Meet Matt Mason, the Mattel toy that brought space to life for boomer kids—and then disappeared

Mattel found savvy expats from the effort to get astronauts on the Moon to create the interplanetary future everyone dreamed of . . . for kids to play with in their sandboxes.

David Lidsky

This is the 39th in an exclusive series of 50 articles, one published each day until July 20, exploring the 50th anniversary of the first-ever Moon landing. You can check out 50 Days to the Moon here every day. 

Amid a dusty landscape anchored by a futuristic space outpost, two children, one white and one black, play among a fleet of lunar vehicles. The year is 1968—one of the most divisive and racially charged in recent U.S. history—yet here, on the Moon, harmony reigns.

A voiceover intones, “We’ll all live here soon,” this “exciting place/the world of space/as all the astronauts know/this world is swell/it’s made by Mattel/with it, how far can you go?”

The scene is an ad for Major Matt Mason, “Mattel’s Man in Space,” an extremely popular but short-lived action figure whose rise and then rapid disappearance neatly mimics popular culture’s obsession and then rapid boredom with the mania around the Moon race itself.

Mason and his elaborate accessories—from that three-foot-tall space habitat to the astronaut’s jet pack, Space Sled, Space Crawler, Space Bubble, and Uni-Tred Space Hauler—were introduced in 1966, went on sale the following year, and were off the market before the Apollo 17 mission in December 1972. “Why did the Major mean so much to me? Because I was an Apollo baby,” wrote Washington Post reporter Frank Ahrens in 1996. “The Major represented the idealism of childhood and American can-do-ism. If we had put a man on the moon in 1969, just eight years after President Kennedy commanded it, surely Major Matt’s moon station would be a likelihood within a few years.”

[Photo: courtesy Mattel]

The story of how Mattel created the hit product line reflects a surprising symbiosis between the effort to get to the Moon and the challenge of captivating the space-obsessed youth of the 1960s.

First, there was a surprising talent pipeline from the aerospace industry into toys. Mattel, which was the leading toymaker of the post–World War II era, led the way. In 1956, a year before Sputnik and the start of the space race, its founders hired a young engineer named Jack Ryan from Raytheon to serve as its VP of research and development and oversee design. At Raytheon, Ryan had worked on both the Sparrow and Hawk missile systems.

“Jack transformed the toy industry by bringing scientific standards and new materials and processes to manufacture products that hadn’t been done before,” Roger Croyo, a longtime Ryan confidante, told Jerry Oppenheimer, author of Toy Monster, an unauthorized history of Mattel. “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,” said Jay Smith, who joined Mattel as a product development engineer after a stint at the defense contractor TRW, where, among other things, he did vibration analysis for the lunar module descent engine for Moon landings. “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.”

Mattel, headquartered in Hawthorne, California, the Los Angeles suburb that today is home to SpaceX, was also in close proximity to the defense contractors that surrounded Los Angeles, as well as NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Ryan had his pick of talent from almost anywhere, given Mattel’s status as a hot company and its inviting Southern California climate. “Mattel was practically a NASA field lab,” wrote Matt Mason enthusiast John Michlig on his blog.

[Photos: Mattel, ILC Dover LP/NASA]

As for the toys themselves, Ryan and his crew clearly sought inspiration from early designs that had been publicly shared. In 1961, work began on the Apollo Space Suit Assembly (later known as the Extravehicular Mobility Unit) so astronauts could safely venture out into space. Hamilton Standard won the contract, and early mockups from 1962 depict an accordion-like design at major joints. The final Apollo spacesuit, which was made by Playtex, not Hamilton Standard, looked much different, but Mattel’s design for Mason retained the contrasting colors of those early joints, which both looked cool and reinforced the idea that Mason, at six inches, could provide more fun than Hasbro’s GI Joes twice his size.

Astronaut Matt Mason was a memorable hit. Oscar-winner Tom Hanks, who produced an HBO series on Apollo, From the Earth to the Moon, as well as starring in Apollo 13, was 13 at the time of the first Moon landing. For Hanks, Mason “was a great astronaut: a full-on, lifelike astronaut, made with rubber and wire, kind of like Gumby. He was bendable and posable.” Hanks talked about Matt Mason back in 1995. “I went through a few of them because after a while the wires get all twisted.” Mattel did have some problems with Mason’s reliability (as well as with paint wearing off Mason’s suit), but not bad for a toy that sold for $2.97. (That’s about $23 in today’s dollars.)

These references to the actual Apollo effort were a key part of Mattel’s initial selling point to children. “One of the claims was that these were based on NASA designs,” says Bill Ystrom, an avid collector of Matt Mason toys who was a child of the race to the Moon. In 1961, Allyn B. Hazard, a senior development engineer in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, published a seven-page proposal for a Moon Suit for exploration of the lunar surface. Somehow his design found its way to the cover of the April 27, 1962, cover of Life magazine for a feature previewing “Man’s Journey to the Moon.” By 1967, Matt Mason had what Mattel called a “pneumatic space capsule” that looked remarkably similar to that Hazard design.

One notable way in which Mattel strayed from NASA was in adding a black astronaut, Jeff Long, to Mason’s crew in 1968, at a time when NASA’s astronaut corp was exclusively white. Mattel’s advertising of the Matt Mason array of toys included white and African American children playing together. (Barbie, Mattel’s flagship product, got her first black friend, Christie, that same year.)

But even before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had walked on the Moon, Mattel had abandoned its initial efforts at verisimilitude and made Mason’s world more about science fiction—it introduced several alien characters—than lunar exploration.

For kids like Ystrom, though, the joys of playing with Mason came from some of the simple but ingenious designs that Ryan and his band of defense-industry expats came up with to represent their vision for playing astronaut. “You could take the string from Mason’s jet pack, attach it to a door, and he’d go shooting to the top of it,” Ystrom recalls. “On the back of Mason’s pack there was a psychedelic spiral in orange and black. When Mason flew, it was hypnotic. It’s what we thought we were heading toward.”

One Giant Leap by Charles Fishman

Charles Fishman has the day off. Fishman, who has written for Fast Company since its inception, has spent the past four years researching and writing One Giant Leap, his New York Times best-selling book about how it took 400,000 people, 20,000 companies, and one federal government to get 27 people to the Moon. (You can order it here.)

For each of the next 50 days, we’ll be posting a new story from Fishman—one you’ve likely never heard before—about the first effort to get to the Moon that illuminates both the historical effort and the current ones. New posts will appear here daily as well as be distributed via Fast Company’s social media. (Follow along at #50DaysToTheMoon).