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Mission to Toyland

Scientists have teamed up with manufacturers to produce toy replicas of the probes, rovers and other craft NASA sends into space. The miniatures are exact, down to a malfunctioning antenna.


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 they 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 on Friday were pushing toys that look and move like NASA spacecraft.

And to those who signed on the dotted line, they promised that JPL scientists and engineers who worked on the actual missions will provide blueprints, computer models and advice--the way they did for Mattel Inc.'s toy version of the Mars Pathfinder rover and lander in 1997.

In a daylong workshop, "Playing Among the Planets '98!," JPL experts pitched their latest space missions to toy makers, inventors and filmmakers. Through JPL's partnership and licensing programs, businesses will get JPL 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 spacecraft, which launches in 20 days ("propelled by xenon ions," a handout for the spacecraft explains).

The workshop drew 40 executives from the toy and entertainment industries, including a filmmaker from London and a 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."

JPL'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 JPL's Mars Program manager had to buy a set off 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 JPL officials to throw open its doors to other toy makers, said Joan C. Horvath, JPL'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, JPL officials said, and a way for them to share space technology with U.S. industry. More than 140 companies pay JPL consulting fees, usually ranging from $40,000 to $50,000 each. Through the program, which brings in about $4 million annually, JPL's 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 JPL staff time--less than 1%, officials said. On the Mars Pathfinder toy, for instance, Mattel designers consulted with JPL engineers once every four to six weeks.

So far, JPL is the only one of NASA's 10 centers that grants toy licenses. Besides its agreement with Mattel, JPL has announced only one other toy licensing agreement, with Uncle Milton Industries Inc., although 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?

The only way Mattel was able to duplicate the rover's suspension system was by going to JPL, 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.

JPL won't sign agreements with companies who 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.' "

Now on the drawing board is a Mattel toy replica of the Galileo spacecraft, which is orbiting Jupiter. Mattel's designers recently visited Galileo's desert tracking station to learn about the spacecraft's orbit. JPL insists on realism to the point that the toy will incorporate Galileo's famously stuck antenna.

The Mars Pathfinder toy is so realistic that the mission's lead engineer, Howard Eisen, pulls it out of his pocket when he wants to point out a feature on the lander, for instance, to a scientist.

Eisen, 30, was assigned to help Mattel's designers, who visited JPL's spacecraft assembly clean room to watch the mission team work on the real thing.

"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."

The toy, he said, is more real than he could have imagined. Count the solar panels atop the toy rover--the real robot's solar panels have the same number and configuration. Turn the toy upside-down--details of wiring and diodes are molded on in the right spots. Check out the cleats on the toy wheels--the number and texture mimic the Mars rover's.

"When I give one of these to my grandkids," Eisen said, "I get to show them this is what the rover really looked like . . . and back then, we had these gallium-arsenide solar cells, and that's how they were arranged."

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