Major Matt Mason’s Moon mission

There are not many academic publications available on the history of space toys. In fact, it is much easier to find literature written by passionate collectors. Here, there may be a wealth of useful information, but often the historical contextualisation is somewhat lacking. I took the chance with the book Space Toys of the 60s by James H. Gillam – and was, to some extent, pleasantly surprised.

Major Matt Mason and his space buddies

Space Toys of the 60s covers three different American toy companies’ space product lines in the 1960s and 1970s. These are Mattel's Major Matt Mason, Ideal Toy Company’s Zeroid robots and Star Team, and Colorform Company’s Outer Space Men. In this blog post – and two subsequent ones – I will write about each of the three space toy lines, all based on Gillam’s book.

From 1966 to 1970 Mattel, who was also behind the Barbie doll and GI Joe, produced a space toy series centred on "Mattel's Man in Space": Major Matt Mason. In the beginning the theme closely emulated the real American space programmes, Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. From here Mattel gradually elaborated the designs towards the more fantastic, though much of it was still based on types that were in the pipeline at NASA.

The Major Matt Mason series was a huge success and over the four years it ran, a huge amount of vehicles and accessories was produced. The focus of the series was of course the Matt Mason figure, a tall, crew-cut American superman (see illustration for this post). He was soon followed by astronauts Sgt. Storm (moon car driver), African-American Jeff Long (rocket scientist) and Doug Davis (radiologist). The figures were made of pliable rubber with steel wire skeletons so they could be bent and twisted to assume different poses.

The figures were 6 inches tall and wore space suits based on the space suit prototype ILC SPD-43 (see http://www.hq.nasa.gov/alsj/ILC-SpaceSuits-RevA.pdf, pp. 14-15). But already after a year Mattel began introducing more science fiction-inspired characters. For example, in 1968 Matt Mason's "Friend from Mars," Captain Lazer saw the light of day.

Alien allies

Captain Lazer was made from hard plastic with mobile joints and was twice as high as Matt Mason. Lazer wore high leg boots, a silver helmet and had a solar reactor built into the chest. According to a Mattel catalog from 1969, Lazer was an “amazing superhuman spaceman” who could send “sonar sound waves from his Solar Reactor when his battery-operated power pack is activated from his Cosmic Coder.”

This was followed by Callisto, a similarly friendly “mysterious astronaut from Jupiter.” Created in black and green and with a visibly large brain, and a clever bellows system, by which children should be able to control a string sensor (don’t ask me how), Callisto was supposed to be Matt Mason's friend. However, in his book, Gillam explains that it was obvious to stage Callisto as evil alien in play.

Finally, in 1970, Scorpio – an insect-like alien in luscious purple, pink and bright green colours – was introduced. Scorpio was 8 inches high and was Matt Mason's “mysterious ally from the stars with flashing electronic eyes” (by means of a battery-powered light, both the mouth and the eyes could flash). Like Callisto, Scorpio was also equipped with a small bellows, by means of which the child could shoot foam balls from a kind of backpack mounted on Scorpio’s chest. Also, the text on the bubble pack that Scorpio was wrapped in explained that Scorpio was a telepath.

Gear and Gadgets

The accessories for Matt Mason and his merry co-astronauts were wide-ranging and quite varied. There were "re-entry gliders", gliders which could actually be thrown and fly with an astronaut in it; a large Moon base in two floors; Moon surface vehicles with caterpillar tracks; a robot-like exo-skeleton in which astronauts could be placed; a space capsule with a lifeline for astronauts so you could play spacewalking; laser cannons; a special Moon-crawler, which was battery-powered and had four legs on each side that could rotate as a wheel and thus take the vessel over obstacles; and even a small survival tent where you might put Matt Mason or one of his friends when they were injured during an operation on the lunar surface.

Also worth noting among the accessories is a special package from 1966 with a spacesuit whose design was directly inspired by a prototype spacesuit, which graced the cover of Life magazine in 1962 (April 27, page 62 onwards). The suit almost looks like a small diving bell and is a good example of the extent to which Mattel sought to align itself with the actual US space adventure.

Furthermore, comics, Halloween masks, spacesuits, games, and puzzles were produced based on Major Matt Mason. Mattel also made sure to also make a Major Matt Mason-club for hearty space-boys. This included getting an astronaut certificate, an ironing transfer image of Matt Mason, a cap and several other items that could expand the focus of play to include role play with the children themselves as actors.

To infinity, and beyond!

The whole idea, of course, was to make money. The 1960s were the golden period of the Space Age where the gates of the cosmos had been flung open and man's future was clear: Moon landings and Moon Colonies; then on to Mars, colonies there too, and finally: To infinity, and beyond! (To quote another, somewhat later, space toy). Through clever marketing and the use of TV adverts, Mattel capitalised on the dream of humanity's future in space, a dream the realisation of which you, especially as an American, could follow in newspapers and TV almost on a daily basis.

As Gillam writes: “The coming moon missions provided the perfect opportunity to introduce a new line of space toys, one that not only seized the imagination of little American boys, but gripped the entire world. The excitement and anticipation of sending the first group of brave men into the cold and dangerous reaches of outer space was both thrilling and terrifying. Major Matt Mason would follow in their footsteps and lead the world’s children into outer space through vivid imagery, fantastic toys (based originally on “official NASA designs”) and box artwork that fuelled the imagination.”

A rush of times gone by

But already around 1970, the interest in the US space programme began to wane – and this had an impact on sales of Major Matt Mason too. In 1970 the line was phased out and now the toys can only be found neatly perched on the shelves of inveterate collectors – and on various Internet sites.

And yet.

It seems that the American actor and film producer Tom Hanks – in cooperation with Mattel, of course – intends to make a movie based on the Major Matt Mason universe where Hanks himself is to play Mason. The 3-D film will take place on the Moon and will be directed by Robert Zemicki who also directed the Apollo 13, in which Hanks also played a major role.

It is reported that Tom Hanks played with Major Matt Mason toys when he was a boy and that he brought a Mason figure to a meeting with representatives from Mattel about the prospects for a movie. If the movie gets made it is highly likely that Major Matt Mason-toys will see the light once more, and thus a new generation of children may associate some of their childhood with cheerful hours in the company of brave astronauts on the surface of the Moon. While their parents – or perhaps rather grandparents – can sit in the darkness of the cinema and feel the rush of a bygone era.

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James H. Gillam (1999). Space Toys of the 60s, Collector's Guide Publishing.

Gain more insight into the Major Matt Mason universe here http://www.wildtoys.com/index2.asp.

See also a Major Matt Mason toy advertising from 1968 here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R99hAG0tgkg.