Zayden Wright, of Augusta, Georgia, made history today as the first person to ever have their wish granted by Make-A-Wish using virtual reality.
Zayden underwent his first open heart surgery at 2 weeks old and has had three more open heart surgeries since in his short life His mom, Shonda Wright, said her son has always had a fascination with “the stars, the sky and the moon.”
“Ever since he was able to talk he would always say, ‘Look up to the sky and make a wish,’” Wright told ABC News.
When the wish granters from Make-A-Wish Georgia asked Zayden last year what his own wish would be, they were left in panic when he responded he wanted to fly to Saturn.
“We went, 'We can’t send a 7-year-old boy to Saturn,'” recalled Amy Alvarez, the chapter’s vice president of marketing and communications. “Traditionally we’d look at this wish and send them to space camp but what’s really important about Zayden is he has sensory issues so that wouldn’t have worked.”
Make-A-Wish Georgia leaders instead partnered with TRICK 3D, an Atlanta-based animation studio, to bring Zayden’s exact vision of Saturn to life through virtual reality.
TRICK 3D used a voice recording of Zayden describing to his mom what he imagined Saturn to look like to build Zayden’s virtual reality planet.
Zayden, for instance, described seeing a friendly alien on Saturn, so the virtual reality landscape included an alien named Beeebo who is green with yellow antennas.
Make-A-Wish Georgia also recruited a real-life astronaut, Leroy Chiao, to prepare Zayden for his mission. Chiao is known for making history in 2004 as the first NASA astronaut to vote in a presidential election from space.
Zayden first met Chiao via video in January when Zayden learned that his mission was coming. Chiao traveled from Texas to Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta, Georgia, to be there today to lead Zayden through his pre-flight briefing and present him with his astronaut suit.
Zayden and his family received a police escort from their hotel to the Air Force base, where Zayden used the virtual reality headset, which he called “astronaut goggles,” for the first time in a giant hangar.
“The hangar he was sitting in was the exact same hanger he saw in his headset,” Alvarez said. “His face all of a sudden went being from anxious and nervous to so excited.”
The red rocket ship Zayden saw in his VR headset was called the “Zayden 7.” Watching it all unfold was Zayden’s family, about 40 servicemen and women and the team who made it possible, nicknamed “Zayden’s squadron.”
“It became so much bigger than we could have ever imagined because this little boy is so creative and imaginative,” Alvarez said. “This special little boy has given us all so much hope and the true belief that if you can imagine anything, it can be possible if you just believe.”
Wright said the dream come true for Zayden was a “tearjerker” for her and her husband, Zach Wright, who know firsthand the kind of big dreamer their son is.
“There’s times where we have to kind of tell him, ‘OK Zayden, let’s come back to reality,’ because he can go so farfetched with his imagination,” she said. “This was awesome.”
Zayden is in second grade and still continues to live with what Wright described as some “restrictions” on his lifestyle. He also continues to undergo physical and occupational therapy.
“It was a tearjerker just to see our son being able to experience something like this, for him, just for him,” Wright said. “He can’t do everything the average kid does.”