History will tell you that man took his first “small step” on the Moon in the summer of 1969. Apologies to Mr. Armstrong, but the first humans to accomplish this feat did so almost twenty-five years before he was even born.
Back in 1901, for the modest price of 50 cents, astronauts could take daily pleasure flights to the lunar surface from Buffalo, New York. Dressed in their Sunday best, flyers boarded the Luna III space glider for a gentle flight into the inky abyss. Arriving at their destination, seductive Moon maidens invited guests to shop extraterrestrial oddities, sample green cheeses, and take in a musical stage show spectacular (no spacesuit required). After their excursion, tourists could return to the Earth by exiting through the jowls of a giant mooncalf. Eat your heart out, Elon!
Okay… so the moon these explorers visited was made of papier and plaster instead of ancient igneous rock, their spacecraft was an oversized canoe with canvas wings, and the mooncalf portal might not have been as mathematically sound as the Falcon 9. Still, visitors to Frederic Thompson’s “A Trip to the Moon” attraction must have felt like they had embarked on the maiden voyage of something extraordinary. Indeed, they had. This hokey feature of the Pan-American Exposition had pioneered an exciting new paradigm of storytelling that had the power to transport humanity to literal new worlds- themed entertainment.
Sailing the stars is one of humanity’s oldest dreams. It should come as little surprise that the ancestor of immersive experience told the story of space travel. One could argue that the original purpose of this now multi-billion- dollar industry was to realize this ancient fantasy. Ironically, a few decades later, themed entertainment would visualize the realities of space exploration before anyone ever heard of NASA.
In 1955, Walt Disney’s Disneyland television show heralded Tomorrowland as the “promise of things to come.” No attraction embodied this promise more than Rocket to the Moon.
While largely fanciful, this early forefather of the motion simulator represented some of the technologies that would take Apollo 11 to the Moon and modeled a vertically landing rocket long before SpaceX. Once again humanity had glimpsed the future of space travel through the illusory magic of themed entertainment.
To this day, many attractions strive to envisage future realities. After man walked on the Moon, Mars became the next terra incognita of interest, inspiring myriad rides and shows simulating the exploration of the Red Planet (including a few in IDEAS’s own portfolio). Ersatz adventures into space are inherently fun because they combine thrilling ride systems with exotic visuals. Done right, these attractions create illusions that make guests feel like they are living the impossible. That moment of suspended disbelief secures the future of space exploration, breeding believers in its possibilities and significance. That is why hubs of the aerospace industry like Kennedy Space Center are home to award-winning attractions.
Theme parks, science centers, and museums are all laboratories of human curiosity. Space has long been seen as a treasure trove of answers about our own story. While themed environments only reflect what we know and imagine, they challenge us to dream about those answers yet undiscovered, fueling us and our progeny along a voyage of self-discovery in the stars.