This story was updated at 5:49 p.m. ET.
A well-traveled, 12-inch Buzz Lightyear action figure received a homecoming on Friday worthy of any full-size astronaut who returned after more than a year spent onboard the International Space Station (ISS).
Disney Parks and NASA came together Friday at Walt Disney World in Florida to celebrate Buzz Lightyear's landing with the launch of a contest for kids to design the "Toy Story" astronaut's mission patch and debut a new online game as part of the "Space Ranger Education Series" on the space agency's Web site.
NASA also used today to announce a competition for students to develop science experiments to be conducted onboard the station.
The celebration culminated this afternoon with a marching band-led ticker-tape parade down the Magic Kingdom's Main Street USA featuring the flown Buzz Lightyear, his namesake - moonwalker Buzz Aldrin - and astronaut Mike Fincke, who was on the space station for six of the 15 months that the toy Lightyear was there. (Visit collectSPACE to see photographs from the parade.)
"It was so amazing," Fincke told collectSPACE.com after the parade. "You could really see that the guests here at the Magic Kingdom were extremely excited and the kids were really excited. I thought it was good for NASA, good for Disney, and I was just proud to be part of it." "Sitting next to Buzz [Aldrin], that was amazing! Beautiful cars and everybody was really excited and I felt like an American hero," he added.
A (toy) storied tradition
When Buzz Lightyear launched aboard space shuttle Discovery's STS-124 mission in May 2008, all seven of his "crewmates" had a patch to represent themselves and their mission's goals. When he arrived at the station to begin his stay, the astronauts and cosmonauts who came and went while he was there each had mission patches of their own.
In fact, all the astronauts who flew before Lightyear since 1965 have had their own emblems.
Buzz Lightyear, on his own mission to star in educational videos for NASA outreach programs, had no patch.
To correct that oversight and to engage students, NASA has partnered with Disney Parks to hold a contest open to children in grades two through six to design an insignia that honors the country's first and longest-serving space ranger.
"Disney Parks and NASA feel it's only fitting that Buzz's biggest and true fans are given the opportunity to design a one-of-a-kind mission patch to celebrate his dream come true. We have no doubt the submissions will be unique and creative -- if anything, a very hard decision to make!" said Duncan Wardle, vice president for Disney's Creative, Inc.
Beginning today through Nov. 6, children and parents can go to the Disney Parks' Web site, download a template and design a custom Buzz mission patch. Kids can choose from designs and art inspired by previous NASA badges, as well as NASA and Disney creative elements and other add-ons.
Along with their patch design, children must also submit a 100-word or less essay discussing the inspiration for their emblem.
The winner and up to three family members will receive a four day, three night vacation at Walt Disney World, as well as a VIP tour of the Kennedy Space Center. NASA will also fly the winning patch into space and award it to the winning child post-flight.
NASA also plans to reward the winner in a way only it can.
"It is a great honor to carry a patch with you to space," shared Fincke. "So, we're giving the opportunity for kids across the country to come up with a really neat patch and we will take the winning design, we will make several copies of it and fly them in space and return one copy to the designer."
"If you can imagine yourself as an eight or nine year old kid, I think that being part of the space program like that, that's pretty amazing," said Fincke.
Not just child's play
NASA also debuted today a game on its website featuring Buzz Lightyear, as well as a second design challenge for students to conduct experiments on the space station.
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