Originally created 07/11/97

Pathfinder boosts sales



PASADENA, Calif. - The red planet has turned to gold for toymakers and confectioners.

In the days since Pathfinder touched down on Mars, sales have taken off for Mattel Inc.'s Hot Wheels Mars Rover Action Pack, which includes a detailed version of the rover and its mother ship.

The makers of Mars bars report sales have headed skyward, and everybody from T-shirts manufacturers to sellers of space-themed products claim to be attracting customers like light to a black hole.

And NASA is getting a piece of the action.

With each $5 sale of the Mars Rover Action Pack, a few cents go to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory heading up the Pathfinder mission.

"It really has exceeded any of our highest hopes. It has hit exceptionally well," said Merle McKenzie, manager of the commercial technology program at JPL.

Mattel declined to release sales figures for the rover toy, but a supply of 1,500 at JPL's souvenir shop sold out in 20 minutes Tuesday, Ms. McKenzie said.

The toy still hasn't reached stores in some parts of the country, generating calls to Mattel's El Segundo, Calif., headquarters from parents of children enraptured by televised images of Pathfinder's discoveries, company spokeswoman Sara Rosales said.

Among them was Evelyn Kaye, of Madison, Ala. She couldn't get one, even after calling not just Mattel, but a Toys R Us distribution center in Atlanta and JPL in Pasadena.

"I just can't find it anywhere. It's just not to be had," said Mrs. Kaye, who wants one for a graduation present for her son, a space science major at Florida Institute of Technology.

"Every child in America should have one of these toys because this is how we generate enthusiasm," she said.

Space has always been big business for Chip Rohlke, whose Shuttle Products International has been designing space-themed T-shirts for NASA and the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum since the early 1980s.

Shuttle Products, based in Indialantic, Fla., near Cape Canaveral, just came out with two shirts featuring the solar system, and is planning a Mars shirt.

"I think there is a major market out there," said Rohlke, whose shirts bring in just under $1 million a year in sales. "I think it's the whole Star Trek thing. ... People have an innate fascination with the possibilities that are out there," he said.

Candymaker Mars Inc., in Hackettstown, N.J., is also keeping a close eye on Pathfinder's progress.

The company said worldwide sales of Mars bars began climbing a year ago with the debate about life on the distant planet, even though the bar is named not for the planet but for company founder Franklin Mars.

"We love it from the standpoint that it reconnects people with our product and it's a good thing that kids are being interested in science," spokeswoman Marlene Machut said.