Space toys encompass everything from robots to rockets to ray guns. Primarily associated with the tin and plastic toys of the mid-20th century, space toys reimagined and replicated the hardware used by matinee movie idol Buster Crabbe, who played Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers in the 1930s, as well as William Shatner, who portrayed Captain Kirk on “Star Trek” in the 1960s, and Harrison Ford, who inhabited Han Solo in the “Star Wars” films of the 1970s and ’80s.

Beyond space toys tied to high-profile entertainment franchises, many collectors are quite happy to get their hands on objects that live only within the universe of toys. These include tin and plastic flying saucers and battery-operated robots, many produced in postwar Japan, with generic names like Atomic Rocket, Rocket Racer, Robotank, Capsule 5, and Mr. Atomic, which was “A Cragstan Toy” from the 1950s made by Yonezawa.

The craze for Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon toys in the 1930s was actually spurred by the comic strips and radio shows for these outer-space adventurers, which preceded the movie serials. According to toy ray-gun collector Justin Pinchot, the first space gun was offered as a premium in 1933 by Cocomalt, a brand of powdered chocolate milk, which sponsored the Buck Rogers radio show. This early gun was made of cardboard, but in 1934, Daisy Manufacturing created the first metal space pistol for Buck Rogers, the XZ-31. By 1937, Marx had released the Flash Gordon Radio Repeater, a lithographed-tin gun that made a clicking sound when the trigger was pulled.

After World War II, space toys proliferated as the public became increasingly interested in the promise of technology, whose terrible power had been displayed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and space exploration. Companies such as Buddy L, Ideal, Hubley, J. E. Stevens, and Kenner made space toys out of everything from lithographed tin and paper to diecast metal, molded plastic, and even wood. In addition to Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon items, toys bore the name of “Tom Corbett, Space Cadet,” which was a popular TV show in the 1950s. Space toys based on TV shows such as “Lost in Space” and “Star Trek” followed in the 1960s, while the stand-alone line of Major Matt Mason toys and action figures from Mattel appeared in 1966.

The biggest American space-toys franchise remains “Star Wars,” which was released in movie theaters in the spring of 1977. Toy maker Kenner had won the rights to produce “Star Wars” toys, but its initial line of four action figures (Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, and R2-D2) was not ready in time for the Christmas shopping season. To make the best of this potential marketing catastrophe, Kenner sold what was essentially an empty box, which it labeled as an "Early Bird Certificate Package." The missing 3 ¾-inch figures were mailed to customers a couple of months later.

“Star Wars” would go on to inspire all manner of toys, from Kenner playsets of the famous Cantina on Mos Eisley and the Ewok Village on Endor, to LEGO podracers, which were released in 1999 in conjunction with “The Phantom Menace.” Between 1977 and 1985, Kenner produced more than 100 “Star Wars” action figures, the rarest of which is Yak Face, which was not sold in the United States. In 2002, LEGO made its first minifigure with shorter legs to approximate the modest stature of Jedi master Yoda, while in 2008 LEGO produced its largest set, a 5,000-plus piece version of the “Millennium Falcon,” Han Solo’s legendary spaceship.

LEGO and other companies such as Monogram and View-Master also produced space toys that were based on fact rather than fiction. Naturally, these focus on the real space explorations of NASA, whose astronauts and vehicles are favorites of model-makers and LEGO fanatics alike. Examples range from Apollo modules from the 1970s to Space Shuttles of the 21st century...

Of course, space toys are not just an American phenomenon. In Great Britain, space toys based on the exploits of Dan Dare and Dr. Who were manufactured by Palitoy, Chad Valley, and others in the 1950s and ’60s. Some of these basic designs were good enough to be recycled as Italian space toys. But the leaders of postwar space toys were the Japanese, who made tin toys an art form with their flying saucers, rocket ships, and extraterrestrial robots.

Some of the most collected Japanese manufacturers include Masudaya, Nomura, Hashimo, Horikawa, Union, Asahi Toy, Bandai, and Tomy. Many of the brightly colored, lithographed tin space toys these companies made were wind-ups, while others were powered by batteries or friction. And some like the Yonezawa Atom-Car and Atom Jet blurred the line between model cars and space toys.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

One of the most comprehensive vintage toy raygun reference sites, with lots of detailed descriptions and great phot… [read review or visit site]

Attic of Astounding Artifacts

Attic of Astounding Artifacts

Danger... warning! This small but lethal site by 'Doc Atomic' showcases an excellent collection of out-of-this-worl… [read review or visit site]

Museum of Childhood

Museum of Childhood

Embrace your inner child on this website from the Victoria and Albert Museum, filled with high-quality images and i… [read review or visit site]

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Vtg 1964 1966 1969 G.i. Joe Spaceman & 14" Space Capsule W/ Accessories & Box1966 Mattel Major Matt Mason Space Crawler In Box! Station Ufo Sci-fi Vintage!Linemar Atomic Reactor 1950s Marx Steam Engine Japan Battery Operated Tin Toy1966-68 Mattel Major Matt Mason 42 Piece Lot Action Figures+accessories Alien NrVintage Original 1935 Buck Rogers Atomic Disintegrator Space Ray Gun With BoxMonogram 5089 1/72 Nasa Space Shuttle W/fuel Tank & Boosters Factory SealedOriginal Buck Rogers In The 25th Century Atomic Pistol Buck Rogers Ray Gun 19491968 Mattel Major Matt Mason Uni-tread Space Hauler In Box! Ufo Sci-fi Vintage!Mattel Major Matt Mason Sergeant Storm Red Dots Blue Straps Satellite Locker AllAutoart 1/18 Gumpert Apollo S Black #713011966 Mattel Major Matt Mason Space Station In Box! Ufo Sci-fi Vintage! 30+ Pcs!Nos 1967 Mattel Major Matt Mason Reconojet Pak On Card! Ufo Sci-fi Vintage Rare!Vintage Star Wars "death Star Space Station" Playset, Complete In Box, Kenner1950 Louis Marx Rocket Fighter Space Ship Wind Up Runs & Great GraphicsAtomic 34" C1 Twin Brushless Powered Racing BoatVintage Buck Rogers 25th Century Xz31 Space Ray Atomic Pop GunVintage 1950's Marx "tom Corbett" Space Cadet Polaris Sparkling Tin Rocket ShipVintage Buck Rogers Daisy Ray Gun 1960s S.h. Japan 9.5” Super Apollo Space Capsule Tin Battery Op Toy Boxed!Disney Infinity Toy Story Rocket Spaceship Playset Adventure Piece (figure Only)Danbury Mint 1/24 1954 Cadillac Eldorado Convertible In Apollo Gold1959 Revell S H-1805-498 Space Station Kit Rare!! Missing Pieces Partially BuiltS.h. Monsterarts Godzilla 1994 Atomic Breath Effect 1st Edition LooseThe Lego Movie 70818 Vitruvius Kitty Emmet Benny Blue Spaceman Minifigure Set Gi-joe Astronaut And Space CapsuleKusan Atomic TrainVtg 1960s Major Matt Mason Jet Pack 1966 Backpack With Belt Space Toy MattelVintage Red China Universe Car Space Ship Me 089 With Box B/o Tin ToyLego 70816 - Benny's Spaceship, Spaceship! From The Lego Movie - SealedVintage Lego Space Station # 6930 All Pcs 4 Minifigs & BookVintage Tin Friction Japan Space Man Driver Moon Toy Rocket Ship Flying Saucer1950s Ideal 3 Colour Space Ray Gun For Inteplanetary Space Signals 4 Martians1968 Mattel Major Matt Mason Space Bubble In Box! Station Ufo Sci-fi Vintage!Lot 63 Vintage Mpc Ring Hand Space Men And EquipmentLost In Space Launch Pad And Elevator Tower For Jupiter 2 Space ShipLego Star Wars Rebels The Ghost Spaceship 75053 100% Complete Sealed In BagsApollo Saturn V Rocket Desktop Model Pen Holder Kennedy Space Center SouvenirStar Wars Death Star Space Station Playset With Original BoxGodzilla S.h. Monsterarts Figure W/ Blue Atomic Breath Accessory - 2011 BandaiMilton Bradley 1978 Star Bird Electronic Space Ship Works!!!!Vintage Red China Universe Televiboat Space Ship Me 777 With Box B/o Tin ToyLego 6861 Space Classic X-1 Patrol Craft Space Ship 1 Minifigure With Box 1980O Gauge U.s. Army Atomic Cannon Car No.42010 From Set By Kusan Fair!Brandt Peters Wandering Misfits Chase Elizabeth Vinyl Toy Cardboard SpaceshipVintage Gi Joe 12 Action Figure - Hasbro - Space Suit Astronaut - Action SuitVintage Rare Wham-o Air Blaster Space Gun1969 Revell Apollo Lunar Spacecraft Model Kit 100% Complete & UnbuiltVintage Bullmark Blue/green Insect Warrior Action Figure.popy,bandai Space ManLego Movie Bennys Spaceship 70816Vintage Antique Clockwork Toy - Sutcliffe "the Sea Wolf " Atomic SubmarineIdeal Star Hawk Star Team Space Ship And Zeroid Droid 1970Vintage Vehicles,mini Soldiers,miniature Space Men/ships Robots Lot 292 FiguresLego Marvel Super Heroes Guardians Of The Galaxy Milano Spaceship Rescue 76021 Vintage Red China Space Ship Y-3 Friction Tin ToyVintage Flying Saucer Tin Modern Toys Japan Mint In Box RareLego Movie 70816 Benny's Spaceship Mini-figures 940 Pc Ages 9-14 Fast ShippingVintage Original Aurora Cyclops Lost In Space Built Model Vintage Snoopy Astronaut Commemorative Coin Mip 1969 For DollMarx Atomic Cape Canaveral Play Set Figure And Accessary BagsVintage Swivel-o-matic Astronaut By Sh / Horikawa In Orig Box Ca 1960