken care to size with this box in mind. Your presentation board (storyboard) will be just under 1/2" thick folded, so that leaves you with a 3.5" height limit for your diorama.

Hint for those replicating the Artemis Moonbase exhibit

The suggested habitat model is made from either a standard cardboard salt carton or a 15 oz. bread crumb container. Both are 3.5" in diameter and will fit neatly in the top of your U-Haul mirror box. It may be helpful to glue a set of 3 stops on the back of your diorama board to keep the model from sliding all over the place and possibly damaged.

For those creating a M.A.R.S. storyboard and diorama, the M.A.R.S. Hab made from a pair of 4" inch sewer schedule 40 PVC caps will be too big to fit inside this box. Store and transport your Hab model separately. You could always use 3" (schedule 30) caps instead, but you would still have to remove most of the legs to fit it in this box.



If you have evolved your own techniques, please share them!