Astronaut Barbie finally — literally — goes to outer space
Barbie has come a long, long way since her days of lamenting that "Math class is tough."
She's a calculus savant, now that she's added astrophysicist to her career list. And she's just taken one really small step for dollkind. Two Barbies blasted off on a Northrop Grumman Cygnus spaceflight from Wallops Island, Virginia, on Feb. 19. Now they're residents of the International Space Station, marking the first time in Barbie history that the doll has literally traveled to outer space.
That may come as a surprise to rabid collectors who know Barbie has had "astronaut" on her résumé since 1965 — four years before Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. Wearing a mod Mercury-inspired silver spacesuit and even sporting a bubble-cut hairdo reminiscent of a helmet, "Miss Astronaut" beat NASA in the representation-in-space race, giving girls an early role model in aviation and aeronautics.
But it took another 57 years for Barbie to do more than merely look the part.
"The idea of sending Barbie to the International Space Station has been one we’ve thrown around for awhile," Lisa McKnight, who heads the Barbie brand for Mattel, told Mashable.
The timing of the space voyage coincides with the company's newest astronaut-related Barbie products, the Space Discovery line at Target, McKnight said.
Crew members took the 11.5-inch dolls out of the cargo ship shortly after it docked at the station over 200 miles above Earth. Under project Dreamstar, the astronauts took photos and videos of two Barbies — one Black and one white — at various ISS facilities. The digital media are being used for a Barbie YouTube series to promote science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers.
During a video, the Barbies are seen in the microgravity environment, free-floating in Russian Sokol-like spacesuits, the windowed cupola, framing Earth and starry views, behind them.
Technically this isn't the first time a Barbie has experienced zero-gravity. Last year a special edition Barbie, sculpted to look like European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, rode a zero-G parabolic airplane flight. At first, Mattel didn't manufacture the doll for the general public, but the toymaker eventually put it into mass production. Partial proceeds from its sales go to a Women in Aerospace Europe fund.
Cristoforetti is expected to return to the space station any day now on a SpaceX Crew Dragon flight.
“I'm very happy that Barbie dolls nowadays reflect not only the body shape of real women, but also the full range of their professional achievements," she said in a statement through ESA last year. "I hope this will help girls and boys to imagine their future without being constrained by artificial limits that have no place in our time.”
"Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and imagine you are in space," a Barbie voice actor says. "What would that be like, to have your arms and your hair just weightless? To have objects just floating and moving slowly and quietly past you?"
Though space tourists these days have been known to pay upwards of $55 million for a chance to reach low-Earth orbit, Barbie's ride was considerably cheaper. Mattel wasn't charged for the flight, photo shoot, and crew time, said Patrick O'Neill, a spokesman for the ISS National Laboratory.
Mattel responded to an ISS National Lab Education Research Announcement in 2021, soliciting ideas for space-themed digital programming for K-12 students. The toy company didn't request any grants for the opportunity. Barbie's journey fits with the lab’s mission to — among other things — “inspire the next generation of researchers and explorers,” O'Neill said.
"Launch and crew costs are not passed along to research teams and are assumed by the American taxpayer," he wrote in an email.
Since coming aboard, Barbie hasn't conducted any experiments or become a space station mascot, meandering through its modules. (We asked.) The dolls are already back in storage and will return to Earth later this summer, according to NASA.
When they return, they'll go on display at the National Air and Space Museum's Udvar Hazy Center in Virginia, where her predecessor, Miss Astronaut, has lived ever since Mattel donated one to the collection in 1995.
Over five-plus decades, Barbie has had a unique relationship with space. Though she's traveled to many places around the world and worn a lot of hats — literally and figuratively — space is a theme the doll keeps revisiting. McKnight credits that to the vision of Ruth Handler, Barbie's creator, who wanted the doll to reflect culture and womanhood at a time when most other doll options on store shelves related to babies and cooking.
"People were fascinated with space travel as it was a huge part of the cultural conversation throughout the '50s and '60s," McKnight said. "Barbie was there to inspire girls that they can be anything as early as the 60s, during a time when it was uncommon for girls to pursue a career in STEM."
"Barbie was there to inspire girls that they can be anything as early as the 60s, during a time when it was uncommon for girls to pursue a career in STEM."
The company rattles off about 10 examples of space-related Barbies sold over the years, including Barbie Space Scientist in 1998 and 2017. But a quick eBay and Amazon search shows much more, like Barbie Space Camp, NASA Crew Barbie, and 25th anniversary Astronaut Barbie.
Sometimes the product is designed to deliver realism, as with the Katherine Johnson doll, a rendering of the famous NASA human computer, created shortly after the movie Hidden Figures told her story. The same was true for the likeness of Sally Ride, the first U.S. woman in space, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2012. The company said it consulted with NASA and Ride's partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy, to outfit the doll in a Challenger-inspired flight suit.
Other times, Barbie's looks have been less than flight-ready. Case in point: a space-themed Barbie from 1985, fashioned with a metallic fuchsia bodysuit and puffed sleeves to rival Princess Di's wedding dress.
"Our designers are often inspired by official gear and clothing, then add touches that will resonate with kids, such as pops of pink or out-of-this-world boots," McKnight said. "The 1986 Barbie Astronaut was rooted more in fantasy."
Today, the Barbie brand is still trying to stay ahead of the competition in the space race. In 2013, the doll beat all nations on a quest to the Red Planet when it made Mars Explorer Barbie. With any luck, NASA will get there in the late 2030s.
Of course, it's one thing for her to dress for the Martian job she wants. But when can we expect her to go interplanetary?
"Barbie’s career path in space exploration continues to grow out of this world," McKnight said.