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How The Science of Space Exploration Influences Disney Storytelling

Last week, Disney Parks Blog held a Galactic Meet-Up for their fans, who were treated to a meeting-of-the-minds between NASA representatives, Imagineers and superhero storytellers. It was a unique panel discussion that explored how the science of space exploration influences storytelling. Turns out that if you love Disney, you may be a budding scientist.

On the panel was retired U.S. Navy pilot and NASA astronaut Capt. Mike Foreman, NASA Astrophysicist Dr. Kimberly Ennico Smith, Marvel Entertainment’s Vice President of Development, TV and New Media, Stephen Wacker, and Walt Disney Imagineers John Mauro and Amy Jupiter. The panel spoke about their various fields and how the intersection of science and storytelling comes together to celebrate both technology and entertainment.

“As a physicist we solve problems,” said Dr. Kimberly Ennico Smith. Having worked at NASA for 17 years she related, “If you’re curious—if you ask questions—you are a scientist. Science is going to make the world a better place, and our future even brighter. In this age of technology, with technology within the Disney Parks, animation, and movies, it gets you to think beyond reality. You can use that thinking to solve problems in science and engineering.”

As the panel pointed out, pop culture and science are intimately intertwined, with one influencing the goals of the other, and vice versa. Comic books, movies, and TV shows facilitate the dreams ascending the gravity well. “In Fantastic Four number one, it’s about the Fantastic Four stealing a spaceship to go into space, and this was before NASA even existed,” said Wacker. Speaking about how the Marvel Universe was built on space storytelling, “The foundation of everything they did was built on hopefulness and wish fulfillment, all based around science.”

“When there’s extra attention to a comic book story in particular, that you know is fantastical and you know it’s beyond reality,” said Dr. Ennico Smith, “If you throw in an element of truth, reality, it makes you wonder, could that happen?” Regarding Iron Man’s creation of his own particle accelerator, Dr. Ennico Smith applauded the realism of creative thinking, “I have been impressed by the engineering thinking behind the Tony Stark character and the way they’ve infused little bits of engineering here and there.”

But pop culture can’t make scientists on its own. Influential and supportive teachers were what pushed Dr. Ennico Smith to want to become a scientist. Stephen Wacker relayed a similar story about Captain Marvel author Kelly Sue DeConnick. DeConnick, having been raised on Army bases with a father in Air Force Intelligence, was familiar with the world, “She was able to bring that experience into the book as we turned that character into more of a Chuck Yeager, a character who would go face first into danger.”

Walt Disney himself was inspired by advances in science and brought his vision into the theme park experience. Mauro reflected on Imagineers influences, saying that “from the early days of Tomorrowland, Mission Space, to EPCOT which celebrates that combination of technology and entertainment—science is used as a tool to tell our stories.”

And you can see science working hand-in-hand with Disney at Disney California Adventure’s new Guardians of the Galaxy-Mission: Breakout! — the first superhero-inspired attraction at a domestic Disney park. Amy Jupiter likened the riders to test pilots, “We use science and technology every day, we use it to put these attractions together,” where the movement and physiological response to the attraction is something that the Imagineers harness to keep the riders focused on the storytelling.

Ending the panel, and speaking on the accuracy of Guardians of the Galaxy — as a man who logged 637 hours in space and flew two Space Shuttle missions — NASA astronaut Captain Foreman joked, “It was spot on.”

Does your favorite ride use science to tell its story? Let us know in the comments and tag @nerdist and @justjenn on twitter to tell us your favorite Disneyland attraction!

Images: Jenn Fujikawa

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