We all know that the first American woman in space was Sally Ride who flew aboard the space shuttle Challenger in 1983, but in the hearts and imaginations of millions of young girls around the world in 1965, the title belonged to another woman, well, she was only a doll, but Astronaut Barbie made girls believe that one day, they could actually fly into space themselves.
That same year, the Hasbro toy company introduced their own astronaut – Astronaut GI Joe.
This episode will take a look at the history of both Barbie and GI Joe in space and how Barbie is now a role model for inspiring girls to literally reach to the stars through STEM programs which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.
It will also discuss how Astronaut GI Joe helped convince Werhner von Braun and NASA to develop the lunar rover that would be used on the Apollo moon missions.
Space Oddities Podcast
Title: A Doll, A Great American Hero, And The Lunar Rover
Air Date: 08/15/2022
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Welcome to “Space Oddities: Forgotten Stories from Mankind’s Exploration of Space”. I’m Joe Cuhaj.
Episode 9: A Doll, A Great American Hero, And The Lunar Rover
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Even though she might not have been the REAL first American woman in space – that was, of course, Sally Ride in 1983 – in 1965, the hearts and imaginations of millions of young girls had another name in mind for that honor…
Barbara Millicent Roberts, better known as Barbie, was born in the fictional town of Willows, Wisconsin on March 9th, 1959. She was the brainchild of Ruth Handler, the cofounder along with her husband, Elliot, of the California based Mattel Toy Company.
One day, Handler was watching her daughter, Barbara, play with paper dolls and pretending they were students and career women and she realized that the dolls of the day relegated women to the roles of housewives and mothers. Soon, she was working on a 3-dimensional doll that would provide an alternative to restrictive 1950s gender roles and allow girls to believe they could do anything.
The doll was inspired by a rather risqué German doll named Bild Lilli. Lilli was definitely not a child’s toy and it was often found in bars and tobacco shops as a bawdy novelty item. Barbie would be more refined but still had a voluptuous body which many have criticized to which Handler responded, “If a girl was going to do role playing of what she would be like when she was 17, it was a little stupid to play with a doll that had a flat chest.”
Barbie has also been criticized for being an outlandish capitalist with multiple fancy dream houses, sports cars, and closets full of designer clothes, but she could afford it. Over her life, Barbie has been very successful holding down over 200 careers including pediatrician, eco-leadership team, game developer, and presidential candidate. In 1965, she set her sites on a much higher goal…
[Barbie Astronaut Commercial]
In 1965, as the world was transfixed by the space race between the US and Soviet Union and four years before our first manned landing on the moon, Mattel released the first Astronaut Barbie doll. Barbie came outfitted with a silver space suit and white helmet reminiscent of the those worn by the Gemini program astronauts. She also had brown gloves, brown boots with zipper, and came with an American flag.
A second version of Astronaut Barbie was released in the 1980s but this one was outfitted as more of a disco party astronaut.
In any event, since she was introduced in 1959, Barbie regularly brings in over a billion dollars annually for the Mattel company.
Another space race toy story begins in 1930 when pencil making brothers Henry ,Hilal, and Herman Hassenfeld, expanded their business include toys. The brothers changed their company name to Hasbro – a mash up of their last name, Hassenfeld, and Brothers, and in 1952, created a truly simple but extraordinarily successful toy – Mr. Potato Head. Unlike the modern version of the toy that comes with a plastic potato, the original was simply a group of plastic facial features – eyes, ears, nose, and mouth – that kids could plug into real vegetables.
Seeing the success of Barbie, the brothers decided to create a similar toy for boys. But don’t call it a “doll”. It was an “action figure”…
[GI Joe Commercial]
Originally, GI Joe was going to be a static doll much like Barbie with very basic moving parts but one day, VP of Marketing at Hasbor, Don Levine, was walking down a street and passed an art store. In the window he saw a wooden artists mannequin with multiple moving joints that made it look more human. And with that, GI Joe was reimagined with 19 points of articulation that mimicked the movement of the human anatomy.
The name “GI JOE” came from World War II when soldiers were issued gear by the government which was called “GI” as in “government issue.” The name also came in part from a movie title, the 1945 film about war journalist Ernie Pyle called, “The Story of GI Joe.”
While the brand was called GI Joe, there were actually four “Joes” in the original set with each one representing a branch of service. There was Rocky for the Army, Skip for the Navy, Ace for the Air Force, and a second Rocky for the Marines.
As was the case with Barbie, GI Joe rode on the coattails of kid’s excitement about the space race and in 1965, Astronaut GI Joe was introduced…
[Astronaut GI Joe clip]
GI Joe would play a real life role in the United State’s manned spaceflight program. In 1969, America was on the verge of doing the impossible – landing a man on the moon. For various reasons, NASA had quashed the idea of sending a car or rover along with the Apollo missions. A rover would definitely help the astronauts explore more of the moon, but the Apollo project was in a time crunch so the idea was dismissed, that is until two engineers from General Motors, Sam Romano and Ferenc Pavlics, came up with a brilliant plan to change NASA’s mind.
Using their own money and with the mantra, “If there’s going to be a vehicle on the moon, it will be a GM vehicle” ringing in their minds, the men began talking with the Grumman Corporation who built Apollo’s lunar module and discovered that one compartment of the LEM was not being used. It was a pie shaped compartment no bigger than the trunk of a car. The rover they designed would have to fit into that small space.
In an interview with FastCompany.Com, Ferenc Pavlics explained the concept of folding the car like origami to fit in that trunk…
The engineers built a remote controlled scale model of their concept finished in meticulous detail. The seats were hand stitched by Pavlics wife. The model even folded up just like the actual production rover would do on a mission.
The duo traveled visited many different NASA facilities but their idea was dismissed at every turn. Their last stop would be the Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Alabama to see famed rocket scientist and director of the center Dr. Werhner von Braun.
Before leaving his home for the trip, Pavlics stumbled on his son’s latest GI Joe toy – Astronaut GI Joe dressed in his shiny Gemini inspired spacesuit. Pavlics grabbed the toy and strapped it into the rover.
Upon arriving in Huntsville, the engineers waited patiently outside von Braun’s open office door to make their pitch. Von Braun was on the phone as the pair drove the rover into his office. The rocket scientist stopped his conversation in mid-sentence and looked up to see the rover with Astronaut GI Joe at the wheel rolling in.
Von Braun, who was well-known for using models himself to build interest in his space ambitions, was intrigued. He hung up the phone, and asked, “what do we have here?”
After their presentation, Von Braun slapped his hand on the desk and said, “We must do this!” A few weeks later, von Braun had opened a special project office and on July 31st, 1971, the first rover unfolded from that compartment of the Apollo 15 lunar module.
[Apollo 15 rover clip]
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As for Barbie, well, she has one up on GI Joe. On February 19th, 2022, two Barbies dressed in modern day spacesuits, rocketed into space aboard a Northrup Grumman Cygnus rocket from Wallops Island, Virginia, and are now crew members aboard the International Space Station. Their flight is part of the “Mission DreamStar” project, an outreach program to inspire girls to consider careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics better known as STEM.
I’m Joe Cuhaj and thank you for joining me for this episode of Space Oddities. You can read more fascinating, offbeat, and obscure space tales like these in my new book, aptly titled Space Oddities: Forgotten Stories of Mankind’s Exploration of Space, available at your favorite online or hometown bookstore.
If you liked this episode then tell a friend and be sure to like us on Facebook - visit facebook.com/SpaceOddityBook (that’s all one word) or drop me a line from my website, joe-cuhaj.com (that’s spelled CUHAJ). While you’re there, you can learn more about my other books and upcoming appearances.
Special thanks this week to the NASA and FastCompany.Com for the clips heard in today’s episode.
Our theme music is called “Inspired” courtesy of BenSounds.Com. We’ll see you next time with more space tales.
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