Major Matt Mason
In the late 1960's, the American public was still optimistic about the space program; not only that, it continued to capture our imaginations as being the last frontier of adventure and discovery. Coupled with the mystery and glamour of nuclear energy (which had a reputation not yet tarnished by Three Mile Island and other debacles), our scientific progress promised a future of full fascination and intrigue.
The Major Matt Mason toy line was forged in this optimistic spirit. Mason was an astronaut in a vaguely near-future era who lived and worked on the Moon. His uniform and early lines of accessories were based on speculative designs which were considered entirely realistic for the time: in fact, his uniform was virtually an identical copy of a design shown on the cover of Life magazine from April 27, 1962. The toy line thus began as a more reality-based set of items; it was a little later when it would evolve (its critics would say devolve) into science fiction or fantasy.
Major Matt Mason debuted for the Christmas shopping season of 1967 on a card, with his Flight Set accessories, which included a Space Sled as well as a Jet Propulsion Pack that, while not actually a real jet, could allow the figure to zip along an outstretched string, thus simulating flight. A second carded set contained Matt and his Moon Suit, his bulky astronaut outfit, which came with an air pump to allow kids to pump oxygen into the suit and puff it up. A transportation vehicle, the Space Crawler, was also sold separately; it could be made to go over rough terrain such as Matt would find on the Lunar surface.
The toy's sales were impressive enough for Mattel to expand the line. Thus, the next year kids were introduced to Sgt. Storm, who wore a red spacesuit (to Matt's white). Two other colleagues followed in 1969: Doug Davis (yellow spacesuit) and Jeff Long (blue). Jeff was a black astronaut, no doubt assuring millions of African-American kids that they, too, could be a part of the magnificent hi-tech future. Nowadays, Jeff is the hardest to find of the original Matt Mason figures, and thus the most expensive.
The Major Matt Mason line is usually remembered so fondly for its fantastic array of accessories. These were usually sold separately on blister cards (like futuristic Barbie outfits), although many options were available to consumers, especially a number of figure- accessory combinations.
The most impressive (and certainly most expensive) accessory was the Space Station - which, despite its name, was more of a Moonbase since it represented a stationary building. Composed of different interlocking platforms, windows, girders, and flashing-light pretend electronics, the Station could be configured in any number of ways to the user's desire. Modern collectors can often buy incomplete Space Station sets and, by combining two or three, can often have a complete working set. Complete ones in the original box, of course, are terribly expensive when located. Original or cobbled together, however, it is a testament to Mattel's designs (and to the nuts-and-bolts technology of the time) that the electronics on these items will often still be operable today.
The Space Crawler wasn't the only futuristic vehicle added to the line. The Space Bubble, basically an opaque plastic sphere that could be carted around on the aptly-named Uni-Tred, was a unique design: as the vehicle moved forward, the seated figure within would rotate, allowing him to scan his entire horizon. The Astro-Trac was a more traditional (to modern eyes) dune buggy-like vehicle. A Space Missile Convoy was a Sears-only set that contained three complete vehicles as well as a diorama 'moonscape', 40"x24" and constructed of molded plastic, that allowed more realistic play.
Weapons and tools were covered by such items as the Launcher series - i.e., the Satellite Launcher, the Rocket Launcher, the Space Probe, and the Gamma Ray Guard. Each of these had a mechanism to fire a small missile or other device into the air. Other items included the Space Shelter, the Space Power Suit, the Reconojet, and the Supernaut Power-Limbs. Some of these were available in figure-set combinations such as the Super Power Set, which included a Matt figure, a Space Power Suit, and the Supernaut Power-Limbs. Some accessory packs such as the Moon Suit and Space Travel Pack were sold without figures.
The Talking Command Console offered a limited number of crude sounds to lend authenticity to adventures, as well as being a carrying case and computerized command area complete with chairs for the figures. The Rocket Ship Case and Satellite Locker provided other alternatives for ways of carting the figures around that doubled as playsets themselves. Science fiction emerged in the toy line in the form of alien characters, but not until 1969. Callisto was a Jovian being with mental powers whose accessory was a Space Sensor. Scorpio was much more interesting, a pink and purple insectoid who fired 'search globes' from a harness on his chest; owing to his late arrival (1970) and detachable, limbs, he's one of the harder-to-find aliens for collectors. Or from Orion was to have been the third in this weird trio of characters, but knowledgeable Matt Mason collectors insist this one never got past beyond the prototype stage.
A final character actually a fourth alien, was Captain Lazer: the trouble with the Captain is that he didn't quite fit in with the rest of the line - he was about the size of the earlier G I Joes or Best of the West figures, while the rest of the Matt Mason line fit in better with the 8" Mego superheroes. The Captain Lazer doll was also molded out of hard plastic, while the rest of the line were rubber with wire skeletons. It is thus speculated that the good Captain was never meant to be part of the larger Matt Mason universe, but was probably a prototype for a different toy line entirely; either way, he stands out in this group like a sore thumb.
In addition to the regular action figure line, the toy's popularity was exploited for such diverse items as: coloring and sticker books; a Collegeville Halloween costume; a boardgame; puzzles; (an unfortuntely rare) lunchbox; wallet; three-ring binder; etc.
The line began to fizzle out in 1970, as interest in the real space program was also waning. After all, we had been to the Moon and back, and it was no longer a big deal for most Americans. There hadn't been any friendly, or even hostile, aliens to greet us. We never would build any sort of permanent bases on the Moon, and NASA would soon be seen as an expensive prestige project rather than the pioneering organization it once had been. Soon, Watergate would push the post-Kennedy mistrust of government over the precipice, wiping all nearly all of the future-based optimism that had been enjoyed throughout the previous two decades.
But for a short while, kids were able to enjoy their own imaginative outer-space adventures with the help of a small rubber astronaut and his odd cast of friends - as well as all of that lovely plastic gadgetry.
You can watch a Major Matt Mason TV ad from 1968 .