On August 6, 2012, along with 3.2 million others, I breathlessly watched the Curiosity space rover touch down on Mars. Launched by NASA on November 26, 2011, and traveling a distance of more than 350 million miles, Curiosity landed in the Gale Crater less than two miles from its target. Within 14 minutes, NASA received the first signals of its survival. Designed to explore the planet for at least one Martian year (687 Earth days), Curiosity’s primary mission is to determine if any life form could exist or has existed on Mars. It will also inform our wish to someday explore Mars in person. The power and beauty of Curiosity’s landing on Mars struck me as a concrete example of humanity’s innate desire to explore and discover our universe.
My early years were fed with fairy tales and fables. Later I feasted on science fiction—both through the written word and through movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey that provided visuals to augment my imagination. A man on the moon? I could picture that, even before Apollo 11 blasted off. As with the Mars landing, I witnessed the first live telecast from the moon on July 20, 1969. For me, Neil Armstrong’s footstep on the moon’s surface represented the impossible made possible and imagination made real.
In rapid response to the excitement launched by the Apollo 11 achievement, the toy industry considered what impact the “Apollo Effect” would have on space toys. Investigating the August 1969 issue of Playthings magazine in the collection of the Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play, I found that it advised toy manufacturers to exercise caution in producing space-themed toys and noted that, “From 1957 on, starting with Sputnik, the trade experience was one of great expectations and negligible results overall, except for model kits. Forecasting what children will or won’t relate to and get excited about is much more of an art than a science.” In other words, don’t bet your company’s future on getting kids to buy astronaut gear or toy rockets.
Nevertheless, toy makers felt sufficiently motivated in 1970 to create toys that would inspire children to open their minds to the far reaches of space through play. Perhaps some of the scientists who realized the recent Mars mission were so inspired. Where will today’s children take us with their play? To infinity and beyond!