"Major Matt Mason. He was a great astronaut: a full-on, lifelike astronaut, made with rubber and wire, kind of like Gumby. He was bendable and poseable, and I went through a few of them because after a while the wires get all twisted."
-Tom Hanks, when asked "What was your favorite toy as a kid?" by Disney Adventures magazine
1967 was not a good year for America. The military was beginning to get bogged down in the quagmire that was Southeast Asia, though the disastrous Tet Offensive was still a year away. Hot on the heels of the successful Project Gemini, NASA was dealt a crushing blow on January 27th, 1967, when the crew of Apollo 1 burned alive on a launch pad at Cape Canaveral. President Lyndon B. Johnson was so disgusted with his role in the whole state of affairs that he eventually chose not to run for reelection. Despite troubles at home and abroad, a toy line emerged that hinted at happier, more imaginative times ahead. The toy was Major Matt Mason, "Mattel's Man in Space".
Major Matt Mason was a rubber astronaut who stood six inches tall, wore a white space suit and came with a removable space helmet and visor. His internal wire skeleton allowed him to bend at any joint, and his space suit was based on an actual NASA prototype. The space program was quickly making a comeback from Apollo 1, and with a real lunar landing a mere two years away, Mattel could not have asked for a better time to market a toy based on exploring the moon.
Initially, Mattel had intended to make a simple line of space toys centered on a single astronaut. Major Matt Mason, "the bravest astronaut yet", was rolled out in the summer of 1967 and gave Mattel a huge hit in the Christmas season of that year. That first year's offerings consisted of a carded accessory pack known as the Flight Set, which featured a Major Matt Mason figure, the Jet Pack, the Space Sled, and the flamethrower-like Decontamination Gun. The Jet Pack could be strapped to a figure and made to travel along a string, giving the illusion of flight. When attached to the Space Sled, that toy could "fly", too. Also available were the Space Crawler, the two-story Space Station, and a clunky bell-shaped Moon Suit.
One of the major selling points for the toys was Mattel's claim that they were based on actual NASA designs, and for the very first toys, this was at least partially true. Mattel's Moon Suit toy is a carbon copy of the prototype seen on the cover of the April 27th, 1962 issue of LIFE Magazine, right down to the red stripes and large "3" emblazoned on the front. Photos have surfaced of an early space suit that features bellows-like joints, just like the space suits of Mattel's astronauts. The public's early naiveté towards lunar conditions carried through to Matt's tools. Among other items, the Flight Set came with binoculars and a flare gun, two items that would've been completely useless on the moon. Of course, the toys were designed at a time when one of NASA's prototype lunar landers had astronauts descending to the moon's surface by way of a knotted rope. (Yes, really.)
Impressed by the line's sales, Mattel quickly sent more vehicles, astronauts, and aliens to join the lonely Major on the moon.
First and foremost in the line was Major Matt Mason, who could be purchased individually or on a blister card with various accessories, such as the Talking Rocket Pack or Moon Suit. Sergeant Storm landed in 1968 clad in a red space suit and was available alone or combined with other toys, just like Matt. Astronauts Doug Davis (wearing a yellow space suit) and Jeff Long (in blue) followed in 1969. The figures' packaging denoted Davis as a radiation expert, while Long, in addition to being the only astronaut who's last name doesn't form an alliteration with his first, scouted out rocket landing sites. Unlike Mason and Storm, who could be purchased in a plethora of other sets, Davis was only available by himself or with two other sets, both of them rare. Long, an African-American, was only sold individually and is the least common of the human figures.
Any line of space toys worth its stardust will have an interesting array of aliens; Mattel made no exception with Major Matt Mason's extraterrestrial friends.
Many collectors speculate that Captain Lazer, a humanoid Martian released in 1968, was actually intended for another toy line altogether. Besides standing twice the height of the other astronauts, Captain Lazer was made of hard plastic instead of flexible rubber and was so large that he was only compatible with one of the line's vehicles. Not that Captain Lazer wanted for cool features...by pressing buttons on the figure's backpack, his eyes, chest emblem, and lazer gun attachments could all be lit up. Although the Captain Lazer figure is fairly common, his accessories are frequently missing, driving up the cost of loose, complete figures. (A decade later, Captain Lazer's mold was recycled by Mattel for the large figures in the Battlestar Galactica line.)
Callisto, the mysterious alien from Jupiter, came out in 1969. Callisto's translucent green head coincided with his "advanced mental powers", while his accessory, The Space Sensor, could fire and retract a yellow string to gather samples. Despite his somewhat ominous appearance, the back of the toy's package made it known that Callisto was an ally and personal friend of the Major's.
Scorpio, a pink and purple insect-like creature, was released in 1970 and is the rarest of the aliens. Hailing from a desert planet in the Scorpio star cluster, Scorpio realized he had the ability to read minds moments after his hatching and quickly blasted off into space, where he later landed on the moon and met Major Matt Mason. Scorpio came with snap-on arm and leg shields, as well as a device that strapped onto his chest and fired "search globes". Although the market has cooled off somewhat in recent years, mint-in-package Scorpio figures have been known to sell for as much as $1,500.
A fourth alien, dubbed Or from Orion, was to be a tiny blue creature who flew inside the Orbiter, a yellow Frisbee-like disc that could be vertically launched with Or inside. Although Or appeared in Mattel's 1970 catalog (both as a stand-alone toy and as part of the unproduced "Voyage to Galaxy III" play set), there is no hard evidence to suggest that this toy made it out of the prototype stage.
I didn't realize it until I sat down to node this, but none of the aliens were actually from the moon...
The vehicles in Major Matt Mason's universe were very innovative for the time and nearly all of them featured working lights or motorized features of some type. It is beyond the scope of this node to describe each and every mode of transportation used by the Major and his friends on the moon, but these are some of the more notable ones.
The most distinctive vehicle produced was the Space Crawler, one of the first toys released. The Crawler's large, four-spoked wheels could conquer any terrain, although the astronaut in the driver's seat was in for a rather bumpy ride. A winch protruding from the back of the Space Crawler could tow accessories and acted as a crane when the Crawler was attached to the top of the Space Station.
The Firebolt Space Cannon was the only vehicle that could be operated by the oversized Captain Lazer. Basically a large laser cannon mounted on a wheeled platform, the Firebolt's rotating barrel and control panel flashed as it moved forward. As many as three astronauts (or one Captain Lazer) could operate the Firebolt at once, and it is the only vehicle in the line that could light up and move at the same time.
An especially interesting vehicle was the Star Seeker, which could hold one astronaut under its blue, semi-transparent dome. Beneath the cockpit was a primitive mechanical computer, operated by a series of orange plugs. Inserting (or removing) the plugs in various combinations programmed the Star Seeker to take a specific path; a paper solar system was included so kids could make a spacey obstacle course for the toy.
Owing to the simplicity of 1960's electronics, many of the Major's rides can be easily found in working condition today.
Mattel kept their astronauts busy by releasing a number of interesting accessory "paks", which were relatively inexpensive and were most often packaged on blister cards. Though far too numerous to be systematically described here, the plethora of accessories had many high points.
The largest and most expensive accessory was the somewhat misnamed Space Station. Standing two feet tall when fully assembled and complete with a flashing beacon, large blue windows, and a light-up computer console, the Space Station was Major Matt Mason's lunar command post. The Space Station's interchangeable nature made for hours of play with endless combinations of girders, windows, and the Station's white honeycomb platforms. The toy's possibilities were only limited by a child's imagination, and today the Space Station is fondly remembered. Due to the abundance of loose Space Station parts floating around, many collectors will assemble a Space Station for their collections by simply buying enough individual parts to piece one together. The Station contained several small, fragile pieces, making original, mint Space Stations somewhat pricey.
Mattel made three different carry cases so kids could take their astronauts on the go. The most common is the Satellite Locker, a colorful vinyl case with three compartments for storing figures or gear. Coveted by collectors today is the Talking Command Console, which could be opened to resemble the control panel of a space ship, complete with an illuminated star field and chairs for the figures. Although it was intended as a carry case, the toy also included a pull-string talking mechanism, which said one of five "authentic space sound tracks". The Rocket Ship Case, a stubby Titan V-like space ship, rounded out the selection of carry cases and is the most uncommon today. Noted for its simple yet fragile construction, this case is usually found in pretty lousy shape.
From 1967 to 1970, Mattel did a fantastic job on a series of "Launcher" accessories. The Satellite Launcher, Rocket Launcher, Space Probe, and Gamma Ray Gard added greatly to the toy line's playability and were so well built that they're usually found in working shape today. The Satellite Launcher sent plastic whirlybird "satellites" spinning into orbit and used Mattel's Greenie Stik-M-Caps to simulate the mighty roar of liftoff. The Rocket Launcher hurled a single, large projectile into space and also made use of caps for blastoff pyrotechnics. (This is known as the most fragile of the launchers and is usually found with parts broken or missing.) The Space Probe Launcher fired smaller missile-like probes, while the Gamma Ray Gard launched golden Mylar bolts by way of an ingenious firing mechanism. Since the Gamma Ray Gard relied on the springy properties of the projectiles to launch themselves, the cannon itself has few moving parts and rarely turns up in nonworking condition these days. The slender, conical torpedoes it fires, however, are easily broken and often missing.
In addition to cramming the toy aisle full of neat-o stuff, Mattel licensed the Major Matt Mason property to other companies. Mattel themselves manufactured a Mason-themed board game, vinyl wallet, three-ring binder, and lunchbox. (The lunchbox is extremely rare; to date, only two examples are known to exist.) Collegeville produced a Halloween costume of the Major in 1969. An as-yet unknown company printed Mason wallpaper that same year (another super-rare collectible), while Whitman came through with a pair of puzzles, a coloring book and a press-out sticker book. Capitalizing on its success with the Big Little Books series, Whitman also issued Major Matt Mason: Moon Mission. These "crossover" items are actively sought after by many collectors, not just those obsessed with Major Matt.
By 1970 NASA's Apollo program had hit a snare that no rocket scientist could've foreseen: nobody cared about landing on the moon anymore. As far as the general public was concerned, the space race was over, the free world had won, and it was back to business as usual. Although it is not known if Mattel noted declining interest in the real-life space program, we do know that the plug wasn't pulled on Major Matt Mason due to drooping sales. The toys were Mattel's hottest selling boys’ line for each of the three years preceding its cancellation. Rather, it seems that Mattel brass were more concerned about stagnation than diminishing returns. While execs realized they had a hit on their hands, the decision was made to develop a new toy line to succeed the Major rather than wait for sales to fall. Although a number of new toys were released or in development, 1970 proved to be the last year for Major Matt Mason. (According to many accounts, however, the toys could be found in stores for quite a while afterwards.)
From 1970 to the late 1980's, all was quiet in the universe of Major Matt Mason. That is, until former Mattel employee Joe Ferrira discovered that the toy giant had never filed the paperwork to trademark the Major Matt Mason name. Ferrira quickly took out a trademark on the name himself and began an ambitious plan to resurrect the Major with a new toy line, comic book series, and a major motion picture underwritten by Sybil Danning's production company. The film made it as far as the storyboarding stage, but Mattel slapped Ferrira with a Cease and Desist order upon getting wind of his plans.
Much to Mattel's chagrin, the C&D order came too late to prevent Ferrira from publishing the first issue of his Men from Earth comic book. The comic detailed the adventures of Joe Mason, the son of Matt Mason, and his involvement in a new space race between the United States and Japan. Although the comic is quite attractive and rare today, it is rejected by many collectors because of its unofficial origins.
Ferrira's efforts inadvertedly produced the last official Major Matt Mason collectible: a trading card. Issued in 1997 as part of a series depicting classic Mattel toys of yesteryear, the card was only available at Mattel Toy Club stores and sold for twenty-five cents. This card seems to have been released mainly to reaffirm Mattel's rights to the toy and is pretty difficult to come by today. When these cards turn up, they've been known to sell for as much as $30.
Despite a series of court rulings in Mattel's favor, Ferrira continues to insist that the Major Matt Mason property is rightfully his.
Even a casual inspection of the toys turns up something interesting: as 1960's playthings go, they're pretty liberal.
Aside from the Firebolt Space Cannon, the ray guns included in some early accessory paks, and Captain Lazer's pistol, there are no weapons for the characters to use. (Although accessories such as the Rocket Launcher and Gamma Ray Gard could be used as weapons, their packaging clearly states they're meant for zapping dangerous asteroids and repelling harmful gamma rays, respectively.) At a time when many folks looked toward the militarization of space, the astronauts in Major Matt Mason's universe had an agenda of peaceful exploration.
The human characters work alongside the aliens, all of whom are bizarre-looking, yet friendly. Jeff Long, the blue-suited African-American spaceman, was released at a time when black G.I. Joes came in boxes with a bold NEGRO label. Long's packaging simply denotes him as a rocketry expert and Major Matt Mason's "space buddy". These toys are a product of their times in more ways than one.
Today, forty years after his release, nostalgia buffs, toy collectors, and many children of the era speak fondly of Major Matt Mason, his friends, and equipment. With collectors of everything from space toys to lunchboxes actively pursuing the line, there is little chance of these unique toys being forgotten anytime soon. The Major's enduring popularity can probably be attributed to the feelings many people get from the toys. After all, they hearken back to a different age, a time when the first lunar landing was still in the future, colonizing outer space seemed viable and inevitable, and children across the world could live out their dreams of spaceflight through a diminutive rubber astronaut.