There are moments in history that inspire human imagination – breakthroughs and leaps for mankind that extend the barriers of progress and prove just how far bold ingenuity can take us.
Beyond the breakthroughs themselves, however, are the stories that make them legendary – images, headlines and films that animate complex innovations and first introduce us to gospels of invention.
It was true when Neil Armstrong first walked the lunar surface. Most might not have understood the physics that launched Apollo 11 toward the Moon, but footage of those historic small steps were enough to convert the U.S. into a nation of believers in the future of space travel.
It wasn’t just video footage that captured the world’s attention, but also a series of stories. Films, books, news features and promotional campaigns got the world excited about the wonder of space travel.
It wasn’t just video footage that captured the world’s attention, but also a series of stories. Films, books, news features and promotional campaigns got the world excited about the wonder of space travel. The leaders of this charge included editorial teams at NASA and film producers, but most notable among them was the collaboration between Walt Disney and Wernher von Braun.
Von Braun was an aerospace engineer and rocket developer at NASA and an early advocate for space exploration. He worked on the teams that developed the Saturn rockets that would later launch men toward the moon.
To get the support he needed for the moonshot, von Braun partnered with Walt Disney to create a set of films about space travel.
They used the combined power of science and story to get the public to share their vision for a future in space. Von Braun had a hunch:
Scientists criticized the effort because it targeted non-technical audiences, but von Braun wanted everyone to get on board. His “desire to see man travel into space meant convincing scientists, industry, politicians and, in particular, the public.”
The result? People around the world started to believe that a moon landing was possible. Walt called it “science factual;” people learned facts about space exploration and as a result, grew eager to see it brought to life.
[A team of editorial professionals at NASA also shared the story of the moon program to the public through films, campaigns and important media partnerships. This saga is outlined in “Marketing the Moon,” a book that illustrates “one of the most successful marketing and public relations campaigns in history: the selling of the Apollo program.”]
In the absence of stories like those that preceded Apollo 11’s launch, so many important projects are left abandoned or unfunded. In one article about breakthroughs in the field of mathematics, for example, one author laments that math’s innovations often lose their moment in history because mathematicians rarely articulate how cool their discoveries really are – thus, “Math Has no God Particle.”
Great stories help us envision what’s possible and illustrate the promise of progress in ways we can all understand. This awareness can lead to funding for more research, government support and consumer enthusiasm. So was the case for NASA in 1969, and so today is the case for Elon Musk.
Like Walt Disney and the Moon marketers before him, Elon is good at telling stories, using them to bring attention to his most ambitious projects.
For inventors like Elon, much of the task in building novelty is convincing others the construction is worth their attention. In the words of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “If you want to build a ship, don’t herd people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
And that’s what Elon does. Through storytelling, he’s taken the world to unconventional horizons of thought, encouraging them to long for the endless immensities of space travel, sustainable energy and better transportation.
When he first set his eyes on Mars, he developed a story to inspire wonder among the public and get them on-board his vision for Mars colonization. He believed that if he could plant a small, green garden on Mars (“Mars Oasis”), the visual would be compelling enough to prove that life could take root on the red planet.
Last year, Elon said he anticipates sending humans to Mars in 10 years. Skeptics dissented for Elon just as they once did when von Braun presented his own 10-year forecast. “If we were to start today on an organized, well supported space program, I believe a practical passenger rocket could be built and tested within ten years,” he once said. It was built, and it all started with an ambitious vision he was brave enough to share with the public.
Like Walt Disney, Elon has created “science factual” films to help the world imagine just what a trip to Mars might look like. One video depicts launch and en-route animations that follow travelers as they depart Earth’s surface and drift toward their new red home. These animations were based on real research – models of what the journey could look like.
SpaceX also launched futuristic promotional posters that further hyped the Mars experience, storytelling that made a Mars landing seem not-so-distant – “coming soon” to a universe near you.
These are just some among several stories that reinforce the SpaceX mission: to help people live on other planets.
It might sound like a long shot, but Elon solves for disbelief by animating the idea in small steps. For example, if Mars is too bold a leap for the average listener, he talks about a more local outpost, a place we’ve already been: the moon. And that’s where we come full circle.
When confronted with skeptics, visionaries start small. They offer a taste of what’s possible to expand people’s boundaries of thought.
That’s also a best practice at Tesla. The company’s goal is straightforward: a sustainable energy future. It starts with cleaner cars, but we slowly expand toward broader applications of the same principle. It’s not just about building sports cars or wall batteries, but Tesla’s story is about building a better future that will last. The company’s products just help us get there.
Today, Elon wants to bore tunnels below Los Angeles to alleviate the city’s traffic congestion. The Boring company is his new story to tell.
We’ve seen animations that depict how our cars will be levered underground, and we’ve heard about mysterious test-tracks beneath Los Angeles. The Boring story is coming to life – we’re not just hearing about a futuristic underground commute, but we’re seeing the blueprints.
When I worked at Disney, I spent a lot of time learning about Walt and his own blueprints for the future. He had big ideas, and he shared those through stories: movies, television shorts, books and experiences. One of his greatest was EPCOT (Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow), a test city that served as “a living blueprint for the future.”
In one EPCOT promotional film, Walt shares his vision: “I don’t believe there’s a challenge anywhere in the world that’s more important to people everywhere than finding solutions for the problems of our cities… we’re convinced we must start with the public need.”
It might sound crazy, but Walt shows how he’ll build this future, what it’ll look like and what it means for tomorrow.
That’s where Walt and Elon cross roads: two storytellers with big ideas, trying to convert the public into a cohort of believers in the same fantastic future.
It’s not just about solving problems, Elon has said – we need reasons to get excited when we wake up every day.
For now, we’ll wait to hear more about the wonder we’ll enjoy once that future arrives, taking us to a whole new world and dazzling places we never knew.