Monday, January 30, 2006

Hot Wheels on Mars, Space Toys and Retro Sci-Fi

I discovered this Hot Wheels Action Set several years ago while Christmas toy shopping. To see the Mars Sojourner Rover hanging on a peg next to die-cast funny cars and NASCAR toys was amusing. When I saw that bright red Hot Wheels swoosh next to the JPL logo, I just had to buy it.

The Mars Pathfinder mission landed in 1997, delivering a rover the size of a toy remote-controlled car to the Martian surface. A docking station protected the rover during the bouncy airbag landing. When the airbags deflated and solar panels unfolded, the rover was free to roam the surface.

The rover's landing station was renamed the Carl Sagan Memorial Station, in honor of the late Dr. Carl Sagan, astronomer, astrobiologist, and host of the TV series Cosmos. Carl Sagan had died in December of 1996, but his name had been memorized on Mars, or Barsoom as it was called in the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels that Sagan read as a child.

The real rover's top speed was two feet a minute, not exactly a set of hot wheels, or an action vehicle. There is nothing hot about Mars, it is a frozen planet.

Printed on top flap of the package is the landing date of July 4th 1997, along with the words Mission Accomplished. Unfortunately, those same words have been politicized today and are often used with bitterness or sarcasm.

Toys based on real space vehicles seem slightly more noble than their sci-fi and fantasy counterparts. They are not just playthings, but serve to educate and inspire. They connect on a level different from books or videos, bringing real space travel into the realm usually occupied by fantastic worlds and characters.

A pint-sized rover attains a new level of cool when it is being sold as a Hot Wheels toy. Like R2-D2, the rover is a plucky droid on a mission, a hero of its own real-life space opera.

Other space vehicles take on a new charm as toys. The space shuttle might not travel at warp speed or do battle with galactic foes, but to a child it is still a spaceship...and spaceships are cool.

Are they still cool? When was the last time you met a kid who wanted to be an astronaut? With the pressures of growing up intensifying with each generation, do the young have a place for dreams outside of getting into the right college?

Neil Armstrong walked on the moon before I was born. Teenagers today were not even around for the first shuttle launch. When the first black and white TVs flickered in the living rooms of America, some children dreamed of being cowboys: idealized heroes in a time that was old as a dusty ghost town. Few of them became modern cowboys. They set aside their cap guns and cowboy hats, putting away childish things to become corporate workers and businesspeople. Is space exploration now as retro as a silver-glitter space suit from the Captain Video era?

I think kids are still drawn to the idea of space travel in the same way they are almost instinctually drawn to dinosaurs. Space is a realm of adventure and mystery, a galactic playground for the young imagination.

From metal toys that are still sold as retro curiosities, to model rockets that fathers and sons build from balsa wood and cardboard, space toys have been around almost since Robert Goddard and his first liquid fueled rockets.

Perhaps there is an eight year old kid right now watching the IMAX movie Roving Mars, seeing the images from Opportunity and Spirit on the big screen. Maybe that kid will leave the theater with the desire to become an astronomer or astronaut...and thinking how nifty it would be to have a toy rover.

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