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    

Lost In Space, 2011 Moebius Gallery Edition Metal Jupiter 2, #91/200 Vintage 1969 Rare Horikawa Space Capsule Spaceship B/o Tin Toy W/ Box Rare Vintage 1950s Ideal Futuramic Fix-it Space ShipToy Stamp & 1930s Marx Rare Space Tin Wind Up Space Ship1935 Daisy Mfg. Buck Rogers 25th Century Rocket Ray Gun No Reserve (dakotapaul)Wilesco R200 Atomic Power Plant Steam Engine (115 Vac)Kusan Army Train Set Missle Cannon Atomic Reactor Postwar 0 Gauge X881Nib K-line Nasa Mp-15 Diesel W/horn Controller- "o" Gauge, K2299-0006aG.i. Joe Collectors' Club Limited Edition Talking Gi Joe Astronaut 2003 HasbroPlanet Patrol Super Beam Signal Space/ Ray Gun With Leather Holster By HalcoVintage Tin Futuristic Cadillac Tin Toy Car Bubble Top Space Car1967 Aurora 1:12 Scale American Astronaut Kit #409Vintage 1950s 19" Golden Sonic Remote Control Space Toy In Box W Original ManualVintage Rubber/vinyl Snoopy Astronaut Doll - 1960s - Peanuts1960's Nasa United States Space Capsule Battery-op Toy Tin By21Ashley Wood 3a Evenfall Strigoi Moonbase Omega Commander AstronautVintage Aurora American Astronaut In Original Cello WrapRare Vintage 1966 Mattel's Man In Space Major Matt Mason Space Station + O./boxVintage Outer Space Archer Plastics Hard Plastic Spaceman Space Men Red, Grn, BlVintage Revell Tranquility Base Apollo 11 Lunar Lander Module Model Kit 1/48 Rare 1987 Gi Joe Defiant Space Ship Shuttle - Genuine Original Vehicle1960s Tin Litho Toy Apollo Space Craft Nasa Rocket Ship Daiya Japan Battery OpLost In Space Silver Chrome Jupiter 2 Polar Lights Model Kit Nib Factory Sealed1968 Colorforms Alien Orbitron The Man From Uranus Space Major Matt Mason BuddyNice Josh Simpson ? Inhabited Alien Planet Spaceship Art Glass Marble 1-7/8"Vintage Rare Toy Dan Dare Planet Space Gun 1950s Raygun Eagle Captain Action Flash Gordon Boxed OriginalStar Wars Vintage Death Star Space Station Playset 1979Renwal Blueprint Atomic Cannon 1/32 Scale Kit, Mega-rare Original Circa 19581950s Duro Mold Atomic Coin Firing Ray Gun Die Cast Metal Space Bank Nr Scarce Vintage Air Attack With Tin Airplanes Erich Naumann Board Game Space ToyPolar Lights Big 1998 Lost In Space Jupiter 2 Plastic Model KitVintage Newell Atomic 5 Pistol Toy Space Gun With Box-1950's Forbidden Planet Laser Pistol *resin Prop Model Space Ray Gun Kit* MibLego Super Heroes The Milano Spaceship Rescue 76021 Guardians Of The Galaxy NisbLost In Space Jupiter 2 Spaceship Rare Trendmasters LooseMattel Apollo Crews Uhaa Nation Wwe Roh Elite Custom Flashback Figure Nxt NjpwVintage Kenner Star Wars Death Star Space Station Playset Dianoga Complete Ay32Vintage Billy Blastoff Astronaut Space Eldon Toy With 3 Vehicles Toy Stamp & 1940s Buck Rogers Diecast Battlecruiser Space ShipMth 20-96020 Nasa Tank Car Nalx 191 Lnib LqqkLionel 30087 Area 51 Alien Spaceship Recovery Train Set In Original Box4 White Lego Classic Space Men Minifigures • Vintage 1980s Moon Astronaut Lot Kenner Star Wars Vintage Set Lot 8 W/spaceship Walrus ManVintage Gi Joe Action Man Astronaut Space Walk Adventure Team Parts Lot Hasbro Vintage 1989 Amt Ertl Star Trek Space Ship Set Model Kit 6677 Sealed In BagMasudaya Battery Op Tin Litho Moon Rocket Space Ship Original Box Made In JapanAshley Wood 3a Evenfall Strigoi Moonbase Omega AstronautAction Man Palitoy Space Ranger Solar Hurricane Spaceship Unused In Original Box1960s Vintage Tin Nomura Super Space Patrol Japan Tin Space Toy TankVintage Hasbro Gi Joe Space Capsule With Astronaut Action Figure DollVintage 1950's Marx Toys Mystery Space Ship In Original BoxNasa Apollo Saturn V Rocket Revell Model 1:144, Buzz Aldrin SpecialVintage 1960's Marx Mystery Space Ship With Original Box1998 Trendmasters Lost In Space The Classic Series Jupiter 2 Ship Playset Revell- Nasa Gemini Space Capsule Rare 1/24Major Matt Mason /custom Led Callisto With Custom Card - One Of A Kind . . Nice!Vintage 1962 Marx Toy Mystery Space Ship Windup Toy W/box *no Reserve*Six Million Dollar Man Bif Bang Pow Astronaut Steve Austin 8 Inch Figure SealedU-2a Nasa 1/72 Microscale 72-461