Soon after NASA's Curiosity rover lands and becomes the hottest set of wheels on Mars, it'll debut as the latest Hot Wheels to land on toy store shelves.
Mattel, Inc., makers of the die-cast line of Hot Wheels toy cars, is ready to release the car-size Curiosity as its latest 1:64 scale miniature in September. The Hot Wheels "Mars Rover Curiosity" set is part of Mattel's assortment of 247 toy cars for 2012.
The real rover is set to touchdown on the Red Planet early Monday morning (Aug. 6) at 1:31 a.m. EDT (0531 GMT). The landing comes eight months after the rover launched from Earth and will end with a nail-biting "seven minutes of terror," during which the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) spacecraft will use its thrusters, a parachute, retro-rockets and finally a sky crane to lower Curiosity to the surface of a Martian crater.
The Hot Wheels Curiosity model doesn't include the MSL spacecraft's cruise stage, chute or sky crane rig, but does recreate NASA's $2.5 billion nuclear-powered six-wheeled rover as a $1.09 (average price) hand-pushed six-wheeled toy.
"To commemorate the Mars Rover Curiosity created by NASA/JPL-Caltech, Hot Wheels created a 1:64 version," Mattel's product description reads. "Curiosity carries many tools such as a drill, cameras and a laser. Its mission [is] to see if Mars could have ever supported small life forms called microbes... or if humans could explore there some day!" [Gallery: Mattel's Hot Wheels "Mars Rover Curiosity"]
Mattel and the Mars rovers
Curiosity isn't Hot Wheels first Martian hot rod.
Mattel first worked with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) 15 years ago to produce the Hot Wheels "JPL Sojourner Mars Rover Action Pack Set."
The toy recreated Curiosity's much-smaller, older cousin, the Sojourner rover which landed as part of NASA's Mars Pathinder mission on July 4, 1997. Unlike the current Hot Wheels set, the Action Pack included three miniatures — the rover, its lander and spacecraft cruise stage.
"We hope this does indeed turn out to be a big hit," said JPL's Commercial Technology Office manager the month before the real rover landed on Mars.
A month later, the Sojourner set couldn't be found on store shelves — not because Mattel pulled it, but because it quickly sold out. Demand for the Hot Wheels rover was so strong that Mattel not only reissued the Action Pack a few times, but also released a celebratory 24-karat gold plated version.
The set's success also launched a series of NASA/JPL Hot Wheels toys. The next year brought a pack recreating the Jupiter-orbiting Galileo probe, followed by a set for the Apollo moon landings and astronaut John Glenn's space shuttle mission in October 1998.
Finally in 1999, JPL was ready to return to Mars — and so was Mattel. The company released a Hot Wheels Action Pack that included scale models of NASA's Mars Climate Orbiter, Deep Space 2 Microprobe and Mars Polar Lander.
But all three spacecraft failed— the orbiter was destroyed due to miscalculations and the lander, with its companion probes, ceased to respond after beginning their decent to the surface. The toy set sold, but its sales were partially driven by rumors of a recall and limited distribution.
Point of no return
Curiosity is the first NASA mission since 1999 to get the Hot Wheels treatment, even though the JPL sent two very successful twin rovers to Mars in 2004.
The Spirit and Opportunity Mars Exploration Rovers were released as toys and collectible models, but by LEGO and other toy companies.
According to Mattel, its scheduled September release of the Hot Wheels Curiosity will go ahead regardless of the outcome of the real rover's landing.
The Hot Wheels 2-inch long by 1.5-inch high by 1.25-inch wide (5 by 3.8 by 3.2 centimeters) rover is so far the only toy or model version of Curiosity to be announced.
NASA has however, partnered with Microsoft to release an Xbox 360 video game that puts the player in control of the rover's landing and has introduced an app for Apple's iPad that through augmented reality gives the user access to a virtual, 3-D Curiosity model.
collectSPACE.com and SPACE.com will providing live coverage of the Curiosity rover landing, Aug. 5-6, 2012, from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. Look for Mattel's Hot Wheels Mars Rover Curiosity for sale at stores nationwide beginning this September.
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Robert Pearlman is a space historian, journalist and the founder and editor of collectSPACE.com, an online publication and community devoted to space history with a particular focus on how and where space exploration intersects with pop culture. Pearlman is also a contributing writer for Space.com and co-author of "Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space” published by Smithsonian Books in 2018. He previously developed online content for the National Space Society and Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, helped establish the space tourism company Space Adventures and currently serves on the History Committee of the American Astronautical Society, the advisory committee for The Mars Generation and leadership board of For All Moonkind. In 2009, he was inducted into the U.S. Space Camp Hall of Fame in Huntsville, Alabama. In 2021, he was honored by the American Astronautical Society with the Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History.