Press Release

Not Child’s Play: Toys that Inspired NASA Innovations

By SpaceRef Editor
May 8, 2020
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“Scientists go through their toy bins all the time for inspiration.” Phil West, NASA spokesman, 2000

Baby toys and Martian landers may not be connected thoughts for most people, but toys have served as sources of inspiration for several NASA projects. The concept of using toys to inspire science dates back, at least, to the time Galileo considered a toy spyglass, eventually turning it into his famous telescope. Many toys have “played” a part in space science. 

NASA’s influence on the toy market is commonplace. Model rockets, Lego sets, and even an American Girl Doll all draw inspiration from the space agency. As part of the Space Act of 1958, section 203, NASA must “provide for the widest practicable and appropriate dissemination of information concerning its activities and the results thereof.” Toys present a unique opportunity to increase awareness of NASA’s strategic themes and NASA missions. NASA has a fairly straightforward merchandise approval process for toys and products that seek to carry the NASA logo or other NASA references. Many of these NASA-inspired toys also aim to encourage children to be interested in science and engineering. However, the toys have returned the favor, with children’s playthings inspiring NASA scientists and engineers.

As NASA looks towards the Moon and Mars, the development of new technology will be essential. As scientists and engineers at NASA’s Langley Research Center toyed with ideas for how to land future spacecraft, a toy was exactly what they needed. The plastic stacking rings, found in most playrooms, stirred the ideas of those designing an inflatable heat shield. These stacking ring toys, meant for babies, are often made of wood or plastic with the rings of increasing size in different colors or textures. The heat shield, named The Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID), also has a set of inflatable rings of increasing size. The stackable rings will be packed for the journey and inflate with gas when they reach the Martian surface. Using inflatable, stackable rings allows the spacecraft to have more room for experiments, equipment, or even people. LOFTID is set to launch no earlier than 2022.

 In 2013, a robotics researcher at NASA Ames Research Center stood in front of a crowd with a small springy toy designed for babies. He said, “So the initial inspiration was, we took one of these toys and we’d say, what can we use this for?” The rattle and teether are made of wooden dowels, wooden balls, and elastic. The toy hardly resembles a spacecraft, but Vytas SunSpiral saw a landing robot saying, “Well they make them as baby toys because they’re really safe, it’s hard to break them, and hard to hurt yourself with it, hard for a baby to hurt themselves with it, and you can throw it on the ground really hard and you’re not going to break it. Okay, that’s a landing robot!” The Super Ball Bot is designed for planetary landing and exploration. This experimental robot concept would bounce, bend, fold, and stretch to explore unknown terrains. 

In the archives of NASA Headquarters, there are articles that exist about a car designer named George Barris. His famous works include the TV Batmobile, K.I.T.T. from Nightrider, and the Munster’s unique automobile. Barris also designed model cars intended for children to build. It was in the year 2000 that a model car concept caught the attention of Robert Yowell, a NASA engineer based in Houston. Yowell was working on a design for a rover that could navigate Mars. He became intrigued by the wheel design and suspension of an old model car kit for a fantasy lunar rover named Moonscope. Moonscope was a model car kit designed by George Barris in 1971 and manufactured by Model Products Corporation. Yowell wrote to George Barris asking if he would share his design for the rover. “I was intrigued by the wheel and suspension design and how far ahead of its time it was,” said Yowell. Barris was flattered, agreed to share any designs and notes he had for the model car kit, and told NASA to use whatever they could. Toy designers, particularly those designing fantasy space vehicles, are not bound by the physics of actual space travel. This freedom allows for creative design.

In 2003, when the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate was tasked with bringing electronic components to spacecraft, they again looked toward toys, particularly the interchangeability of Lego bricks. According to the Manager of Strategic Alliances at NASA, “NASA and LEGO have a history of collaboration aimed at inspiring the next generation of space explorers and builders. LEGO wishes to further this partnership with NASA to bring to life even more of the stories, careers, technology, and science behind the various endeavors surrounding missions into space.” In fact, some of the latest Lego sets have “Inspired by NASA” right on the box. As Lego has been inspired by NASA, the engineers at AFRL became inspired by aspects of Lego bricks. By designing interchangeable parts with standardized ports that fit together, similar to Legos, they are able to move and manipulate parts without completely redesigning a whole instrument. Another advantage of building a modular system, like Lego bricks, is, if there was a problem with a component, only that part could be replaced instead of having to rebuild the whole instrument. While designed for monetary savings, as well as ease of use, this idea had the added benefit of being able to be transported in pieces and assembled in space. 

Developing technology for space and exploration requires hardware that has never been made before. Beyond being technically knowledgeable, scientists and engineers need to be creative and able to look at everyday objects, even toys, in a new way. While NASA-inspired toys grace the shelves of retailers, toys have helped NASA scientists find original solutions to unique problems. Space science and engineering demand creativity and ingenuity, the same ideals that toys seek to nurture. It makes perfect sense that toys would serve as inspiration for the people solving some out-of-this-world challenges. NASA will continue to partner with toys that aim to share the excitement of space science with future generations. NASA scientists and engineers will always continue to look at the world around them as inspiration for innovations. 

Stacy Bishop

Spring 2020 NASA History Intern

SpaceRef staff editor.