Guests at the opening of Disneyland's Toy Story Mania watch astronaut Greg Chamitoff and Buzz Lightyear float aboard the International Space Station.
"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 onto 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).
Click here for the video of astronaut Greg Chamitoff and Buzz Lightyear on the ISS, as well as footage of Buzz floating through the outpost and NASA's Wall-E public service announcement.
"Wow! That is awesome!" exclaimed Lasseter. "Oh man, I am sorry, but to see a character you created floating in space ... that is amazing."
It was a sentiment Lasseter repeated in an interview with collectSPACE.com as he discussed the educational partnership between NASA and Disney that led to Buzz being launched on the space shuttle and, separately, Pixar's title character Wall-E appearing in a new NASA public service announcement.
"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, 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.
Click here to continue reading about John Lasseter's inspiration for Buzz Lightyear and how director Andrew Stanton was personally inspired by the space program to create Wall-E.
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