Zayden Wright dreams of going into space.
On Monday, the Augusta native arrived at Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta, where he donned a white spacesuit and helmet as he prepared for his first mission to Saturn.
As the countdown began, Zayden screamed with excitement. At blastoff, he leaned back in his chair as if pulled by gravity.
“This is fun!” said a breathless Zayden.
Zayden, 7, has a congenital heart defect, which means that although he wants to be an astronaut, he will probably never go into space.
For five minutes and 25 seconds, though, that didn’t matter.
“He’s always been fascinated with stars, the moon and the planets,” said his mother, Shonda Wright. “It was so exciting. I have never seen Zayden cry tears of joy before. Ever. His eyes were watering up. It was so touching. And, of course, it was a real tear-jerker for me.”
Not only was it new to Zayden, but to Make-A-Wish as well. Zayden’s “trip” is the first virtual reality wish ever made in the organization’s history, according to Make-A-Wish Georgia spokeswoman Amy Alvarez. The state organization granted nearly 400 wishes last year.
Using an HTC Vive virtual reality headset, Zayden took off in a red spaceship — the Zayden 7 . When he landed, he was greeted with a hug by a very green alien named BeeBo.
“There was an alien on Saturn, and he’s my friend,” said Zayden. “Aliens are always green and have antennae.”
Zayden, the youngest of four children, was diagnosed with heart disease when he was 2 days old. Since then, he has had 38 echo-cardiograms, six heart catheterizations and four open-heart surgeries — his first at 2 weeks old.
Although he’s limited in what he can do physically, Zayden’s imagination and energy aren’t easily contained.
Chad Eikhoff, founder and CEO of the 10-year-old TRICK 3D, was just as excited. He directed Zayden’s wish, which was approached like a production.
“This was the perfect opportunity to marry what we do creating 3-D virtual reality experiences to take people to places they only dream about going or don’t exist,” he said.
The company researched Saturn and recorded Zayden talking about what a trip to Saturn might be like. “We leveraged all the information we could find. He is so animated and so full of life. It was fulfilling to be able to use our skills to help develop something that is so meaningful to someone else.”
The wish wasn’t all virtual, though.
Zayden got to take home a Samsung Gear VR headset as well as meet Commander LeRoy Chiao, a former NASA astronaut and founder of educational programs at OneOrbit, a company that offers corporate leadership, education, workshops and other development programs.