Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Buzz, Astronauts Shine as Stars of Disney Parade

Buzz Lightyear didn't quite make it to infinity, but he went well beyond the realm of other action figures.

The icon of Disney's "Toy Story" films spent 15 months on the International Space Station and got a ticker-tape parade alongside real-life moonwalker Buzz Aldrin and Expedition 18 Commander and NASA astronaut Mike Finke to welcome him home to Disney World in Orlando, Fla., on Oct. 2.

"Buzz was the perfect crewmate," Finke said. "He lifted our spirits, he didn't talk much and he didn't eat much, so he left us his extra portions."

While Buzz Lightyear is a space ranger, Finke said the character's best work has been in serving as a bridge between the fun, fanciful side of spaceflight and the technical and scientific skills NASA uses to make spaceflight happen in real life.

"Buzz is internationally known, and Buzz is a space ranger, so by sharing some of Buzz's adventures with what we do at NASA, it really highlights a lot of good things for NASA and shows what we really do, what astronauts do," Finke said.

The toy’s popularity gives NASA a head start in getting children's attention in a world in which focus is short-lived, said Joyce Winterton, NASA's associate administrator for Education.

"It's something that students and children can relate to," Winterton said. "So when they see him going up in space on the shuttle or the station it becomes a touch point for them. Sometimes I think they see an astronaut as something they can achieve, but when they see a toy, they somehow think, 'Hey, I can do that, too.'"

The parade coincided with a NASA education initiative that includes an opportunity for students to propose an experiment which will be flown on the International Space Station. There also is a contest to design a mission patch that will go into orbit on the station.

"We've got the attention of thousands of students because of Buzz Lightyear," Winterton said. "And hopefully we'll have a large number of students say let's plan an experiment. And of those we'll pick 12 that will fly on the International Space Station, and that's pretty great."

Disney also developed and posted several Web-based educational games for Buzz's launch and landing based on NASA's missions and goals.

Finke also shared a stage with Buzz at Disney's Magic Kingdom to talk to school children about space travel, science and technology.

Veronica Franco, an education specialist at NASA's Kennedy Space Center near Orlando, led a number of space-related demonstrations, including freezing and crumbling plants using liquid nitrogen. With help from "Spaceman" from the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, she showed how astronauts get dressed for a spacewalk.

Then it was Finke's turn to wow the students with firsthand accounts from his two, six-month stays in the weightlessness of space. He looked at stars, conducted research on changes to the body and basically adjusted his body to cope with the unpredictable nature of things in zero gravity.

So what did students want to hear about first? The technologically advanced toilet.

Buzz didn't have to learn that lesson during his time in orbit.

Disney was aware of the somewhat mixed goals for NASA and the entertainment company, and backed down its normal commercial considerations for the chance to send Buzz into space.

"You've got to strike a balance," said Disney's Duncan Wardle, the company's global vice president for Public Relations Integration. "And it's a hard role for a government organization sponsored by the taxpayer, but you've got to excite the next generation of space travelers."

Buzz has proven an attraction in ways Wardle said he didn’t expect. For instance, a U.S. Air Force officer at Edwards Air Force Base in California asked for a photo with Buzz after the shuttle touched down there in September after space shuttle Discovery’s STS-128 mission.

But the idea was hardly a certainty when Wardle pitched it to a roomful of NASA officials.

"My sense was 50 percent loved the idea but probably didn't want to say it, and 50 percent of the room wanted to pick me up and throw me out the window," Wardle recalled.

Once the plan was approved, there was still a significant hurdle for the project: 12-inch Buzz Lightyear action figures had gone out of production months before and Wardle's team of employees could not find them in any store, warehouse or anywhere else.

"I was driving back to the office, and I got a call and all I heard was a voice, 'To Infinity and Beyond,'" Wardle said. "Then my wife said, 'Found it, it's been underneath (my son's) bed. It's been there six months collecting dust. And I was like, 'Right, that's it then, that's the Buzz Lightyear that's going into space. Wasn't quite in the plan, but . . . "

That Buzz went from bedroom floor to Houston in days, and into orbit a couple months later. At that point, there was not any talk of bringing the action figure back. Instead, he would stay on the station as a permanent resident, including during the station's fiery entry when it is de-orbited.

Wardle provided the winning argument for bringing Buzz back on the shuttle: "I said, guys, if you incinerate Buzz Lightyear, I'll have to tell the world's children."

So with his flight home approved, Buzz moved into Discovery during the STS-128 and returned to Earth. His education mission is not over though. Plans call for him to be displayed in the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, Wardle said.

"This one is going to be hard to top," Finke said.