When Disney•Pixar approached the National Air and Space Museum about donating the Buzz Lightyear figure that had flown to the International Space Station for 15 months, I was delighted. As the curator for the Museum’s social and cultural space artifacts, I have the unique job of getting to take toys seriously.
Buzz Lightyear joined the pantheon of famous space characters when Toy Story burst onto the scene in 1995 as the first feature-length animated movie ever made. But Toy Story did more than just innovate with new animation technology. Its characters were so well-developed, sympathetic, and real that Toy Story earned an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay, recognition for its excellent story-telling. In fact, John Lasseter, Pixar’s Chief Creative Officer, received a Special Achievement Academy Award for his leadership of the Toy Story team.
Sending Buzz Lightyear into space combined the wide-spread appeal of John Lasseter’s beloved character with the educational inspiration of NASA. NASA launched the very first “Toys in Space” program aboard the Space Shuttle mission STS 51-D in April 1985. A second group of toys flew in 1993. These efforts included simple toys — such as a yo-yo or a ball — that could be used to illustrate science lessons. For the digital age, NASA and Disney∙Pixar used the flight of Buzz Lightyear not only for on-orbit demonstrations, but also to create online educational games and related worksheets using Buzz Lightyear to get students excited about learning.
Buzz did not simply fly into space tucked into a storage compartment. While on orbit, NASA astronauts Greg Chamitoff and Mike Fincke conducted science lessons from space with help from Buzz Lightyear. But Buzz also “had dinner” with the astronauts in the International Space Station. And it turns out that even astronauts can’t resist playing with a toy! Having Buzz Lightyear aboard provided some much-needed levity for a space crew whose time was closely scheduled to make the most of their precious time aloft.
When I talked to the people who worked out the agreement for NASA to send Buzz Lightyear to the International Space Station, I was told that the more that they worked together, the more the participants were struck by the similarities between NASA and Disney•Pixar. Not only were they both large, complex organizations with important centers in central Florida, but also — on both sides of the table — they were people who were absolutely absorbed “by the love and passion of what they do.” That’s something familiar to us here at the Smithsonian. That excitement about their missions included a strong commitment to sharing what they did with the next generation.
And indeed, that’s why the National Air and Space Museum wanted to collect artifacts from this educational initiative. Along with the flown Buzz Lightyear figure, this important donation includes the videos and educational materials produced by Disney and Pixar to inspire the next generation to get excited about science, technology, math, and the space program. Given that John Lasseter — a pioneer in digital technologies — visited the Museum for the formal donation ceremony for these objects, it’s fitting that these important donations represent the first “born digital” artifacts coming into the collection of the National Air and Space Museum.
The stories that they tell will fit well into a new Museum exhibit, Moving Beyond Earth, which illustrates the Space Shuttle program, the International Space Station, and future human spaceflight. Pixar’s “Mission Logs” videos will be help educate children and families about rendezvous, re-entry, and space science. And Buzz Lightyear himself will have a special place in the mockup of the space shuttle’s crew cabin that we’ve built in the exhibit. Given that Buzz flew into space and back aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery, after which the exhibit’s crew compartment is modeled, we hope that he’ll feel right at home.
If you plan to visit the Museum this summer, make sure that you come down the hall to Moving Beyond Earth to say hello to Buzz!
Above: Archived webcast of the ceremonial presentation of Buzz Lightyear to the National Air and Space Museum. Chief creative officer of Pixar John Lasseter presented the action figure to the Museum and took questions from the audience.
Margaret A. Weitekamp is a curator in the Space History Division of the National Air and Space Museum.