Hot Wheels Mars Perseverance Rover | Source: Mattel/the Toy Book

Outer space-themed toys are shining bright this year.

by Ted Mininni, president and creative director, Design Force

Humanity has always been fascinated with outer space. By nature, we are compelled to explore and discover, pushing the limits of science and technology in the process. A fascination with space exploration is driven by our need to know more about our place in the universe, and it typically originates for most of us during childhood. With all of the activity currently taking place in the international space industry, kids with an interest in space exploration will have so much wonderful information to satisfy their curiosity and hunger for knowledge.

Last year marked the U.S.’ resurrection of human spaceflight with SpaceX; three different exploratory missions to Mars by the U.S., China, and the United Arab Emirates; and the recovery of moon samples by China and Ryugu asteroid samples by Japan. All are notable and extraordinary accomplishments despite the disadvantages and obstacles posed by the global coronavirus pandemic.

This year has already added to these milestones with the successful landing of NASA’s Perseverance Rover on the surface of Mars on Feb. 18. The excitement associated with this mission isn’t unwarranted by any means, as it may lead to the first discovery of evidence of ancient microbial life on another world. And, with its onboard helicopter, it marks the first time anyone has ever sent a non-rover, non-lander vehicle to the red planet.

Not surprisingly, recent initiatives in space exploration have not gone unnoticed by the toy industry. Many toy and game manufacturers are capitalizing on the fascination triggered by the current NASA and SpaceX missions. From educational science kits that incorporate STEM learning to replicas of the spacecraft from the aforementioned missions, there are plenty of fun, space-themed products for kids — and their parents — to get excited about.

Source: Luki Lab

The key to making an emotional connection with aspiring young astronauts is to bring the drama of space exploration to visuals on packaging. Luki Lab‘s GUJO Adventure Mission Mars Rocket — a 245-piece, build-and-play rocket ship playset designed by an aerospace engineer — does just that with its package design. Kids can build a 2.5-foot-tall rocket with four levels, including a flight deck and an engine room. The set includes plastic connectors, tools, accessories, and two astronaut figures with four interchangeable facial expressions. All of this excitement is captured on the front panel of the package, which shows the completed rocket in orbital flight with Mars in the background. You can clearly see all four levels of the rocket ship, as well as GUJO peering through the window during its fly-by. An inset shows the rocket playset standing upright with a proud kid sitting next to it to show scale. The “STEM-Authenticated” logo lets parents know that this playset will provide educational value in addition to exciting space adventure play.

Source: Educational Insights

Educational Insights leveraged the popularity of space exploration from a completely different angle with its Circuit Explorer line of 3D, circuit-building sets. Kids can learn the fundamentals of circuitry by following the symbols and connecting circuits on their own. The Circuit Explorer Rover set includes everything kids need to build a communication station with a rotating radar dish; a power station with a rover charger; and a powered space rover and a free-wheeling space rover, both equipped with working headlights. It also includes astronaut and robot figures and stickers that kids can use to customize the builds.

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What’s great about the Circuit Explorer packaging is how the front panel visual takes kids directly onto the surface of another planet, while portraying the fantasy of exploring an alien world. On the Circuit Explorer Rover packaging, the planet-surface point of view shows two different rovers rapidly converging toward the viewer with the other circuitry-based builds behind them and a starry space background beyond the horizon. The Circuit Explorer logo and the clean, black-and-red-orange background give this product line’s package design an upscale, techy appeal.

Source: Buffalo Games

Who said that all the space exploration fun is just for young kids? Let’s not forget that during the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, Buffalo Games created Apollo, a game for NASA enthusiasts both young and old that celebrates the point in our history when the U.S. successfully landed astronauts on the lunar surface of the moon for the first time. The strategy game is inspired by real NASA and Gemini missions, and the package design is nothing less than spectacular. We’re presented with a beautifully illustrated scene from the lunar surface in a limited palette of black, white, and orange. We find ourselves face-to-face with an astronaut, as the lunar module looms in the background. Reflected in the glass of the astronaut’s helmet is his mission partner standing in the distance with the Earth rising above him. The large Apollo logo with the tagline “A Game Inspired by NASA Moon Missions” complements the dramatic visual, triggering nostalgic cues that bring us back to a time when our nation responded to President Kennedy’s challenge of landing the first humans on the moon.

Hasbro Gaming’s 2020 “Space Capsule” Collection | Source: Hasbro Gaming/the Toy Book

Another way to leverage our fascination with space exploration is to develop a timely retailer promotion around it. Back in October of last year, Hasbro Gaming celebrated World Space Week with the launch of space-themed reinterpretations of three of its classic games. The Target-exclusive “Space Capsule” collection features Monopoly Space, Battleship Outer Space, and Trouble: On the Moon. Each game was revamped with space-related storytelling, while the familiar core strategies remained the same. The packaging for the collection works perfectly within a common design system, with the cover for each dramatizing the space-themed gameplay in a playful, fantasy-based illustration. The lower left corner of each box shows a photo of the assembled game within a planet-like circle and the overall background of each game’s package design features the same space illustration in tones of blue to tie the entire line together visually.

Source: Mattel

Although most of its elements fall in line with that of all 1:64-scale Hot Wheels vehicle packaging, the packaging for the die-cast replica of the Mars Perseverance Rover is still worth noting. As to be expected, the Hot Wheels flame logo over its blue background dominates the design, but the highly detailed rendering of the rover is powerful enough to draw the interest of space exploration fans of all ages. The Perseverance replica model, which is approximately 3 inches long and part of the Hot Wheels space-themed mini-collection, was developed with the intention of reaching retail in time for kids and adult collectors to have it in their hands as they watched the rover’s successful landing in Jezero Crater a few short-yet-unnerving minutes after its dramatic entry into Mars’ atmosphere.

One thing of which I’m absolutely certain: With all of the space exploration activity happening in 2021 and beyond, the toy industry will continue to play its role in fueling the imaginations of today’s young space enthusiasts for years to come.

This article was originally published in the August 2021 edition of the Toy BookClick here to read the full issue!

About the author

Ted Mininni

Ted Mininni

Ted Mininni is president and creative director of Design Force, one of the leading design consultancies in the toy and entertainment industries. Through the disciplines of package design and licensing program design, Design Force establishes strong emotional connections with consumers, creating powerful visual brand experiences that engage, excite, entertain, inspire, and influence their decision to buy. Mininni can be reached at (856) 810-2277 or via email at Visit for more information.