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Disney's Buzz Lightyear and Wall-E explore space for NASA

June 24, 2008

— "Please give a big green welcome to everybody's favorite space ranger... Buzz Lightyear!" hollered the sergeant of the green army men, as Sheriff Woody, his horse Bullseye, cowgirl Jessie, and Bo Peep looked on.

But the toy spaceman did not appear.

"Everybody's favorite space ranger, Buzz Lightyear!" the sergeant restated, but Buzz was no where to be found. Instead, his creator, John Lasseter, jumped to the stage.

"I forgot to tell you that Buzz blasted off on a special mission in outer space. Not toy outer space... real outer space," explained Disney-Pixar's chief creative officer.

No, this was not an early preview of "Toy Story 3," which is targeted for theaters in 2010, but rather a part of the opening ceremonies for "Toy Story Mania," the newest attraction at Disneyland Resort's California Adventure in Anaheim. The festivities, held on June 17, included the on orbit debut for the space ranger who was introduced in Lasseter's 1995 film, "Toy Story".

Now it was the science of NASA rather than the magic of Disney that garnered the 'oohs and aahs' from the crowd of invited guests and the loudest perhaps, from Lasseter himself. A large screen projected video of the 12-inch toy Buzz Lightyear floating alongside NASA astronaut Greg Chamitoff on-board the International Space Station (ISS).

"Wow! That is awesome!" exclaimed Lasseter. "Oh man, I am sorry, but to see a character you created floating in space... that is amazing."

Buzz Lightyear and astronaut Greg Chamitoff. Click to enlarge video in new window. (NASA)

It was a sentiment Lasseter repeated in an interview with collectSPACE as he discussed the partnership between NASA and Disney that led to Buzz being launched on the space shuttle.

"They approached me with the idea of what do you think about having Buzz actually go up in space and I'm like, 'Are you kidding?!?'" said Lasseter, reenacting his pose, with his mouth wide open. "You mean we can actually do this?"

"I know how certain things have been taken up into space and kind of put in the hold so they can say that this blank or flag was up in space. Then they said, 'No, he's actually going to be out, you know, with the astronauts floating in weightlessness.' And I thought 'Oh, this is so cool!' cause part of it for me is that I love to have these characters... live beyond the boundary of the film. I think in how that manifests itself in so many different ways is exciting," he shared.

"To have Buzz Lightyear, a character that has become so loved by kids and families, to be used to help kids become interested in science and space and physics and all those things, that was so cool," said Lasseter.

NASA agrees. Under the terms of their partnership with Disney Parks, Buzz's six month-stay on the ISS was traded for use of Lightyear's likeness in a new series of educational games available through NASA's website. The games are designed to teach students the basics of space flight, as is Buzz's mission itself, which continued the space agency's popular Toys in Space program. The action figure will be used to draw the attention of kids to experiments performed by Chamitoff on-board the station.

"The critical aspect is the kids and getting them excited about math, science and space," said Jim Kelly, who flew as pilot of space shuttle Discovery in 2005. "If we can catch the kids when they are young with things that they love, like Buzz Lightyear being on orbit, and that excites their imagination, that's critical to getting them to go into those areas later in life."

Kelly, of no relation to Mark Kelly who commanded the mission that delivered Buzz to the station at the start of this month, attended the Disneyland event representing NASA with Assistant Administrator for Education Joyce Leavitt Winterton. According to Kelly, who spoke with collectSPACE afterwards, Disney made the right choice of characters to send to space.

"I think that was a good choice on their part, given his background and his mission 'to infinity and beyond'. I think he was the right one to pick to go up to the space station," said Kelly.

For Lasseter, the choice of Buzz was logical, given the character's history.

"A big part of his design was based on how the Apollo astronauts looked like as they kind of walked out going over to the gantry. They had their clear helmets on and their little skullcaps and their communication devices and such, and then those white suits," he described. "To me, watching those guys walk out, they were true heroes. I was just blown away by that. And it was real. They didn't have capes on, these guys were the real deal. And I was always so impressed."

"So as we started developing Toy Story, his design came very much from that, from those guys. That's why he is primarily white and he has that big, clear helmet and he has a skullcap; it's very much based upon the real NASA astronauts."

Even his name has a link to a real NASA astronaut.

"We were sitting around trying to figure out his name," recalled Lasseter, "and we were not having much luck. I said, 'Well, what about astronaut names?' So without question, the coolest astronaut name is Buzz Aldrin. And then we started talking about space terms, rattling off all these space terms, looking stuff up, and all of sudden the suggestion of lightyear came up, as it was a measure of distance in space. We all looked at each other and said, 'Buzz, Lightyear'. It was like, 'Done! We got it, that's it!'"

"A beautiful interpretation of space..."

If Buzz (Lightyear) was appropriate for his history, then it was the future depicted by Pixar's next character that led to Disney's and NASA's second collaboration.

The day after the agency and Disney Parks debuted the footage of Buzz Lightyear in space, NASA announced a second partnership with Disney Pictures and the June 27 release of Pixar's "Wall-E". Under that agreement, the movie's title character, the only rover-robot left on Earth 700 years into the future, would be used to highlight the similarities between the film's storyline and NASA's work in robotics, propulsion and astrophysics.

"Your mission: to learn what it takes to become the next great space explorer," challenges the narrator of a NASA public service announcement featuring Wall-E. At one point in the commercial, the robot reconfigures itself to form the "dot" in, promoting viewers visit the agency's website.

At the world premiere of the movie on June 21, celebrities (including Lightyear's namesake, astronaut Buzz Aldrin) walked down the red carpet past a replica of the real Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, on loan from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. A NASA exhibit featuring imagery from the Hubble Space Telescope will decorate the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, where Wall-E will be playing.

Unlike Lightyear, Wall-E's look was derived more from the influences of classic science fiction films than from real space exploration, though director Andrew Stanton drew personal inspiration from the space program of his youth.

"I grew up in the late 60s, 70s. I took it for granted that you'd be able to watch a man land on the Moon like, you know, every once in a while. I was a little young, but it was still sexy, the whole idea of space exploration and these big, white, clean ships and where the future was going to go. I was promised jet packs and flying cars, like the rest of us, and I still want that," said Stanton.

"Wait to you see this," teased Lasseter of Wall-E, "it is so exciting. It is such a beautiful interpretation of space."

Whether it was with Wall-E or Buzz Lightyear, Lasseter said he was excited about the outcome of working with NASA.

"Why I was so excited about this program was really this connection to kids, so kids get interested in what is going on up there on the International Space Station, which is so exciting for the whole world, and to get them looking at these astronauts as heroes and inspirations again," said Lasseter.


Top: Wall-E from NASA's public service announcement; Bottom: Buzz Lightyear aboard the International Space Station. (Disney)

John Lasseter (at right) describes his excitement over seeing Buzz Lightyear in space with editor Robert Pearlman (left). (Credit: collectSPACE/S.L. Pearlman)

Buzz Lightyear floats through the International Space Station. Click to view and enlarge video in a new, pop-up window. (NASA)

WALL-E explores space in a NASA public service announcement. Click to view and enlarge video in a pop-up window. (NASA)

NASA's Mars Exploration Rover at the Wall-E premiere. (Getty)

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