The new Disney Junior series Miles From Tomorrowland premieres today and we spoke to outer space architect John Spencer, Executive Vice President and Chief Designer for Mars World Enterprises and Founder and President of the Space Tourism Society. The animated series Miles From Tomorrowland is the story of a little boy named Miles, who lives with his family in a biosphere in space while they explore the universe. The show features the voices of Mark Hamill, Will Wheaton, Cullen McCarthy, and Olivia Munn. Spencer consulted on the show and told us all about his work and his contributions to the show.
The Science & Entertainment Exchange: Tell us a little bit about how you contributed to the show.
John Spencer: The first meeting I had with their key people at Disney was focused on how they could be as authentic as they can within the context of a futuristic family in space. So they wanted to be able to get at least core science issues right. It was perfect for The Exchange to provide them with someone who knows a bit about that. I also networked them to a number of other people who are into other types of things: physicists, scientists, those kinds of people. I’m really a designer, architect, that kind of thing. They clearly listened to both. I did consultations in my home design studio for about a dozen of them about the future of space, and went up to the Disney Channel headquarters in Burbank, California, and gave a presentation to about 20 of their people.
The Exchange: I was reading about some of the fun stuff in the show, like the main character Miles’ tool that’s sort of like Doctor Who’s sonic screwdriver and the biosphere. Did you consult on any of these specific items or the science lessons the kids learn each week?
Spencer: Not just lessons the kids will learn, it’s the potential future of space and what we’ll be doing, technological capabilities—I emphasized a number of areas we’re working on for real, even today, which will be accelerated 20 or 30 years from now.
The Exchange: Can you tell us about some of those?
Spencer: Sure! Man/machine interface with robotics, artificial intelligence, new materials that will let us do all kinds of stuff, preventing radiation problems. We talked a bit about biospheres, which they thought were really cool. On a spaceship or on a moon base or a Mars resort, they would all have a biosphere, where it would all be recycled water and plant life and waste material to be self-sustaining, but also to create a beautiful environment for people to live in. They were very style and art and design oriented, this group who put together the production and the production design work. They really wanted to get something that was friendly and attractive and fun. We spent a lot of time talking about what kind of fun can you have in outer space. Of course zero gravity and low gravity when you’re on a different kind of planet could be fun. They wanted to know about what I thought colors would be that would keep the imagination going for people living in a spaceship. I really related a lot of what I do in normal design to create wonderful and beautiful environments. And how there is a bit of a unique translation from Earth/space design to outer space design in zero gravity.
The Exchange: What sort of design elements would change in zero gravity?
Spencer: Well, you’re really creating a three-dimensional environment. It’s really exciting from a design standpoint. Human beings currently when you’re in Earth orbit, or even when you go to the moon, consider Earth to be down and stars to be up. I use the term toward Earth or away. For years I’ve been trying to break my own up and down orientation. So if you’re designing a three-dimensional environment, there is no up or down, there are no walls or ceiling. There is just a space you can design, that’s most efficient, effective, and fun to be in.
When you’re in zero gravity, you don’t have a bed. You have more of a sleeping bag kind of thing. In zero gravity, say you have water, how do you have a bathtub or a hot tub, which I’ve designed for my orbital super yacht, which is a whole thing in and of itself. In zero gravity, liquids form a sphere, because gravity is not there to flatten it out. So how do you have shower or a tub or a swimming pool or a hot tub in zero gravity? Well, it’s a hot sphere and you have to design it with that in mind. At the very center of the hot tub, and they aren’t doing this in the show as far as I know because it’s for kids, but they got fascinated by the hot sphere—because they’re people and it’s really cool. [laughs] So imagine a two-foot diameter solid sphere that has gyros in it to keep the overall water sphere in a place within your spaceship. It also makes the bubbles, the heat, and that kind of stuff. And it also has little places you can put your feet into so you can stabilize yourself like little straddle things, so you can have your upper torso outside the water. Then you put the water around that and you basically have a hot tub in space.
The Exchange: Tell us about the orbital space yacht. That sounds amazing.
Spencer: Well, for decades, I’ve been one of the key pioneers in establishing the space tourism industry. I’m the founder and President of the Space Tourism Society. Since 1982, I’ve been modeling from a business standpoint, the space tourism industry after the cruise line industry. If you think about it, it makes great sense. It’s a great model because cruise ships are devices that take people out to the environment of the ocean to provide a whole unique experiences and to make money. In a parallel to the cruise line industry, there is the private yachting industry, including mega-yachts that cost hundreds of millions of dollars, sometimes a billion, that exist not to make a cash profit, but to make a social profit, from the pride, the prestige, the marketing, all those kind of things.
I’ve actually designed a realistic spaceship, a beautiful spaceship, modeled after one of Paul Allen’s super-yachts. I’m sure we’ll actually build it someday. We’ll assemble it in Earth’s orbit and basically cater to the rich and famous and be the first orbital super-yacht. Then we’ll have a super-yacht community and yacht clubs in orbit, yacht racing around the moon, all those kinds of things. So that’s partly what I do. I forecast 20 or 30 years into the future about what we might be doing in space. And that’s why the relationship with the Miles people worked out so well, because they were a little more focused on the technology and space stuff and needed a boost in terms of thinking of the future and what might be happening. Those discussions led to different kinds of script ideas or story ideas, and the different kinds of things people would be doing, living off-world.
The Exchange: I’d love to know how you got into science as a kid.
Spencer: I was 13 when the first Apollo mission landed on the moon, so I was very impressionable. That was a really big time following Mercury/Apollo program. I also loved Star Trek, the original TV series. And I was astounded by the movie 2001, which came out in 1968 and wondered—because I’ve always been a designer, always drawing stuff, always inventing things—who designed these great spaceships and moon bases and stuff. I always loved science and space and astronomy. In 1978, while I was in my master’s program in architecture school, I was like, hey, I could be a space architect and combine my two loves of space with architecture and design.
The Exchange: By the way, outer space architect is the best job title ever.
Spencer: Yeah, outer space architect—you say that at a party and everyone stops and goes, what? [laughs]
The Exchange: Tell me a bit about Mars World.
Spencer: It’s not yet funded, though it probably will be because we’ve built projects before. Besides being a designer I’m a real estate developer, finance guy, and science guy—but all those together gives me the ability to do things that separately I couldn’t do.
A number of years ago, I developed a project called Mars World and my company trademarked the name. It’s a proposed $2 billion large-scale, mixed-use entertainment immersion attraction and casino for Las Vegas. Just a few weeks ago we were out in Vegas talking to some of our people there and walking around the site we’d like to buy. Our investment bankers have done over $250 billion in transactions. That’s the big project we’re working on and it will be one of the most extraordinary high-tech, high-touch immersive biosphere green, fun places on Earth, forecasting what a futuristic city on Mars might be like in the year 2088.
It’s a really good project and the core of it is forecasting a positive, exciting, healthy future that counters all of our zombie movie–type things … it’s an extraordinary, stylish, inspiring Martian culture. These are people who immigrated to Mars or were born on Mars and have their own unique take on the world or worlds, and that’s one of the cool things that, when our Las Vegas visitor visits Mars World, they’ll be able to interact, if they want to, with our Martian friends and culture. These are actors and actresses that we train in the culture. We’d have to hire tall actors and actresses because on Mars, you’d be a bit taller.
Miles From Tomorrowland premieres February 6 on Disney Junior.