From the Red Planet to the Sunshine State, Walt Disney World’s latest exhibit at EPCOT transports guests to Mars, showcasing the marks left behind by NASA’s Perseverance rover. Thanks to the combined creativity of Walt Disney Imagineering and NASA’s Perseverance Mars Rover team, guests of the theme park’s “Mission: SPACE” attraction can now see a real-life replica of the Martian terrain. A new display mimics the tread marks left by the Perseverance rover on the surface of the planet.
With the help of a prototype wheel loaned from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Disney’s artisans have masterfully re-created the Red Planet’s surface. According to an official Disney post, Imagineers used a 3D print file provided by the space agency to recreate the exhibit’s 3D printed sample tubes, identical to those Perseverance uses on Mars to cache soil and rock. Since Perseverance continues its mission on Mars to collect samples that could one day return to Earth, these tubes could be vital pieces of evidence in the quest to answer one of humanity’s most profound questions: Was there ever life on Mars?
NASA’s Perseverance rover, which landed on Mars on February 18, 2021, carries 11 metal parts made with 3D printing. For example, its PIXL instrument, which seeks out signs of fossilized microbial life by shooting X-ray beams at rock surfaces to analyze them, uses parts 3D printed by Carpenter Additive. This isn’t a surprise since NASA has been increasingly incorporating additive manufacturing into its projects, given the technology’s advantages in producing lightweight and complex parts that would be difficult or impossible to create using traditional manufacturing methods. However, we can see today how NASA’s 3D printing innovations trickle down to collaborating companies like Disney.
— Walt Disney World (@WaltDisneyWorld) October 4, 2023
Mars meets magic
Disney’s trailblazing attraction, “Mission: SPACE,” is more than just a ride for thrill-seekers. Since its launch in 2003, it has set a new standard for space-related experiences. With input from real NASA astronauts and scientists, Disney Imagineers, in their pioneering efforts, succeeded in replicating the sensations astronauts feel during liftoff. By doing so, they offered guests a genuine NASA-style training adventure with a touch of Disney magic.
Former NASA astronaut Story Musgrave, whose career in the Space Program spanned more than 30 years, served as an ongoing consultant on the “Mission: SPACE” project. According to Musgrave, Disney’s new attraction is “a place where guests can imagine our future in space and their role in it, walking in the footsteps of heroes and building on the wealth of technology we’ve developed to date.”
The ride is based on reality. When it first opened, it offered authentic NASA-style training on a ride to Mars. It used a centrifuge to produce similar G-forces to those experienced during a spacecraft’s launch and re-entry (about 2.5), reaching spinning speeds up to 35 mph. Right after its inauguration, Disney placed vomit bags inside each capsule in case the Gs were too much to handle. Later, following the death of a 10-year-old child after riding it, Disney began analyzing alternatives. It took a while, but by 2017, the parks introduced a second less intense experience. This takes guests on a simulated flight into Earth orbit. They have to make sure they pick the right entrance, the green one.
Luckily, the experience doesn’t limit itself to just the ride. Plaques fill the courtyard of Mission: SPACE, sharing quotes about space exploration. Recent additions like the introduction of the Space 220 restaurant elevate the park experience, literally. Simulating a space elevator journey—a concept NASA has toyed with for years—guests feel like they are ascending to space and get a “spectacular view of Earth from orbit.”
Although the latest exhibit may appear unique, it’s not the first time “Mission: SPACE” visitors have seen rover tracks. Back in 2003, JPL facilitated an engineering model of its Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, to leave its imprints in wet cement, along with a plaque inscribed with the words of then-NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe, “We’re back … and we’re on Mars.” This impression remained on display for two decades until it was removed in 2023. Though the original tracks are gone, the mission’s essence remains intact, with the Perseverance exhibit rekindling the same spirit of exploration among guests.
With each iteration and addition, Disney and NASA have forged a partnership beyond just a collaboration. This union aims to inspire the next generation of explorers. NASA’s commitment to igniting the imagination of young minds aligns perfectly with Disney’s storytelling talent.
In an age where commercial spaceflight could fast become a reality, this exhibit serves as a timely reminder of our space exploration ambitions. It’s also a great way to bridge kids’ interest between the Florida theme park and the nearby Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. Visitors can interact with astronauts, see the Space Shuttle Atlantis up close, or even watch a live launch from the nearby Space Force station. As Perseverance advances its groundbreaking exploration on Mars, here on Earth at EPCOT, its impact is imprinted, inspiring the next generations to dream big and reach for the stars.
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