The Mystery that is The Young Astronauts Cartoon
The Plot and Setting of The Young Astronauts
The Young Astronauts name represents several entities all housed under a single banner to promote young people of the mid-1980's to seek out a future in science, space exploration, and science-related fields of study that had been established by the Reagan Administration in 1984. According to court documents, there were two arms to the Young Astronauts organization: the Council and the Young Astronaut Management Corporation. The Council or “YAC” was a non-profit charged with the “objective of encouraging American children to study math and science by using the United States space program as a catalyst.” The other, the YAMC, was a for-profit organization that was charged with providing funding streams for YAC, like the business deal with Marvel Productions. With the aim of getting kids excited about the newly invigorated manned space program via the NASA Space Shuttles, the newly established Young Astronaut Council attempted to reach 1980's youth via the then-current means: comics, Saturday morning cartoons, and models. The spearhead was to be the Toei Animation Saturday morning cartoon and the accompanying Star Comics series that was under the direction of Marvel Production with the YAC having input. Yes, you read correctly. None other than the hallowed Toei Animation studio of Japan was going to be the animators for The Young Astronauts cartoon.
While nothing survives of the cartoon, save for one single cel of animation, we do have some press on the Star Comics series that informs on the TV cartoon as well. In the Marvel Age article from 1986, we learned that The Young Astronauts is set in the 21st century onboard the Terran transport starship Courageous captained by Kelly Hampton with her husband Jason, three kids (Wendy, Mikey, and Rick), a robot named Retro, and the cat Rascal being the main characters. At some point during each episode of The Young Astronauts, there would have an “Astro Minute” in which some element of real science would have been explained by possibility an former or current astronaut in live-action format. In the Marvel Age article, series head, Danny O'Neil describes the first issue showing the kids living on the Courageous and getting into trouble when the cat, Rascal, takes off an one of the shuttle craft of the Courageous. The kids decide to rescue the cat while avoiding their parents...and the misadventure starts there. One interesting note about the comic series was June Brigman was going to draw the comic. Back at this time, June Brigman had helped establish the look of the youth-aimed Marvel superhero comic of Power Pack. This was one my favorite comics of that time and the only "superhero" comic I collected. That this is only part of the storyline that we have and nothing else has come to light since for either the comic series of the CBS cartoon.
The Marvel Productions and the Young Astronauts Council Connection
What Happened to The Young Astronauts?
The majority of online articles concerning the fate of the stillborn Young Astronauts CBS cartoon and the Star Comics series rest it solely on the 1986 Challenger Disaster. While it is true that part of the reasons does indeed rest with the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger some 73 seconds after liftoff and the loss of the ship & crew, it is only part of the story. Marvel Productions and YAC did not see eye-to-eye on the aim of the cartoon/comic series. YAC wanted it to be scientifically accurate as possible, while CBS/Marvel wanted an exciting space kiddie show with the backing of NASA. While the show was slated for the fall of 1985 for its premier and the beginning run of the original 13 episodes on order, the conflict between YAC and CBS/Marvel differing points-of-view delayed the development of the show itself for the reminder of 1985.
This caused CBS to postpone The Young Astronauts until a meeting could be held to refocus with CBS who had stating that a scientifically accurate show would be dull for the intended audience. Given the loss of inertia and the market campaign that had promised the cartoon incoming by Fall of ’85, YAC decided to grant CBS the freedom to make the show they wanted and get the ball rolling. That meeting between Marvel, the YAC, and CBS was held on January 27th, 1986. The next morning, the Challenger spacecraft explodes, killing all seven heroes onboard and calls into question the future of NASA’s manned space flight mission. The next day, according to court documents, CBS called the YAC and Marvel, and formally canceled the cartoon project. But was that the fate of the Star Comics series as well?
During the FWS investigation, the dates simply did not match up. In the Marvel vs. Young Astronauts Council lawsuit documents from the summer of 1990, the dates are crystal clear. The article in issue#37 of Marvel Age that came out in April of 1986, the project was still moving forward with the Star Comics series. Some of the adverts for the comic series tied it to the “hit television series”, and one of these adverts ran in the 38th issue of Marvel Age that came out in May of 1986!
This was after YAC had asked to end their relationship with Marvel some two prior and one month before it became official in June of ’86. Given the historical context of the time period, it is likely that we are talking a month delay between when the Marvel Age magazine was in production and when it was seen on the newsstands. Still, you think that Marvel would have pulled the ads for the Young Astronauts comics give that YAC had asked to end the contract. Maybe Marvel leadership had hopes that they could move forward with the comic book project? Even after the contract was terminated in June 30th of 1986 that was not the end of the story…Marvel would sue YAC to recover payments in July of 1988. Marvel would learn that YAMC may have been double dealing behind the backs of Marvel and their contract.
In the court papers, Marvel wanted their share of deals that YAMC had made with Pepsi, Coleco, and McDonald’s. Hundreds of Thousands of dollars have been generated via the “deals” made with these three companies during the time that Marvel Productions still had their contract in place. All three of the deals bore fruit in one way or another. Pepsi via their deal that was signed on July 9th, 1985 got a can of their inferior cola on a Challenger shuttle launch, McDonald’s had Young Astronauts branded Happy Meals in October of 1986, and Coleco had signed a contract with YAMC on July 1st, 1986 that included $275,000 advance. This is one day after the end of the Marvel contract. This contract smelled to the legal department of Marvel and it was likely that YAMC had been talks with Coleco prior to the end of the Marvel contract.
That contract between the YAC and Coleco in summer of 1986 was realized with the STARCOM: The US Space Force cartoon and toyline that featured the YAC logos and mission. This is the only piece of a Young Astronaut cartoon that ever aired. Finally, the court case was settled by District Judge of New York Robert L. Carter on August 1st, 1990 with the ruling in favor of Marvel for YAC to pay the comic book company $185,547.40 in back licensing fees for the YAC deals with Pepsi, Coleco, and McDonald’s.
The Surviving Pieces of the Young Astronauts/Marvel Project