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]

The Wheelmen

The Wheelmen

This elegant tribute to turn-of-the-century bicycling includes memorabilia, photographs, and an index of 3140 bicyc… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Star Wars Afa Q-85 Death Star Space Station With Coa - VintageSuper Rare 30s Daisy Buck Rogers Disintegrator Nickel Plated Space Gun Pistol1960s Mighty Explorer Space Tank Battery Operated Tin Space Toy Yonezawa 1970 Buick Gsx Apollo White High Detail 1/18 Ertl 2004 Diecast Replica CarBattlefleet Gothic Forgeworld Ramilies Class Star Fort Space StationVintage Eldon Billy Blastoff Japan Space Base Space Toy Set Works!!K-line Nasa Front Runner Die-cast Intermodal Car W/2 Iso Fuel Tanks K771-8011Vintage Action Man - 1st Issue 1960's Astronaut Propellant Gun & CrossbarVintage Tin Litho Japan Linemar Windup Rocket Train No.1 Space Station ToySpace Station Nasa 378795 Sh Horikawa Japan Tin Toy Latta Vintage Vtg W/box Tin Toy Nasa Apollo 11 American Eagle Lunar Module Dsk Japan Works Vintage 1979 Kenner Star Wars Millennium Falcon Spaceship With Working SoundHuge Vintage Major Matt Mason Lot Space Station Box Playset Vehicles Figures PakBattlefleet Gothic Vengeance Class Grand Cruiser Imperial Or Chaos 40k SpaceshipColorforms Outer Space Men/alien Astro-nautilus & Colossus RexForgeworld 40k Battlefleet Gothic Eldar Haven Spire Craftworld Space Station V1.1979 Kenner Star Wars Millennium Falcon Spaceship W/box Vintage 1950s Duro Mold Mfg. Strato Rocket Ship Moon Bank W/key & InformationVintage 1966 Mattel Major Matt Mason Astronaut Action Figure Space Toy White Vintage Action Man - 1st Issue 1960's Astronaut Helmet + Visor And Mic ExcellentDragon 1/6 Scale Apollo Astronaut Buck Mint In BoxRevell Apollo Saturn V 25 Anniversary 1969 To 1994 1/96 Scale ModelStar Wars The Vintage Collection Amazon Exclusive Slave 1 Boba Fett's SpaceshipVintage Eldon Billy Blastoff Scuba Scout Japan Space Toy Scuba Diver LightRare Peppa Pig Spaceship Rocket Figurines Toy With Moon Buggy-excellent Cond40k Battlefleet Gothic Space Marine Strike Cruiser Battlecruiser SpaceshipStar Wars Death Star Space Station Complete W/ Box 1978Vintage Kenner Star Wars Death Star Space Station~in Original BoxRare Buck Rogers Daisy Mfg. 25th Century Space Ray Gun- Rocket PistolVintage Kenner Star Wars Death Star Playset Toy Space Station Play Set Dianoga++Vintage 1960's Colorforms Outer Space Men Aliens Electron + With HelmetRare Vintage 60's Masudaya Modern Toy Co Tin Apollo Space Ship,japan,workingOld Tin Flash Gordon Budson Air Ray Toy Gun *vintage Space ToyK-line Nasa Flatcar W/fuel Tanks K691-8034Vintage Mars-3 Space Ship Rocket Plastic Battery Powered Toy Original Box JapanVintage 1979 Star Wars Millennium Falcon Spaceship Kenner IncompleteRevell 1/48 Apollo Lunar Spacecraft Vintage Model # 1838:500 Vintage Major Matt Mason Bendable Space Men Callisto Alien 1968 Doug DavisRemco 1960's Barracuda Atomic Submarine 49 Crew Figures Set With FrogmenVintage 1969 Peanuts Snoopy Astronaut Space Toy Doll Figure United Feature Syn.Battlefleet Gothic Chaos Desolator Class Battleship 40k SpaceshipMego Astronaut Figure Vintage 70's All Original Planet Of The ApesVintage Eldon Billy Blastoff Japan Space Toy Vehicle LotAs Is Lego Movie 70816 Benny's Spaceship Building Toy Ages 9 - 14 Incomplete1977 Ahi Star Trek Rare U.s.s. Enterprise Space Ship Launcher Mint On The CardFisher-price Imaginext Space Shuttle Rocket Ship Tower Sounds & Lights AstrounutBattlefleet Gothic Tyranid Leviathan Hive Ship Battleship 40k Space Ship1/400 Scale Dragon Nasa Apollo 11 Saturn V Rocket #20058 3 Pc Set *nip*Rare Masudaya , Modern Toy Co. Apollo Space Ship, Made In JapanMego Peter Burke Astronaut Figure Vintage 70's Original Planet Of The Apes Nice!3 Vintage Renwal Take Apart Spaceman Toy Figures As Found Space Sci Fi 1950sVintage 1960 Ideal Astro Base Space Toy Looks Great!!1/400 Scale Dragon Nasa Apollo 11 Saturn V Rocket #20058 3 Pc SetBattlefleet Gothic Tyranid Razorfiend Hive Cruiser Warhammer 40k SpaceshipVintage Action Man - 1st Issue 1960's Astronaut Outfit Gloves Boots & CameraSpace Toy Masudaya Space Capsule The Marx - Atomic Cape Canaveral Missile Base Set #4521 Never Opened Mint!Miles From Tomorrowland Lot Stellosphere Disney Junior Toy Merc Spaceship Star Wars 1977 Vintage Original Death Star Space Station Playset With Box.Battlefleet Gothic Chaos Despoiler Class Battleship 40k Capital Ship Spaceship