Space Toys II: Unmanned
As many science fiction toys as I collect, you probably wouldn’t think of me as someone who bemoans the lack of science fact toys. But the fact of the matter is, there can never be too many toy replicas of real spacecraft on the market to keep me happy.
Ironically, 2/3 of this this diverse cross-section of three American space trailblazers in toy form don’t even come from the United States at all. To find readily available toy replicas of the Voyager and Viking probes launched in the 1970s, one must apparently be able to get them from Japan.
The two Viking probes were on the drawing board as early as the late 1960s, when they were conceived as a robotic mission that would collect and analyze soil samples in situ for signs of life. The samples would never be returned to Earth – the Viking landers were incapable of moving from their touchdown spots – and so the test results, while fairly conclusive for their respective locales on the red planet, almost seem to pale in comparison to the in-depth studies undertaken by the much more mobile Mars Rovers of recent years. At the time, though, the first soft landing on Mars by a human-made space probe was quite a feat, coming as it did on July 20th – the same date as the first lunar landing – in the bicentennial year of 1976.
The tiny, tiny Viking probe replica, created by Furuta as the prize packed in with a “choco egg”, is dwarfed by an actual Viking mission patch. This micro-Viking comes as a bag of tiny pieces, which presumably you can put together while you’re enjoying your treat.
Despite its size, the little Viking is actually quite detailed and proportionate to the real thing, right down to the smokestack-style cameras and the sample collection arm.
Ironically, the Viking probes were originally known by the slightly more poetic name of Voyager, though that was nixed some time before launch. That name was resurrected around the same time as the Viking probes made their respective landings on Mars for another mission, which otherwise would’ve been known by the mouthful “Mariner Jupiter/Saturn ’77” or “MJS77”.
Voyagers 1 and 2 and two of their descendants are all that was left of a ambitious plan for exploring the outer solar system. In the late 1960s, a Caltech grad student named Gary Flandro was studying possible trajectories for sending unmanned probes to the giant gas planets beyond the orbit of Mars, and his studies led him to a major find: a planetary configuration, occurring once every 175 years, which would allow a repeated series of gravitational “slingshot” maneuvers around the outer planets to send a single spacecraft all the way to Neptune in just over a decade. (With a more conventional straight trajectory, Neptune would’ve taken three decades to reach.)
JPL planners drew up plans for a “Grand Tour” to take full advantage of this starring lineup. General reconnaissance probes would’ve scouted out the outer planets, taking general measurements and pictures before moving on to the next world. A second wave of probes would’ve followed, but this time they would have stayed. One would send an orbiter to stay at Jupiter, fire an atmospheric probe into the planet’s atmosphere, and detach smaller, Viking-style landers to several of the major Jovian moons. Another would’ve done the same at Saturn, firing probes into the atmospheres of the ringed planet itself as well as the cloudy moon Titan. Somewhat scaled-down versions of those missions would have traveled in tandem to Uranus and Neptune, and one would have gone to Saturn again for the express purpose of grabbing a gravity assist on its way to the first visit to Pluto.
Two things caused a rethink of the Grand Tour program. NASA’s Ames Research Center beat some of the mission’s objectives to their punch by launching its own probes, Pioneer 10 and 11. The first probes to reach Jupiter (and, in Pioneer 11’s case, Saturn), the two unmanned vehicles took a series of somewhat low-resolution pictures – and had their electronic brains thoroughly cooked by the radiation surrounding Jupiter. By the time Pioneer 11 reached Saturn, some of its capabilities had been compromised or lost by its dizzyingly close approach to Jupiter. The Pioneers did demonstrate, however, that the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter wasn’t so densely packed that it would pulverize anything trying to cross it, and the Jupiter-to-Saturn route taken by Pioneer 11 was a successful demonstration of a gravity assist maneuver, even if it was a less economical one that meant it took nearly 7 years to go from one planet to the next.
The other setback for the Grand Tour was a Congress unwilling to grant NASA additional funding for R&D of a new spacecraft design. The multiple probes and landers were out the window, and the two waves of the Grand Tour would ow consist of only two spacecraft each: Voyagers 1 and 2 took the place of the general reconnaissance wave of the mission, passing by most of the outer planets at a distance, taking pictures and measurements, but not delivering any kind of payload to stay at any of their destinations. A trajectory to carry Voyager 1 to Pluto after its Saturn encounter was nixed. The second wave, which would have to wait until the ’80s, consisted of two spacecraft, now renamed Galileo and Cassini. Galileo’s landing probes to Jupiter’s moons were scratched off the mission plan, and Cassini would now carry just one probe, intended for Titan – and even then, the work on the Titan probe would eventually be undertaken by the European Space Agency. There would also be no R&D funds: the Grand Tour would require additional money, since most of NASA’s existing budget was being spent on the troubled Space Shuttle program, but instead the word came down that the Grand Tour – or what was left of it – would use existing Mariner components, which had been designed in the late 1960s.
Released in 2004 to commemorate a space exhibit at Tokyo’s Royal Museum of Science, the spindly Voyager probe from Takara Toys is another assembly-required item, but it’s a lovely replica with just about every minor detail right on the money.
The Voyager toy comes with a display stand, but in my case, the strut connecting Voyager to the base of the stand itself was not included. The stand held Voyager in its accurate “flying” position – laying on its side, with its antenna dish pointed back toward Earth to relay its findings and receive further instructions.
Takara is a toy company with a solid SF toy pedigree; Kenner farmed out the design of the original Star Wars C-3PO action figure to Takara in the ’70s – which seems doubly appropriate as the first of the Voyager probes to be launched, Voyager 2, lifted off on August 20, 1977, just over three months after Star Wars premiered. Other toys released in this wave of the Royal Museum of Science collection included a Gerard K. O’Neill space station, a Soyuz rocket with a launch gantry base, the Mir space station and a clear cube with internal etching making up a portrait of the galaxy.
Another holdover from the Grand Tour were scaled-down versions of the missions originally conceived as possible permanent residents of the neighborhoods of Jupiter and Saturn. Again based on the sturdy Mariner hardware, Galileo was built for a late ’80s shuttle launch that would boost it into deep space on the back of an interial upper stage (IUS), a small rocket booster which not only fit within a shuttle’s cargo bay, but pack a powerful bunch due to the fact that it was already weightless. Galileo was originally scheduled for liftoff in one of the missions following the liftoff of Challenger in January 1986, but of course it wound up grounded for some time afterward.
When it finally did get underway, Galileo suffered a major early setback: its foldable main antenna became stuck, and never fully opened. Galileo could still transmit data back to Earth, but at a crawl relative to the speed that its high-gain antenna would have allowed. Rather than damaging any more of Galileo’s systems with repeated attempts to force the antenna open by remote control, engineers on the ground opted to leave it be. And this is the curious (but completely accurate) shape into which the antenna is molded on the Hot Wheels Action Pack replica of Galileo.
Somewhat disappointingly molded entirely in black plastic (which almost completely robs you of the ability to study the otherwise fine detail work built into the toy’s mold), Galileo’s a very accurate replica, if a somewhat flimsy one in places. The probe’s long magnetometer boom can be folded back and retracted into pre-launch position, as can the two arms holding the RTG power plants. As nice as it would’ve been to have an interchangeable high-gain antenna in its intended fully-unfolded glory, I applaud Mattel on sticking to historical accuracy here. It’s not as pretty as the ideal form of Galileo (as seen on the original pre-launch NASA patch for the mission), but it is what was.
There are so many other unmanned probes that have made incredible steps into space and shown us things that our own eyes have yet to travel far enough to see, and thus there are so many others that would be great toys or desk models. But as “unsexy” as these missions seem to be to the general public, these will always be niche items – but very welcome ones.