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NASA lends reality to Disney thrill ride
Planetary Plaza at Mission: SPACE Image left: Visitors will enter Disney's "Mission: SPACE" ride through a Planetary Plaza featuring inspirational quotes on exploration from President John F. Kennedy, Columbia astronaut Kalpana Chawla and others. Photo courtesy Disney

For decades, the creative minds at Disney have been the experts on fantastic voyages, taking children of all ages to magical kingdoms and enchanted seas.

But when they wanted to send people rocketing towards Mars, they called NASA.

"Mission: SPACE" officially opens at Walt Disney World's Epcot on Oct. 9. Disney touts the ride as their most technologically advanced attraction ever, relying on visual imaging, motion control, and centrifuge technology to send would-be astronauts on a futuristic voyage to the red planet.

But it also relies on input from NASA advisors to create what the ride's co-producer, Susan Bryan, calls "a mix of real science and thrill."

"This ride brings it home and makes it real."
--Michelle Viotti, Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Over the past few years, NASA provided Disney's Imagineering team with tours, briefings and discussions on current human and robotic missions, as well as the challenges that future missions, like a trip to Mars, might present.

Phil West of NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, was an advisor on the project and says Disney "wanted as much realism as they could get."

"Part of our mission at NASA is to inspire the next generation of explorers. The U.S. needs them to be our inventors of tomorrow, and NASA needs them to explore new worlds and improve life here on Earth," says West.

"So when Disney approached us, it was a natural fit."

The team at JSC laid out a potential timeline: a six-month journey to Mars, followed by an 18-month stay on the surface and another six-month return ride. The advisors also told Disney any future Mars mission would likely set up surface support ahead of time and verify things are up and running before sending the human crew.

Cockpit of X-2 spacecraft at Mission: SPACE
Image right: Inside the X-2 trainer, each rider is assigned a role -- commander, pilot, navigator, or engineer. Photo courtesy Disney

West says Disney also loosely modeled a post-ride game, "Mission: SPACE Race," after procedures at Mission Control, where data is passed from flight controllers to the Flight Director to the Capcom, who then relays the information to the crew in space.

It's also the Capcom (for "Capsule Communicator," a name that dates to the earliest days of human spaceflight) who meets riders in a ready room and briefs them before their mission. Next they head to a "pre-flight corridor," inspired by the "White Room" at Kennedy Space Center. Finally, the four-member teams are strapped into the fictional X-2 Deep-Space Shuttle for a Mars mission set in the year 2036.

When they arrive at Mars, the would-be astronauts will see a landscape based on NASA imagery taken by several spacecraft over the past two decades, provided to Disney by the agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

NASA's Michelle Viotti, who worked on the project at JPL, says the result is a "cross between the realistic and artistic. They took the planetary geologists' knowledge and abstracted from that."

"We're really trying to make Mars a real place, as familiar as your backyard," Viotti says. "This ride brings it home and makes it real."

"When Disney approached us, it was a natural fit"
--Phil West, Johnson Space Center
Talks with JPL engineers also led to Disney computer models of Mars rovers, another sign, as Viotti says, that the Imagineers were "really great about wanting to have a sense of reality behind their ride."

Viotti says it's great "to partner with somebody who reaches people," especially those in Florida, where launches every 26 months make the state a "Gateway to Mars."

Humans may someday follow their robotic predecessors through that Gateway, and it's possible that a child alive today will command the first mission. Who knows, the future astronaut may even be driven toward that goal by the NASA-inspired feasible fiction of "Mission: SPACE."

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