Buzz Lightyear: To Infinity, And the Air and Space Museum

Buzz Lightyear returns from space and stakes out a new home in the Air and Space Museum

Buzz Lightyear returned to Earth on Discovery in 2009.
Buzz Lightyear returned to Earth on Discovery in 2009. Image courtesy of NASA/Tony Landis

“NOT A FLYING TOY,” blares the commercial that finally jolts Buzz Lightyear out of his delusions of being a real space commander in the 1995 movie Toy Story. NASA and Disney-Pixar changed that in 2008, launching the action figure into the final frontier on space shuttle Discovery. For 15 months (setting a duration record), Buzz orbited the Earth in the International Space Station. Now that he’s been back on solid ground for a couple years, Buzz Lightyear is heading to “Moving Beyond Earth” at the Air and Space Museum, an exhibition that recreates the experience of living and working in space.

This afternoon, John Lasseter, Pixar’s chief creative officer and founder, officially donated Buzz to the museum.  The 12-inch action figure will be on display starting this summer, in a new mock-up of the internal cabin of space shuttle Discovery. “We hope Buzz will feel quite at home, given that that’s the vehicle he went to space,” curator Margaret Weitekamp says.

Lasseter, who dreamed up Buzz’s character, says he has always been in awe of space exploration. When he was trying to think of the coolest possible toy to put in Toy Story, astronauts came immediately to mind. To him, Buzz’s trip to the International Space Station makes for a “full circle” story.

“I started crying when Discovery connected to the International Space Station,” he admitted at the presentation. “There’s a tube that the astronauts go through to get into the space station. They didn’t carry Buzz. They opened his wings, they put his arms out, and Buzz Lightyear flew, in space, himself, up that tube into the International Space Station.”

Buzz’s journey to space wasn’t just a joyride; Disney and NASA teamed up to use Buzz as a teaching tool to get kids excited about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). While he was living on the Space Station, Buzz actually went out into space with the astronauts, who used him for demonstrations of gravity, weightlessness, and space life, which were then beamed back to earth. Since he’d already captured the imaginations of so many people, Buzz was the perfect candidate for the job. Disney executive Duncan Wardle, who first pitched the idea of sending Buzz to space, said that he thinks the educational program was successful because Buzz speaks to people’s “sense of adventure.”

“As a child in the ’60s, I was the model of the child in the Toy Story film,” Wardle said in a phone interview yesterday. “I watched John Wayne movies. Davey Crockett. I had the hat. I had the tassels. But one day, we were brought down in what was the middle of the night in England, and my mother switched on the black and white television. My mother’s immortal words, before Neil Armstrong descended the steps with his immortal words, were ‘Sit down, shut up and pay attention. Something important’s about to happen.’ And from that day on, cowboys were history and I fell in love with space.”

Now that he’s joined Air and Space, Buzz can continue his mission of educating thousands of children every year. “I think it’ll give kids and families a new way to connect to those bigger stories that we’re telling about the space shuttle and the International Space Station,” says curator Weitekamp.

Buzz has had a long and bumpy journey to the museum; in fact, he almost missed the launch entirely. “Much earlier than we thought, probably about six months before launch, we got a call from Johnson Kennedy Space Center. They insisted he arrive the next morning, catching us a bit by surprise,” Wardle remembers. “So we went shopping.” But because the action figure had gone out of production a few months before, they couldn’t find one at any store. Finally, while Wardle was scouring stores, he got a call from his wife, who had found the dusty space ranger under their son’s bed. “All I heard on the other end of the phone was Buzz’s voice saying “To infinity and beyond,” he says. Soon enough, the catchphrase came true.

Buzz Lightyear will go on view in the “Moving Beyond Earth” gallery this summer.

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