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Spacecraft missing on Mars, in toy stores


December 10, 1999 — In a case of art imitating life, tiny versions of NASA's three most recent Mars spacecraft are missing — from the toy shelves. Driven by rumors, the Hot Wheels JPL Returns to Mars! Action Pack may become one of the most difficult to find toys this season.

The Mattel, Inc.-produced pack, which includes detailed reproductions of NASA's Mars Polar Lander (MPL), Deep Space 2 microprobe and Mars Climate Orbiter was set to capitalize on the tremendous success of a similar Mattel release during the previous landing on the Red Planet in 1997. However, unlike with Mars Pathfinder, when Mattel worked its promotion off the success of the mission, this latest set highlights three of NASA's most recent failures.

Mars Climate Orbiter was destroyed September 23 when miscalculations caused the craft to enter the atmosphere too quickly. Mars Polar Lander and its companion Deep Space 2 microprobes ceased to respond after beginning their decent to the surface on December 3.

According to Mattel, these latest packs were shipped to stores before the real vehicles' scheduled arrival at Mars two weeks ago. However, due rumors of a recall, limited production runs and/or restricted distribution, the "Return To Mars" toy sets have become increasingly hard to find.

Reportedly limited to a run of 10,000, and possibly a Jet Propulsion Laboratory gift shop exclusive, collectors have been turning to auction websites to find the elusive sets. As of midnight Friday, December 10, eBay.com had over 30 individual sets listed. Closing bids have been as much as ten times retail value.

Mattel is the only company currently licensed to create toys based on NASA/JPL missions. The Return To Mars pack is the fifth space-related set Mattel has sold under its Hot Wheels brand. Previous toys have resembled the Sojourner Mars Rover, the Europa Jupiter probe, Apollo lunar spacecraft and a set issued to celebrate the return to space by John Glenn.

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