When we were in California a few weeks ago, we had the opportunity to see the Space Shuttle Endeavor at the California Academy of Sciences. In its temporary housing, you can walk around and under the giant orbiter. I was amazed, but the kids were a little overwhelmed.
What really excited them were the three older space capsules the museum had from the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. My son Rafael (just turning three) loved counting the different number of seats in each capsule (1…2…3!), and he insisted we keep returning to a side display that showed the space suits of a Mercury and an Apollo astronaut. We had to talk about his gloves, his helment, and all the hoses and zippers.
My son was so excited, and I wanted to be able to bring part of that experience home with us. Before we left, I stepped into the gift shop (without the kids, of course), and I was reminded of the sad state of astronaut and space toys. There were tons of space shuttles of various sizes, but none larger than about 10 inches. Then they had many types of cheaply made astronaut sets.
I’ve seen these sets before when I have tried to find space toys for my kids. The astronauts are all about 1.5 inches tall and have no moving parts. There might be the occasional rocket ship or lunar lander, but they are out of proportion with the astronauts. They are abstract pieces from various aspects of the space program, designed to be historically accurate and manufactured as cheaply as possible.
I knew just what I wanted, and they just didn’t sell it. I wanted a nice large astronaut the size of an action figure (3 and 3/4 inches) where you could really see the details on his suit. And then I wanted a space capsule that he could fly in. It would have a hatch, and you could put the astronaut in and take him back out. I’m less concerned about the historical accuracy than I am the interactivity.
In my mind, for an astronaut toy to be successful, it needs to really engage the child. My son needs to be able to pretend that he is the astronaut and that he is the one going on the space mission. The astronaut has to be able to get in to his space ship, blast off, fly through space, and then get out and explore some exciting destination.
Convinced that the stores must not have the right suppliers, I went onto Amazon to see if I could find something, but as far as I can tell, it just doesn’t exist. No one is making a capsule with an astronaut who can fit inside it.
Given that the Space Shuttle program has ended and new Orion program will be using a capsule, toy makers are missing a big opportunity. If NASA really wants to gain serious funding, perhaps they should consider borrowing a page from George Lucas and the marketers of Hollywood and partner with some toy makers. Some kids who are really excited about their space toys may be just the thing that convinces people to spend on space exploration and firing up their kids’ dreams.
Back home in Cambridge, I stumbled onto a toy that wasn’t quite what I was looking for but met my requirements. When my son was having a hard time letting me leave at his day care, I was talking him about pretending to take a trip to the moon. One of the teachers went into a closet and pulled out a rocket ship toy to distract him. It was in rough shape from many years of kids playing with it, but I realized it was what I wanted. I went online and ordered one for my son for his birthday (as a gift from his grandparents).
The ELC Lift Off Rocket has a cockpit that holds two astronauts, living quarters, and a rover compartment. Abandoning historical realism for a design similar to the rocket ship from Tintin, this is a toy that a kid can really play with. It even has a big giant handle that allows a small hand to lift it up and fly it around the room. The astronauts aren’t as realistic as I would like, but you can take them in and out. They can actually fly their spaceship.
The rocket ship was a huge hit with both my son and his older sister. They flew it all over the house, pretending various places were the moon and needed to be explored. I’m convinced if the science museums around the country stocked this in their gift shops, they would fly off the shelves.
Before I would let them play with it, I made sure to take out the batteries. I’m not sure exactly what they do, but it looks like the ship will make sounds and light up the bottoms of the engines.
“Why are you taking out the batteries?” my daughter asked me.
“Because it’s powered by your imagination.”