Exclusive: NASA on how 'Tomorrowland may spark curiosity in real exploration'

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May 21, 2015, 6:16 PM EDT

Tomorrowland is the upcoming Disney movie about Casey, a girl who receives a pin that can transport her to another world, one that is connected to ours. But as George Clooney's character put it in the trailer, "Every second that ticks by, the future is running out." It's up to Casey to save Earth. Luckily, she has a bit of know-how and critical thinking skills, thanks to her NASA engineer father ... as well as writers Brad Bird and Damon Lindelof, who consulted with NASA on the film.

We spoke to Bert Ulrich, NASA's multimedia liaison for film and TV collaboration, about NASA's input on Tomorrowland, plus what they have in store for the future and the present.

How did NASA become involved in Tomorrowland?

We got a call from Jeffrey Chernov's office -- he's the producer of the film -- and Damon Lindelof submitted a script to us. We reviewed the script, and we added a couple of little tweaks for accuracy. They asked if they could shoot some scenes at Kennedy Space Center, so they did a little bit of filming, as you can see in the movie. 

What kind of tweaks?

We were concentrating on the NASA backstory about where Casey came from, which grounded her throughout the movie. Her father is a NASA engineer, and she is this brilliant young woman who was interested in engineering. Through her imagination and knowledge and ingenuity, [she] was able to save the world. 

We almost come full circle with Brad Bird working with NASA, in a weird way.

How so?

Back in the '60s Disney worked with Werner von Braun, the father of rocketry. They produced a television show together that dealt with their combined vision of what space exploration would look like in the future.  It was a series of conceptual pieces [Note: For example, this and this] that dealt with space exploration of where von Braun was going and what he was thinking. 

In Tomorrowland, we're told we need to use our imagination in order to save the world. Don't you think saving the planet requires knowledge more than imagination?

I think that, in the film, we see all these other elements that resonate with Casey: Inspiration, imagination, ingenuity and knowledge. You see these characteristics also present here at NASA, [which] people use ... to create missions and explore. 

In the film, Casey asks how she can solve the world's problems? What is NASA doing to help?

NASA is continually trying to gain knowledge and increase humanity's knowledge of what's out there, and at the same time, NASA is also learning about our own world through our Earth Sciences office.  

We have a really exciting journey to Pluto in the New Horizons mission, on July 14. We're readying an Orion mission capsule that's being tested for eventual travel to deep space. We're preparing for a journey to Mars eventually. We have the Curiosity rover up on Mars. We have the Mars 2020 rover that's getting prepared. There are so many different directions that NASA is going in.

But a lot of this is in the future. What is NASA doing to help the present?

All of this is helping with the present, because we're gaining knowledge about humans, about what space exploration is about and where we can go as we live through the history of the space age. And we continually learn more. 

Do you think Tomorrowland will inspire viewers? 

This film may very well spark [viewers'] curiosity in what entails real exploration. If you ask a lot of NASA scientists and astronauts and engineers what inspired them, a considerable number say 2001 [the 1968 Stanley Kubrick movie] inspired me, or Nichelle Nichols inspired me. There's a relationship with these types of productions and films in popular culture that gets people thinking in interesting ways. This movie does that, I think. It's a very inspirational film and a very hopeful one ... although, legally, I'm not supposed to be endorsing movies.

But I'm sure you loved 2001.