At NASA, space toys are serious business In order to license NASA-endorsed playthings from California's Jet Propulsion Lab, Mattel and other toymakers first must learn a little rocket science.

Science & Technology

November 15, 1998|By Renee Tawa | Renee Tawa,LOS ANGELES TIMES

PASADENA, Calif. - Listen, the rocket scientists told the toy makers, to what's going up into the big sandbox we call space:

* A spacecraft packed with aerogel - a kind of frozen smoke - to capture stardust from the heart of a comet dubbed Wild 2.

* An orbiter and probe bound for Saturn to peer at the planet's Hula Hoopish rings.

* A dragonfly-shaped spacecraft, Deep Space 1, headed for a rendezvous with an asteroid.

Now, wouldn't those make great toys?

Forget the alien-zapping Tasers, the "Beam me up, Scotty" activators and the time-traveling hatches. U.S. space experts at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena are pushing toys that look and move like NASA spacecraft.

And they promise that the scientists and engineers who work on the actual missions will provide blueprints, computer models and advice - just the way they did for Mattel Inc.'s toy version of the Mars Pathfinder rover and lander in 1997.

In a recent daylong workshop, "Playing Among the Planets '98!," the lab's experts pitched their latest space missions to toy makers, inventors and filmmakers. Through the laboratory's partnership and licensing programs, businesses will get NASA expertise along with exclusive rights to the names and ideas of its space missions. Even the chief mission engineer for Deep Space 1 took the time to woo the industry crowd with news of the self-guided, ion-propelled spacecraft that blasted off late last month.

The workshop drew 40 executives from the toy and entertainment industries, including a filmmaker from London and tombstone-commemoratives maker from Kentucky. For Seattle toy executive Mario Di Pasquale, the wheels started turning as soon he walked in the door.

"I've already seen about two or three things I want to do," Di Pasquale said.

The draw?

"It's real," he said. "Fantasy's great, but it's more important to show reality."

The lab's link with the toy industry began last year, with Mattel's Hot Wheels JPL Sojourner Mars Rover Action Pack. The $5 toy was so popular that even the lab's Mars Program manager had to buy a set from a scalper. (Mattel will not release sales figures, and JPL will not disclose its share of the profits.)

The success of the Pathfinder toy prompted lab officials to throw open its doors to other toy makers, said Joan C. Horvath, the lab's businesses alliances manager.

"Some people think JPL shouldn't be associated with toys - that it undoes our serious rocket image, you know," Horvath said. Her voice dropped to a mock ponderous tone. "Some people still think it's trivializing science."

But with cutbacks in the space program, the partnership agreements are good business and public relations, lab officials said, and a way for them to share space technology with U.S. industry. Already more than 140 companies pay the lab consulting fees, usually ranging from $40,000 to $50,000 each. Through the program, which brings in about $4 million annually, lab scientists and engineers work on outside projects such as the "Babylon 5" TV show and the trans-Alaska pipeline.

The consulting work takes up a fraction of lab staff time - less than 1 percent, officials said. On the Mars Pathfinder toy, for instance, Mattel designers consulted with NASA engineers once every four to six weeks.

So far, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is the only one of NASA's 10 centers that grants toy licenses. Besides its agreement with Mattel, the lab has announced only one other toy licensing agreement, with Uncle Milton Industries Inc., though others are in the works.

Uncle Milton, maker of the Ant Farm, is producing a line of Mars toys that will include a robotic arm based on the one used by the Mars Pathfinder rover.

But surely it doesn't take a rocket scientist to come up with a rover? Perhaps, but the only way Mattel was able to duplicate the rover's suspension system was by going to the lab, which holds a patent on the design.

"Because there is so much information available, I think kids and parents and teachers are demanding a heightened level of reality," said Chris Byrne, editor of Playthings Market Watch, a New York-based toy industry newsletter.

The lab won't sign agreements with companies that want to make fantasy toys.

"We get some companies that say, 'We want to make something with flashing Martians on top,' " Horvath said. "We say, 'Thank you very much. Have fun with that.' "

Still, the Mars Pathfinder mission's lead engineer, Howard Eisen, understands such thinking.

"Those guys are very much like us," Eisen said. "They get to dream up the next new superhero. We get to dream up the next new crazy mission to Mars."

Pub Date: 11/15/98

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