Tomorrowland NASA Liaison Bert Ulrich Tells Us How Science Fiction Inspires the Future

Britt Robertson in Tomorrowland.
Britt Robertson in Tomorrowland. Disney

The central message of Tomorrowland is that optimism about science and its role in the future is preferable to the fashionable despair of dystopia and destruction. And what better symbol of American scientific progress and idealism than the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)?

While much of Tomorrowland is concerned with the more pulpy and outlandish aspects of the future, NASA’s quiet authority grounds the film in a real world where scientific advancement matters more than ever. iDigi spoke with the NASA liaison to Tomorrowland, Bert Ulrich, about not only NASA’s involvement with the new Brad Bird movie Tomorrowland, but also how the agency positions itself for the future.

Tomorrowland Trailer

While NASA has had involvement with movies like Men in Black 3, Armageddon, and the Transformers series, their collaboration with Tomorrowland proved a little more in-depth. “It was one of those projects that we saw from state to finish,” Ulrich said. “The producers came to us at the very outset… they wanted to have an element of NASA in the film.”

Some of the earlier Tomorrowland scenes are set at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, but NASA’s role in Tomorrowland is more symbolic than tangible. In fact, when Tomorrowland opens, NASA has fallen on hard times. Tomorrowland heroine Casey’s father is about to lose her job as a NASA engineer as the agency dismantles its launchpads. When Tomorrowland opens the world is a pessimistic place, with little room for explorers.

NASA appears moribund in Tomorrowland, but its space programs represent a continued symbol of hope in the movie. One recurring element is Casey’s NASA baseball cap, which she treats as reverently as Indiana Jones does his fedora. Ulrich describes the hat as a “symbol that permeates throughout the film.” The hat becomes a kind of bridge between the remote and exclusive world of Tomorrowland and the real-world change Casey hopes to bring about.

“Her hat, with the NASA meatball on there (the meatball is the name of our logo)… it keeps her grounded. And I think the NASA element really is a springboard for the whole story because you immediately have an affinity for the characters," Ulrich said.

The NASA "Meatball" Logo that plays a big role in Tomorrowland.
The NASA "Meatball" Logo that plays a big role in Tomorrowland. NASA

NASA and Movies - A Positive Feedback Loop

For Ulrich NASA is both a source of inspiration and a beneficiary of inspiration.

“When you look at an astronaut who is exploring continually or a scientist who is constantly working on experiments to learn something, it’s all a journey. And it takes you to different places.” Ulrich describes the day to day of NASA as a constant reminder that “you’re here for a great purpose. And that’s very inspiring I think.”

Just like NASA’s scientific work can inspire others, NASA helps with movies like Tomorrowland to spark scientific interest in people who might one day contribute to NASA research.

“You ask a lot of astronauts or engineers or scientists here what inspired them and a considerable number will say, ‘well, 2001 inspired me to get into the field,’ or Nichelle Nichols on Star Trek, or Star Wars.” Movies like Tomorrowland “are really vast opportunities to be able to inspire people.”

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