It’s impossible to overstate the impact of the space program on kid’s imaginations in the ’60s and early ’70s. Kennedy’s proclamation of a race to the moon before the end of the ’60s set off a national mania for anything space related: TV shows, movies, books and of course, toys. Major Matt Mason was one of the first attempts by a major toy company (Mattel in this case) to cash in on the space craze. Released in 1967 and based on real life NASA design documents, Mason was an attempt to bring a sense of realism to the space toy market, along with some seriously cool space accessories and a few aliens. Yes, I had a Matt Mason or two but,as a GI Joe fan, Mason didn’t cut it for me. The figures were small for the time, about 6 inches high. GI Joe was nearly twice as big, and fully articulated. Matt Mason was constructed of rubber on a thin wire skeleton, which lended a nice bendability but also led inevitable to floppy limbs and amputations as the wires fatigued and broke.
GI Joe, now there was a toy for American boys. Released by Hasbro in 1964, Joe was the first action figure (don’t call it a doll!) and featured full articulated joints, “real” beard and hair, dog tags, military uniforms, rifles, side arms, and on and on. Everything a young boy needed to prepare for being drafted and sent off to Nam in a few years. Joe’s gigantic stature and vast array of weapons meant he lorded it over other action figure lines. The aforementioned Mason was dust under Joe’s Jeep and Mego’s line of Star Trek and Planet of the Apes figures cowered in fear of Joe and his Kung Fu grip.
My family never had much money as a kid. I never really noticed it at the time but a major consequence of being poor was that I lived life a few years later than other kids. My toys came from yard sales and Goodwill, my comics came from the used book store and my books came from the school library. I spent my school days reading books about the space program, fascinated by the gorgeous cutaway drawings of Mercury and Gemini (rhymes with Jiminy) capsules. My reading material was so outdated that as Apollo ws winding down I thought we still had Gemini capsules in orbit.
My play time was absorbed by my Joe obsession. I usually spent my tiny allowance on a new GI Joe uniform or a second hand Joe when I was lucky enough to find one. These two worlds existed separately, the space program and GI Joe fighting for freedom. For some reason it never occurred to me that Joe might go into space, he was a grunt, not an explorer. That all changed one summer day when my dad came home with a paradigm-changing toy: the GI Joe Official Space Capsule! Modeled on the Mercury capsule, the toy was released in 1966 and must have been discontinued by the time I got into Joe in the early ’70s because I had no idea something so awesome could exist. Of course, mine was from Goodwill so it was dinged up, the dashboard was worn off and it didn’t have the space suit or the little record but I didn’t care. I suited Joe up in a tin foil flight suit and topped it with his deep sea diver’s helmet and packed his M-16 in the capsule (in case of alien trouble) and blasted off.
The great thing about GI Joe toys was their sheer size. A 12 inch figure is huge for a 7 or 8 year old boy, and it meant that all of Joe’s vehicles were enormous. Of course it also meant they were expensive but hey, that’s what Goodwill was for. The Mercury capsule seemed to be the biggest of them all. I mean, look at the size of this thing:
The capsule was christened the Joe 1, I even painted a little logo on the side with some Testor’s. It was a summer of exploration as the Joe 1 visited the Planet of the Apes and Joe battled the half-black, half-white dude from Mego’s Star Trek line. I think every kid had one of those damn things, I imagine they were bargain priced because let’s face it, it’s a lame concept for an action figure.
I wish I could wrap this up by telling you the GI Joe capsule sits in an honored place on my mantel, or that it was passed down to my younger brother when I outgrew it but I have to be honest here. A couple of years later I got my first BB gun and also my first chemistry set. When I wasn’t conducting ballistics tests on my GI Joe collection, I was experimenting with the various chemicals and solvents. None held as much fascination as the alcohol that fueled the little Bunsen burner that came with the set. I discovered it was an excellent accelerant when applied to model airplanes (I can still remember the unique smell of burning model). The new interests meant my GI Joe fascination was on the wane so the mission planners at the GI Joe Spaceflight Center decided to send the Joe 1 on a suicide mission against a new foe: my neighbor’s vast army of Micronauts. This was something we had never seen before: the aptly named characters were tiny, less than 4 inches, but their size meant they were cheap so kids could amass armies of heretofore unheard of size.
Dozens of Micronauts overwhelmed Joe but he was able to cut a swath through the swarming Micronauts with his entrenching tool and make it back to the Joe 1. The capsule was damaged in the escape however, and Joe perished in a fiery re-entry mishap.
My GI Joe obsession died that day. I still had them laying around but they gradually disappeared over the years, replaced by Star Wars toys and Mattel’s handheld football game. Hasbro re-released the capsule in the ’90s, along with tons of other full sized GI Joe figures, cashing in on adult nostalgia for the toys. I’ve never really been into collecting stuff so I gave it all a pass. But there’s one guy out there who not only revisited the past, he fulfilled the childhood dream of every boy who owned the GI Joe Space Capsule and actually launched and recovered one. You can read the whole story at MercuryJoe.com but suffice it to say his Joe Manned Spaceflight program was far more successful than mine.
Congratulations sir, on accomplishing the dream shared by so many.