I love Disney, and my husband loves space travel. When we were planning our honeymoon in 1984, it only made sense to go to Florida. Through the years, he grew to love Disney as much as I did, and I grew to love things involving space, almost as much as him.
I knew that Walt Disney had visited South America at the behest of the United States government to help forge a relationship with those countries before World War II. I also knew that Walt Disney had produced a series of propaganda cartoons for the government. I wondered if maybe the same would be true for a relationship between Disney and NASA. What I found amazed me. Ward Kimball, Disney animator, told how the United States Air Force, Walt Disney, Kimball, and Von Braun, outlined a plan to remove the fear of space travel from the American populace.
German born Wernher von Braun designed rockets during WWII. In 1945, he surrendered to American troops. Eventually, he became the Director for NASA’s Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. While Walt Disney was always one to capitalize on the popular, and since space travel and science fiction regarding outer space was becoming popular in the 1950’s, it didn’t surprise me to learn that Disney contracted with von Braun and other engineers for film and his theme park. What amazed me is Wernher von Braun used Disney to promote space travel. Disney teamed up with von Braun on 3 space films. The first film was entitled “Man in Space” and aired in 1955. Von Braun, alongside other scientists, appeared in the film. Von Braun said, “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.” The morning after “Man in Space” aired, Walt Disney reportedly received a phone call from President Eisenhower. The President asked Walt for a copy to show to top Pentagon officials. It seems that not only was the government prepared to go into space, but they were shooting for the moon.
The second television show produced was “Man and the Moon.” This film also aired in 1955, and boasted that it presented a “realistic and believable trip to the moon in a rocket ship.” In the film, von Braun discussed building a space station, which would be “a staging area for the second part of the trip to the moon.” The final show, “Mars and Beyond” discussed man’s eventual trip to Mars and aired in 1957.
Both von Braun and Disney had their own reasons for teaming up. Walt Disney recognized the public’s preoccupation with space and space travel. Von Braun recognized the power of the media to further space travel. But neither man stopped at filmmaking to promote space travel. Even before these films aired, they both were influencing public perception of rockets and space travel.
When Disneyland opened in California in 1955 a rocket rose 80 feet into the air right in the center of Tomorrowland. Von Braun had assisted with the design of the ride Rocket to the Moon. This ride helped plant the idea that space travel was not only possible, but it also helped to get the public excited about our future in space. Here the folks at Yesterland explain the ride in more detail.
In 1965, von Braun invited Disney to tour the Marshall Flight Center in Huntsville, AL. Walt Disney said, “If I can help through my TV shows. . . to wake people up to the fact that we’ve got to keep exploring, I’ll do it.” Clearly, both men were intrigued and inspired by the possibility of space flight and continued to work to gain public approval. But von Braun was not the only scientist working to achieve his dream of space travel.
Dr. Ernest Sthlinger, who had worked with Wernher von Braun since their days in Germany, also worked as a technical consultant for Disney on all three television films. With these two men as consultants, Disney built accurate models of rockets. Walt Disney was very future minded, and planned an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.
When in the early stages of planning Epcot, Disney hired Gordon Cooper, who was one of the seven original Mercury astronauts. He became a WED (Walt Elias Disney) Imagineer and was also used to help build Space Mountain.
Further space links with Disney include: The first official ride on Space Mountain in Magic Kingdom was by astronaut James Irwin; Astronaut Buzz Aldrin was present at the opening of Mission: Space exhibit at Epcot; and the character Buzz Lightyear was named after astronaut Buzz Aldrin.
Imagine That by Michael Sells