Friday, September 29, 2006


Anyone who was not alive during the Apollo space missions cannot appreciate the excitement of those heady days. In recent years, the quest to land on the moon is often viewed cynically as a show of Cold War one-upsmanship or a chance for Lyndon Johnson to give some fat government contracts to his buddies in Houston. But for a young boy who knew nothing of politics, the space program was purely about adventure. Unlike those of previous generations, I couldn’t really believe that a man like Tarzan could exist, or that a lost world of roaming dinosaurs could have escaped man’s awareness on some uncharted island. But when it came to the moon and the planets beyond, that was anybody’s guess. We were venturing into the unknown, and in the process, creating new technologies that would benefit all mankind, like anti-gravity pens and Velcro and Tang. Okay, I’m being sarcastic here, but this stuff was really exciting to a kid.

Major Matt Mason was born in this environment of gee-whiz enthusiasm for the trek into space. The figure’s costume was based more or less on the Mercury and Gemini space suits. He stood about six inches tall, and was made of rubber with an inner wire frame for posing him in various positions. Today, he would be known as a “bendy.” The part about his anatomy that I found most disturbing was that his jointed areas (shoulders, elbows, and knees) were basically a series of rubber discs pressed together. It was as if he had no human joints. I kept thinking of that creepy rock group, The Way Outs, on The Flintstones.

Some of the initial accessories were also based on early designs of what the astronauts would need during their exploration of the moon. For example, there was this moon suit, which was featured in an old Popular Science magazine. I know because I had a copy of the issue, found in a box load of Popular Science and Popular Mechanics magazines that my Uncle Clark gave me in the early 70s. By that time, we had visited the moon several times, and I don’t think Neal Armstrong would’ve been caught dead in this goofy monstrosity.

Some of the other accessories, particularly the later entries, were more fanciful in nature, putting Major Matt Mason somewhere between NASA and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. This was a set that I clearly remember having. It consisted of a flying jet pack for zipping around in space or across the lunar landscape. The back of the pack featured one of those hypnotic spinning swirls which was spun as you extended the jet pack’s tether. I got my tether tangled pretty quickly, rendering the hypnosis feature useless. If Matt preferred to fly with something under his feet, he could use the space sled, sort of like a jet ski for outer space. I wanted a real one of those as a kid!

The piece I most wanted was the one I knew I could never have: The Space Station. This three story high-tech headquarters represented the epitome of what futuristic space living was all about in the late 60s. Even as a pre-schooler, I had a sense of how far my parent’s generosity would extend, and I didn’t dare ask for a toy as big and elaborate as this. My friend Johnny, who got anything his heart desired, had one of these. I was so in awe, I wouldn’t even touch it. I only admired it from a safe distance.

Mattel continued to push the fantasy envelope with each new Major Matt Mason offering. Soon, the intrepid astronaut had alien friends like Callisto. This nonresident alien from Jupiter had a translucent green, heart-shaped head and cool green and black outfit. He was supposed to be Mason’s friend, but since he was green and featured a pissed off expression, I always made him the villain in my adventures. He also had a giant buddy from Mars called Captain Laser. At 12 inches in height, this guy towered over the Major, and was made of hard plastic. Thanks to some batteries (sold separately) and a few buttons in his jet pack, Captain Laser could make his eyes glow, his laser gun flash, and the color wheel on his chest pulsate. I loved this dude!

As I mentioned in previous posts, I was pretty good at losing my action figures. I believe I went through four Major Matt Masons. Pretty soon, I gave up on the Major and his pals. By the time I was in grade school, we had traveled to the moon and back several times. The novelty was over and Americans focused on the more dreary realities of Watergate, inflation, and the energy crisis. As the Apollo missions ground to a halt, so too did the Major Matt Mason toy line. We could no longer afford to expend time and energy on frivolous adventures like space travel. When the astronaut disappeared from the toy shelves, I felt no loss. I simply moved on to the next big thing. In retrospect, I think Major Matt Mason was a shameful loss, since he was one of the few figures who elicited a powerful sense of adventure without resorting to weapons or fisticuffs. Like the real NASA astronauts, he was a hero simply because he was willing to jump headlong into the unknown and show us what secrets the universe held.

(Note: the links in this post are to a Web site called Keith Meyer’s The Space Station: Major Matt Mason HQ. It’s a wonderful site to learn about all things related to Major Matt Mason.)

1 comment:

Gene said...

Hey Neal,
Do you remeber in the early to mid seventies during the waning days of NASA's moon program, a company (I can not recall) released a space capsule type playhouse, for want of a better term. It was made of cardboard, white outside with blue images printed all over to give it a sort of lunar lander feel. It was shaped ruffly like a Gemini space capsule. It had handles inside that you could lift it and "pretend" to be flying your own mission. If memory serves it was four or five feet tall and had the lander type legs and you climb up "into" it to play. Let me know if you remeber this.