Monday, July 20, 2009

How The Apollo Missions Redefined Space Toys

In July 20th, 1969, NASA's Apollo 11 mission first landed astronauts on the moon. To commemorate the 40th anniversary of this historic occasion, I asked collector and artist Karl Tate to show off some of the wonderful space toys that were directly inspired by NASA's efforts.

Article and Photos by Karl Tate

What had been pure fantasy for decades suddenly became reality in the mid-1960s with the dawn of "realistic" space ships. The whimsical lines of Buck Rogers' and Tom Corbett's interplanetary cruisers gave way to straight-sided cylinders, blunt cones, and weird insectoid shapes that were pure functionality and devoid of decoration.

Toy makers worked with reality as best they could. Many of the Sixties-era space toys retained a whiff of the fantasy of space travel, while staying true to the crisp lines of the new breed of space vessels. All these toys are of course derived from the American space program. The political climate would not have allowed Western children to play with representations of Soviet cosmonauts and vehicles!


This large (12-inches long) tin and plastic toy has bump-and-go action, lights at its front and rear, and clear plastic parts such as a nose cone through which three (somewhat nervous looking) lithographed astronauts can be seen.

But the toy's most remarkable feature is an, ahem, erection maneuver. The toy will stop, rear up at an impressive 45-degree angle, and then extend the command module nose cone away from the body on its own internal rod! This simulates the final operation of the Apollo mission, when the cylindrical Service Module is jettisoned, and the cone-shaped Command Module alone enters the Earth's atmosphere for splashdown and recovery.

Overall the toy is a fine representation of the Apollo spacecraft, with mostly correct proportions and impressive detailing. Even the four clusters of maneuvering rockets on the Service Module are present, molded realistically into clear plastic parts. Despite this attention to engineering accuracy, bright colors in the litho and plastic bring the toy to life.

The name "Apollo-Z" is something of a mystery to me. Apollos were given numeric rather than alphabetic names. The first manned launch (in 1967) was Apollo 7, so perhaps the "Z" represents the addition of a typographic stroke by someone unfamiliar with Arabic numerals.


This is the largest toy Lunar Module that was produced (7 x 7 x 9.5 inches). Mostly tin with some plastic parts, it came out around 1969 (evident from the references to "Apollo 11" and "Eagle," which were named as the first moon landing mission only in early 1969).

The toy has mystery action, whirling to and fro with the chromed double-dish antenna rotating on top (missing on mine). Lights flash and the front hatch pops open, revealing a chromed spacesuited astronaut. A second astronaut peers from the litho'ed module window.

Plastic landing legs and rocket thrusters complete the buglike craft. While it would never be mistaken for a realistic model, the DSK toy captures the quirky essence of the lunar lander's unique design.

SPACECRAFT APOLLO (Alps, late 1960s)

This tin-and-plastic rendition of the Apollo Command and Service Module is a bit smaller (9 inches) than the Apollo-Z. My example features an orange stripe around its midsection; another version of the toy features a band of red and white checkerboard toward the rear. Both decorations are typical of early NASA concept art for the vehicle.

The toy has a clear blue-plastic nose cone, through which three litho'ed astronauts can be seen in their launch couches. Spacecraft Apollo features bump and go action and flashing light behind the red plastic rocket engine at the rear. An elaborate antenna complex (similar to the AE-35 unit on spaceship Discovery in 2001: A Space Odyssey!) rotates on top.


Made for the Grumman Corporation, manufacturers of the Apollo lunar lander, these contractor models can be seen in NASA films, astronaut portraits, and even theatrical movies of the time. Several issues of these models were produced, to conform to the changing details of the evolving spacecraft.

Every facet of the complex structure is reproduced. The descent stage, with the four landing legs, separates so that the upper stage containing the astronauts can return to the orbiting command module for return to Earth. Composed mostly of plastic, the model features metal legs and struts.

Mine can be dated to the final configuration of the spacecraft but prior to the first moon landing in 1969. Later models included a congratulatory message referring to Apollo 11 on the base.

The model is a bit larger than commercially made plastic kits from Revell and Monogram that were available at the time. About About 7 inches high to top of highest antenna mast. Base is about 10 inches in diameter.


This little (7.5 inches) WES toy is a perfect little model of the Gemini, complete with opening hatches and two removable astronauts. Friction driven wheels are the only thing making it a toy and not a replica.

The Gemini was a hot-rod of a space craft, a two seater that was the favorite of the astronauts who flew her. The program was a time-filler until the Apollo moon landing system came on line later in the decade. But Gemini was a proving ground for many crucial techniques, such as space walking, Earth-orbit rendezvous and the long-term space survival that would be needed for a two week lunar voyage.


  1. Wow! Just gorgeous design all around! Nice photography too. :)

  2. I had the Gemini Space Capsule when I was a kid. Thanks for letting me see it again.

  3. Hi, I also have a GRUMMAN LUNAR MODULE CONTRACTOR MODEL , but with-out the base. Any idea of its value? Thanks.

  4. Hi, J. Unfortunately, I really don't know what these are worth. I've never seen one sell, and the one in the photo isn't mine.



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