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Reflecting on the 50th Anniversary of the Moon Landing

It was nearly 4am Monday morning when my mother woke us.

Minutes earlier, I had been tucked in tight and fast asleep in our cozy English home. Now, along with my two sisters, I was being marched in my pajamas and plopped in front of the television. As I went to inquire about what was going on – my mother always making it a point for us to watch less TV, after all – I was stopped dead in my tracks.

“Sit down, shut up, and pay attention,” my mother lovingly directed, “something important is about to happen.”

Nearly 5,000 miles away in Houston, Texas, in a nondescript building tucked off the Gulf of Mexico, NASA Mission Control was giving final instructions to Commander Neil Armstrong as he prepared to descend the Lunar Module ladder. And moments later, at exactly 10:56:15 p.m. EDT on the 20th of July 1969 – with the entire world watching – Armstrong touched down on the surface of the moon.

“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

For this little English boy, watching this iconic moment live was the catalyst for what would become an obsession with space exploration and adventure.

A Real-Life Andy

In the classic Pixar masterpiece Toy Story, young Andy grew up – like many of us – wanting to be a cowboy. Along with his sheriff friend Woody, Andy spent his early childhood donning his cowboy hat and taking on the outlaws trying to wreak havoc on the wide-open plains of his bedroom floor. Until Andy receives a special new toy for his birthday: the one and only Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear. And in an instant, Andy goes from dreaming about being a man of the law, to being a man of the stars.

Though I predated Andy by a few years, watching Apollo 11’s mission to the moon had the exact same effect on young me. Like most boys my age, I grew up a Davy Crockett fan, with days spent roaming the local “uncharted territories” in search of adventure. But once I saw the magic of man on the moon, I immediately traded in my coonskin hat for space goggles made out of empty pudding cups.

I’ve shared my thoughts before on why Toy Story, as well as all the other Pixar greats, resonate so strongly with audiences. In my case (and likely the case of millions around the globe), Andy’s transformation in the movie from cowboy to astronaut mirrored my own, and this allowed me to connect with his character on a much more personal level.

In fact, my connection to both Andy and his love of space was so strong that years later it would serve as the inspiration for what would become the most “out of this world” idea I ever had.

Making Buzz’s (and Duncan’s) Dream Come True

Last month, I told the story of when my team and I sent Buzz Lightyear into space. Of all the wild ideas I had while serving as the Head of Innovation and Creativity at Disney, this one takes the cake. But it worked, and we ended up helping Buzz finally achieve his dream, sending him into space to spend an entire year on the International Space Station.

What I didn’t share in that first story was that my time at Disney allows someone else’s dreams to come true…my own.

Upon Buzz Lightyear’s triumphant return home from space, we did what Americans had done years before for the Apollo 11 crew: we threw him a parade! Modelled after the “Canyon of Heroes” parade that took place in New York City upon the Apollo 11’s return home, we strapped Buzz to his remote-control car pal RC, and took a ride down Main Street in Walt Disney World so that he could wave to thousands of adoring fans.

But Mr. Lightyear wasn’t the only Buzz there that day. In fact, leading the parade was the one and only Buzz Aldrin, the Lunar Module pilot from Apollo 11, and the second man on the moon.

Having the opportunity to meet Mr. Aldrin 40 years after I watched him set foot on the moon that early morning in sleepy England was a dream come true for me, an experience of such magnitude in my life that I can only think of one other occasion that even comes close…

One Small Step

“That’s ok, I’ll walk…”

Neil Armstrong had already refused the typical PR “handler” that Disney would assign to aid VIP guests. Now he was also refusing a special golf cart ride as well.

The year was 2005, and Armstrong was at Disneyland for the “re-launch” of Space Mountain. And yours truly was absolutely star struck!

While I knew this day was coming and had plenty of time to prepare myself, standing there with my real-life hero – the man who in an instant gifted me an unbridled love of space exploration – was absolutely overwhelming. I couldn’t believe he was really here! And more than that, I couldn’t believe how incredibly kind and humble he was.

This is the man that literally created one of the most iconic moments in modern civilization. And he was refusing any special treatment from our team. He just wanted to be like everyone else visiting the park.

As we began our walk towards Space Mountain, I couldn’t resist telling Mr. Armstrong my man on the moon story. The middle of the night wakeup call from my mother, the loving “sit down, shut up” command, and the swapping of a coonskin hat for pudding cup space goggles.

Though I am sure Armstrong had heard countless personal tales of man on the moon viewing experiences, he was still gracious enough to listen intently to me as I told my own. I had no choice but to let him know how much his bravery affected the course of my life, and how it forever changed the way I approached an “impossible” task.

This exchange with my hero is one I’ll never forget, and one that I am especially grateful for this month as we look back on 50 years of Apollo 11 history.

The Impossible Dream

In the 2000 Australian movie The Dish – which is a comical take on a real-life partnership between NASA and an Australian sheep farm that proved pivotal in being able to broadcast the first man on the moon live worldwide – there is a scene that is especially striking. It’s of groups of people around the globe gathering to watch Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin become the first two human beings to step foot on the moon.

As the scene cuts from location to location, you get a sense of exactly how important this moment was, not just to the United States, but to the world. Whether it was massive crowds watching late Sunday night in Times Square, groups of Japanese businessmen gathered around TV’s during their lunch break Monday afternoon, or yours truly in the middle of the night and plopped in front of the family TV in the UK, the entire world came together to experience this moment.

It was a moment we all shared…together, and a global experience that, quite honestly, we really haven’t had since.

The recent 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 in 2019, reminded us that we are all capable of coming together and having shared experiences. In fact, with the proliferation of technology and communication devices, it’s easier than ever to create a global, “mankind” experience. We just need to remind ourselves that we’re allowed to root for one another and share in each other’s victories.

What was accomplished by astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins – along with thousands of others playing pivotal roles at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration – was the ultimate victory. It was something that had been deemed impossible for nearly all of time. Yet hundreds of millions around the globe gathered together to watch it happen in real time with their own eyes.

This moment will always serve as a reminder that “impossible” is a man-made construct, a label we created not for things that can’t be done, but for things that seem a little too hard or require a little too much effort.

As we all enjoyed the wonderful TV specials, articles and video content being released in celebration of man on the moon, it was the perfect time to reflect on what can be achieved when we stop labelling things “impossible,”, start working together, share global experiences, and take those steps towards making our own dreams come true.

Or, as Walt Disney would so eloquently put it: “If you can dream it, you can do it.”

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