Tomorrowland: The World of Tomorrow or Plain Science Fiction? NASA Weighs In

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By: Haylee Fisher (@haylee_fisher)

Tomorrowland, Disney’s latest film, discusses the idea that dreamers can make a better tomorrow. However, that tomorrow wouldn’t be possible without the help of science and technology. In the movie, Casey (Britt Robertson) and her father Eddie (Tim McGraw) have a special relationship based on a mutual love for science and how things work. He is a NASA engineer about to be laid off from his job because of the space exploration program ending; she’s a kid who doesn’t want that to happen.

Most people would think that is art imitating life. Popular belief is that human space exploration has ended. But according to Joshua Buck, NASA Public Affairs Officer, that could not be more untrue.

“To be clear, NASA’s human exploration program is alive and well,” he said in an email interview. “Currently, astronauts are aboard the International Space Station (Scott Kelly is there for a full year, the longest a U.S. astronaut has spent consecutively in space), and we are building the Orion Spacecraft, and its Space Launch System rocket that will carry the capsule and its astronauts deeper into space than ever before. NASA’s human exploration missions are alive and well.”

In Tomorrowland, Eddie works at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. NASA actually permitted the film to shoot there. Bert Ulrich, Multimedia Liaison at NASA, explained in a phone interview how that collaboration came about.

“When Jeffrey Chernov and Damon Lindelof [the producers] came to us with the script, they were very interested in shooting at the Kennedy Space Center,” Ulrich said. “So sometimes we work with film projects that include shoots on-site on a NASA facility so they took a scout and they seemed jazzed about filming at NASA so we permitted them to do and so you [will see] the end result of what they decided.”

The film sees Tomorrowland at different points in its history: 1964, 1989, and 2014. The 1964 World’s Fair is the catalyst that brings the movie’s other protagonist, Frank (Thomas Robinson as a child, George Clooney as an adult), to Tomorrowland. But there hasn’t been a World’s Fair in America in over 30 years. Yet Disney has an interesting history with the event.

frank athena

“Back in the 50s and 60s, Disney worked with one of our fathers of rocketry, Werner von Braun, who was very much involved in the Apollo program and was the father of the Saturn V rockets, which took humans to the moon,” said Ulrich. “Together, they created a concept for a television show, or a number of television episodes, around concepts of future space exploration and basically a Tomorrowland. So it’s really interesting that you had the co-mingling of NASA and Disney then and now currently, we have sort of a rekindling of that co-mingling between NASA, Disney, and Brad Bird and Brad Bird’s vision of what Tomorrowland is about and so it’s interesting that the two forces are coming together again. I mean, we’re not the focal point of the film. I think the film is largely about Casey going to this other world, but the theme resonates here in a lot of ways like comments and character traits that there’s some definite parallels there, which are definitely interesting and notable.”

Bird’s vision is what makes the film what it is. According to Ulrich, NASA didn’t collaborate on the technology of the film. But Buck said NASA is working on technology that could bleed over from the science fiction world into our world and make it a better and more fun place like Frank discusses in the movie.

“NASA technology is turning science fiction into science fact,” Buck said. “Part of our charter mandates that the technologies we invent for space exploration have practical benefits to life on Earth. Through programs like our Technology Transfer program, you can see that happening. For example, just recently, a tool to help first responders find victims in disaster areas was field-tested in Nepal. FINDER (Finding Individuals for Disaster and Emergency Response) uses ground penetrating radar NASA developed for studying planets to find heartbeats of people trapped under rubble. FINDER allowed four people to be rescued during recovery operations in Nepal. Another example that almost everyone can relate to is taking pictures on your cell phone. NASA technology to make cameras smaller and lighter on satellites (where weight is at a premium) have translated into high-quality cameras for your selfies. For more examples of how NASA technology is being used in practical applications, visit: https://spinoff.nasa.gov/.”

Ulrich said films like Tomorrowland are an invaluable resource to encourage kids to get involved in STEM fields. He says Casey is a great role model because her ingenuity and imagination are just what kids need to see as an inspiration for a future in the world of science and beyond.

“People of all ages are watching this movie, but specifically young women and young men looking at this film may be inspired to become curious,” he said. “They may want to look at a mission that’s going up into space. They may want to know how we’re going to explore Pluto this July or our journey to Mars eventually, so popular culture is a wonderful way to get people inspired and I think when you talk to a lot of people at NASA, be it an engineer or an astronaut or anyone who works at NASA, a lot of them – or a considerable number of them – would say that, ‘When I was 12, I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey and that got me really excited about space exploration,’ or, ‘I saw Nichelle Nichols in Star Trek and now that really inspired me to become an astronaut.’ Popular culture plays such an important role to these people and it can get them inspired to really be curious and whether they use it in a different career is another story, but they might, and it’s a very exciting prospect.”

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In addition to the upcoming Pluto exploration, Buck says there are many other technologies NASA is working on. In part, his email reads:

“We are working on a lot of exciting technologies that will fundamentally change how we do things. For instance, next week we will be testing the Low Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) for the second time (http://www.nasa.gov/ldsd). LDSD is part of our research in entry, descent and landing on other planets. We have gotten good at landing small payloads (like rovers), but we still need to understand how to land larger objects that we will need on other worlds, like Mars, as we journey into the solar system. The knowledge we’re gaining in this field will help firefighters through designing better and safer fire suits, as well as creating better flame retardant materials.

We’re also researching optical communications. As we venture farther away from Earth, we will need the tools to ensure we can transmit data back and forth. With laser communications, we will be able to transmit large files and science data at higher speeds. This technology could translate on Earth to faster Internet speeds or less dropped calls on cell phones.

Still another technology we’re pursuing is green propellants. Right now, the fuel we use in rockets is toxic and dangerous. We are looking at ways to use other materials that are better for the environment and less dangerous.”

Tomorrowland makes a point to show diversity in science and the lead is even a woman. However, many feel marginalized in today’s STEM fields. NASA seeks to change that and actively recruits women and people of color.

“NASA undertakes a range of efforts to recruit women and people from diverse backgrounds, particularly into science, engineering, and technology positions,” Buck said. “Over the past 30 years, NASA has established relationships with and supported national organizations such as the Society of Women Engineers, National Society of Black Engineers, Women of Color in STEM, Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers, Great Minds in STEM, and the American Indian Science and Engineering Society. Each year, NASA contributes to the national conferences of these organizations by conducting workshops, providing keynote speakers, exhibiting at their career fairs, and talking with thousands of students and professionals about career opportunities at NASA.

Another example of NASA’s outreach to women is the Women@NASA website (http://women.nasa.gov). For approximately the past five years, NASA has profiled approximately 100 NASA women on the website. The women represent a myriad of careers at NASA, such as human resources manager, mechanical engineer, computer programmer, astrobiologist, and even Deputy Administrator of NASA. The profiles recognize and pay tribute to the excellent work provided by NASA women and also serve to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers.”

In the end, it’s up to us to make the world a better place and Ulrich says NASA is proud to be part of that vision of the future.

“I think NASA continually strives to explore not only to other worlds beyond, but to better understand our own planet and I think the journey that NASA is going on is not dissimilar to the journey of Casey. I mean, she goes up to the other world with the idea that she was saving the planet, at the end, so there’s this sort of looking forward, looking back, looking forward and I think there are just similar themes in both what NASA’s mission are about and also about what the film resonates with.”

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    One Comment

  1. JordanMay 24th, 2015 at 8:05 am

    That is incredible. Do you have any sources for this information?

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