Space may be the final frontier, but it’s also just about the last subject on which you can expect any toy manufacturer to base new products – especially the early era of space exploration. But some toy companies have done just that. Here’s a look at some of the better space toys and collectibles.
Astronaut Figures: Three of the astronaut figures above are actually non-poseable, very solid rubber or PVC – they’re heavy enough to use as paperweights. Only the lightweight plastic Shuttle Astronaut figure, which was manufactured by a different company, can be posed in any way. All four are roughly to the same scale, though the Shuttle Astronaut figure, again, is slightly smaller. The “historic” astronauts also come complete with miniature mission patches. It’s easy to guess by looking that the Mercury Astronaut is modeled on John Glenn, while the pose of the Gemini Astronaut is clearly taken from photos of the late Ed White’s spacewalk.
Apollo 11 Playset: By far the coolest (and one of the biggest) space toys out there is IPI’s incredible lunar landing set. The meticulously detailed LEM replica features a voice chip with a slightly sped-up recording of Neil Armstrong’s “one small step for man” speech. The LEM can be docked with the equally well-crafted (and extremely shiny) command/service module. Both the LEM and the C/SM can “jettison” their ascent and service modules. The set also comes with three nicely detailed, but rather flimsy, poseable astronaut figures (which are in a slightly larger scale than the vehicles), as well as tiny plastic replicas of the American flag and the various experiment packages deployed on the moon. The package is rounded out with a vinyl “lunar surface” playmat which looks more like a large photo of gray shag carpet. But whatever misgivings I have about the little bonuses, the vehicles themselves are well worth the purchase price.
Hot Wheels Action Packs: Mattel has been issuing three- and four-piece Action Packs with a variety of themes, ranging from undersea exploration to rescue and emergency vehicles. One of the earlier Action Packs included a tiny Apollo LEM, a lunar rover, and two solid astronaut figures – all drastically out of scale with one another. (However, I would point out that the Hot Wheels astronauts and moon buggy work well with IPI’s Apollo 11 playset, described above.) The vehicles in the Apollo 15 set are rather flimsy (not even a trace of durable die-cast metal in the LEM), and the juxtaposition of scales used in the various models is an eyebrow-raiser too. The Apollo 15 set is now out of production.
In 1997, after the monumental scientific (and public relations) success of JPL’s Mars Rover mission, Mattel entered into a contract with JPL to produce toys based on the NASA lab’s unmanned space probes. The first such toy was a wonderfully-detailed Sojourner Rover replica, complete with stowable antenna. (In case you can’t tell, I retouched the Rover’s photo to put it in a somewhat more Martian environment.) The other two vehicles in the Mars Rover Action Pack were an orbiter (which opens up to reveal a tiny landing vehicle) and a larger version of the landing vehicle (which opens up to reveal a tiny Rover). Again, the three vehicles are to entirely different scales, but they at least give you an idea of how large they are compared to other pieces in the same set. Quite probably the coolest toy of 1997.
Space Shuttles: From the mid 1970s onward, America waited for the space shuttle program to kick into gear and get something in the air. That launch didn’t happen until 1981, by which time Skylab had returned to Earth in a ball of fire and the last American manned launch took place the better part of a decade ago. But that didn’t stop space buffs from dreaming about the seemingly limitless possibilities of the shuttle. Several manufacturers, including Corgi and Ertl, jumped on the bandwagon with die-cast shuttles. Ertl’s shuttles were particularly nice, with very cool detailing (the tile texture of the shuttle heat shield). Another shuttle toy, which came along with a replica of NASA’s Boeing 747 shuttle-ferrying plane, was molded with the aerodynamic shroud (used to cover the orbiter main engines in early landing tests) in place. Other shuttles had opening cargo bay doors which almost always revealed Spacelab, one of the earliest planned shuttle payloads.
In the future, hopefully other manufacturers will catch “go fever” and base new toys on space explorations both past and present. In fact, though it’s at least a year overdue, Hot Wheels is supposedly working on a detailed replica of JPL’s Galileo Jupiter probe, with a model of Cassini possibly to follow. There is more to come, and that’s a good thing. Not that I want spacesuited and civvies versions of every person who’s ever been a member of NASA’s astronaut corps, but decent and durable toys based on NASA’s pioneering spacecraft are always welcome in my ToyBox.