Here we are in a new millennium - - why aren't we vacationing on the moon? Because all the rocket scientists work at Mattel.



As Fox Mulder or Oliver Stone will tell you, a good conspiracy - alien or otherwise - often sounds ridiculous at first. With this in mind, allow me to explain how the sudden disappearance of Mattel's Major Matt Mason was but a cog in the alien plot that grounded America's space program.

Consider this confluence of facts:

  • An expansive toy line celebrating American space exploration, Major Matt Mason was Mattel's biggest boys' toy product for three years in a row. Suddenly, in 1971, it was gone.
  • A year later, Apollo 17 returned from the moon - the last time anyone has set foot on the lunar surface. That was twenty-seven years ago.
  • Allegedly, Neil Armstrong said the following to an unnamed professor when asked about rumors of "company" on the moon: "It was incredible. The fact is, we were WARNED OFF. I can't go into detail except to say that their ships were far superior to ours." (Of course, Armstrong has publicly disavowed saying anything resembling the above quote, but it's a forgone conclusion that Mr. Giant-leap-for-mankind is officially In On It.)
  • In 1994, the US sent a $75 million unmanned probe called "Clementine" to the moon. On it's way there, it mysteriously fell into useless solar orbit.
  • Western Publishing has a carefully maintained archive of their material in Racine, Wisconsin. Inside you can find treasures ranging from Whitman coloring book original art to Walt Disney-signed proofs. However, there is an empty shelf where the Major Matt Mason puzzle, cut-outs and coloring book material should be.
  • In the news recently: NASA has "lost" the original tapes from Apollo 11.
  • My parents NEVER threw out any of my childhood toys, yet all of my Matt Mason stuff is GONE.

Obviously, there are too many factors here for mere coincidence. Ask any conspiracy pundit and they'll wearily explain why it's 1999 and we're not taking vacations on lunar dunes:

IN THE LATE 1960's WE WERE TOLD TO "STAY HOME" BY TECHNOLOGICALLY ADVANCED ALIENS LIVING ON THE MOON.

How else can you explain our stalled race to space? Can you imagine John Glenn's snort of disbelief if it was suggested to him back in 1962 that the next time he left the atmosphere would be thirty-six years later?

If we were indeed banished from space by alien beings, part of the deal would be, of course, the abolition of a realistic space exploration "indoctrination" toy like Matt Mason, necessitating deployment of Men in Black to homes all over the world, including my own. I cannot blame my parents for their continued denials on this matter given the forces at work here.


FIRST TOY ON THE MOON
MajorMason.JPG

Alien conspiracy or not, Major Matt Mason is a fond memory for children of the 1960s. Mattel's Man in Space was distinctive not only for his 6-inch "bendy" body style, but also the huge amount of tightly integrated accessories and innovative vehicles available for his adventures (tightly integrated, that is, until the disconcertingly out-of-scale Captain Lazer was shoehorned into the line - see sidebar). A considerable quantity of licensed coloring books, puzzles, costumes, and even wallpaper spun off of the line; the Major was clearly the cornerstone of Mattel's boys' toys effort as the sixties came to a close.

Mattel's timing was perfect. With NASA edging ever closer to the moon landing promised by President Kennedy, children of the middle-1960s were convinced that "spaceman" was as viable a career option as "fireman" or "plumber." So, while Hasbro's much-accessorized soldier, GI Joe, dominated the mid-sixties male action figure landscape, the "house of Barbie" bet on outer space as an alternative to foxholes.

At 1966's Toy Fair, Mattel execs began their spin: GI Joe and Marx's knock-off Buddy Charlie may be hot now, they opined, but kids will get tired of war- and armed conflict-based toys. In addition to Mattel's normal slate of items for 1966, select retail accounts were given previews of the first figures and accessories in a line that would be marketed in 1967 as Major Matt Mason.

If any company could pull off a great realistic space toy, it was Mattel. Just as NASA represented the best and brightest of America's scientific community, Mattel stood as the home of the world's elite toy craftsmen and engineers. They conceived their astronaut as a straight interpretation of the emerging American space program. No army of aliens threatening besieged Earth colonists on a far off planet and no laser battles between sleek fighter craft; Mattel shrewdly decided that the sense of wonder and amazement that the nation expressed while watching televised launches of manned (and monkeyed) rockets could be harnessed in a toy dedicated to principles of exploration and discovery. Furthermore, their resources were such that they could approach the idea with an eye toward, ahem, bending the rules.

While the 11-to-12-inch tall rigid plastic and jointed-limbs paradigm for action figures was made status quo by Hasbro's GI Joe, it was actually Mattel that invented the favored format with their introduction of Barbie in 1959. Still, Mattel's R & D group looked elsewhere for inspiration when designing their astronaut. Because accessories and vehicles would be so vital to the Man in Space toy line, the actual figure needed to be small enough to allow manageable scaled vehicles and habitats. Creating rigid articulation at a six-inch scale, while possible, would be expensive.

The first practical "bendy" (rubber on wire-frame armature) toy body was patented by artist and craftsman Wah Ming Chang, a former child prodigy who would go on to design and fabricate phasers, communicators, tricorders and the Romulan Warship for the original Star Trek television series. Chang also created animation models for Walt Disney's Fantasia and Bambi, and he crafted the Pillsbury Doughboy stop-action model used in commercials. His highly flexible "bendy" configuration utilized a wire armature under a rubber outer body, which allowed poses to be created and held quite easily.

Mattel designers took the basic rubber-clad wire armature idea and tweaked it to accommodate their vision. Jay Smith, who was a Hasbro staff engineer from 1966 to 1968, remembers the body configuration as an example of Mattel's ability to bring simple ideas to their highest expression. "The wire armature was put into a press so plastic pieces could be molded onto the wire," he explains. "Then the wire and plastic went into another mold where the rubber 'uniform' was molded around it. Since a 'bendy' tends to flex everywhere, the plastic pieces were attached to pieces of the armature that needed to remain rigid." The "accordion joint" design of Matt Mason's space suit-based closely on NASA's publicly shown working concept of their own design-contributed to the figures' realistic flexibility; form followed function incredibly well, and individual color schemes were all that was needed to differentiate each character's body. (The astronaut cast would eventually consist of Major Matt in white, Jeff Long in blue, Doug Davis in yellow, and Sgt. Storm in red). A snap-on helmet with tinted, retractable visor completed the ensemble.

Though Mattel's doll artists were utilized for creating hands, feet and other body parts, an outside sculptor was brought in to create clean-cut heads for Mason and his colleagues. Mattel's industrial design supervisor, Jerry Schmidt, remembers cloistering the freelance artist on the vacant third floor above Mattel's R & D division. "He actually said Mason looked like me, and I kind of pooh-poohed that. I couldn't see the resemblance," Schmidt remembers. "The face of every astronaut is what we were trying to do."



From the NASA Drawing Board?
MMasonmoonsuit


"All Major Matt Mason's equipment is based on official space program designs. This equipment must help him deal with violent temperature extremes, radiation, meteorites, and strange, rough terrain." (From Mattel's Matt Mason catalog.)



Until the introduction of aliens Callisto, Scorpio and the giant Captain Lazer (see sidebar), the Man in Space line remained rooted in the foreseeable reality of space travel. Mason's Moon Suit, for instance, was a dead ringer for a concept by Space General Corporation published on the cover of Life magazine dated April 27, 1962. (Read an interesting background on various media appearances of the experimental Moon Suit HERE.)
LifeMatt


As for the "bellows-joint" basic space suit itself, a very close replica can be seen on page 384 of National Geographic dated March 1964.

Did Mattel have an inside line on NASA's plans? Not really. "I would say designs were 'NASA inspired,' if anything," Jay Smith says. Furthermore, Jerry Schmidt cannot recall any reference blueprints or photos being integrated into their design process, and in-house designers were solely responsible for impressively realistic items like the Space Crawler and Uni-Tred Space Hauler. However, it's interesting to note that Smith came to Mattel directly from TRW Systems Group, where he worked on the Air Force's missile programs and technology for NASA's Apollo effort. John Northrop, A Mattel staff engineer who worked on Matt Mason vehicles, was the son of Jack Northrop, inventor of the giant "Flying Wing" aircraft proposed as bombers for World War II. Mattel's storied head of research and development, Jack Ryan, was recruited by Mattel founders Ruth and Elliot Handler from Raytheon, where he worked on Sparrow and Hawk missiles. Mattel was practically a NASA field lab.

MMMnasaproto
“I was very comfortable with the transition," Smith recalls of his conversion from aerospace to toys. "Although, aside from the inspiration, there's not much that really translates. It's such a different world. I think all of the aerospace engineers have a feeling that if they get tired of that they can always go into toys and it wouldn't be as challenging. But I think the opposite is true-the mindset is so different and the cost constraints are so tough. You have to produce a whole toy for what a couple of nuts and bolts cost in the space program."

Mass production created problems for Mattel that NASA never had to face. "The folding windows on the Space Station started as flat panes," Smith explains. "At a meeting, Jack Ryan said you have to put a crown on them, a crease, because we can't mold anything flat. In mass production you'll get a lot of wavy or warped product without that support." As a result, the plastic panes ended up with the faceted appearance familiar to fans of the toy, while package photos show smooth panels.

"All the early models and perhaps some of the photographic models of the Space Station for Toy Fair had the 'girders' done in silver, using polypropalineo which had a silver color added to it," adds Smith. "Silver is kind of difficult because it has particulates and swirls and looks good in some areas and doesn't look so good in other areas, and the polypropalineo material didn't have very good 'snapping' properties that allowed the pieces to be assembled. So one day, presto, it was decreed that the girders would be orange. I remember everybody going, 'euowww.'"
Despite such logistical constraints, Mattel was able to incorporate features into the Matt Mason line that were decades ahead of their time. Accessories like the Space Power Suit and aforementioned Moon Suit boasted Reebok-like pneumatic air pumps that created realistic movement and action. The Matt Mason Jet Pack, packaged with most early figures, invited you to pull a string to activate a concentric-circle spinner which effectively conveyed a sense of propulsion. Matt's Space Crawler lumbered forward unhindered by obstacles, thanks to giant spoke-wheels on either side of the chassis. Furthermore, each vehicle could be integrated with one another and incorporated into the giant Space Station, and the Firebolt Space Cannon was able to accommodate both astronauts (standing) and Captain Lazer (sitting).


Collecting Mattel's Man in Space

After a relatively brief run, Mattel's Man in Space bowed out in 1970. There is, of course, a cover story available for persons not ready to accept the idea of extraterrestrial tampering.

Mark Stuart, a veteran marketing executive who has worked for Blockbuster and Procter & Gamble, is considered the "senior historian" of the Matt Mason collecting community. He's done considerable research into the marketing background of the product and Mattel in general. "The end of Matt Mason was a strategic decision," he explains. "The thinking at the highest levels was; we've had a great run, but we have to move on and create a new solid line before this one fizzles out." (Note: Stuart may be In On It.)

For the record, Sea Devils was a SCUBA-type toy that utilized the "bendy" format, and it tested well. As Stuart sees it, Mattel shifted whatever Matt Mason resources existed to that product; they could not co-exist. Unfortunately, Sea Devils were manufactured in a more cost-effective (read: cheaper) manner than the Matt Mason figures, and they stiffed at retail.

Short-lived or not, a toy line as impressive as Major Matt Mason is impossible to ignore. While there are not yet annual conventions or commemorative collector figures available, Matt Mason enjoys a dedicated following that communicates regularly online. Aspiring astronauts can launch themselves toward collector Keith Meyer's Space Station site for a vast collection of constantly updated images, links and information on Mattel's Man in Space.

Vintage Matt Mason figures and accessories are difficult to obtain in mint condition because of the materials used in their manufacture. While thin rubber was utterly convincing and effective as material for Moon Suit arms, for example, they simply disintegrated after decades of exposure. Matt's bendy body, meanwhile, is subject to paint chipping and snapped internal wires. Still, there are a good quantity of spaceworthy Matt Mason toys out there in spite of assaults from the elements and alien machinations.

For the optimistic among us, it's only a matter of time before we fulfill the promise of space exploration prophesied by toys like Major Matt Mason. In these days of nostalgia for Mercury and Apollo missions, Mason seems ripe for recommissioning; perhaps his return will signal the end of our long "grounding." Back on the toy shelves then back to the moon!

If the aliens let us, of course.


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