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The Other Walt Disney Space Story

The Other Walt Disney Space Story

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With the recent opening of MISSION: SPACE at Epcot and the release this December of a DISNEY TREASURES DVD which will include a set featuring the three Outer Space related shows directed by Ward Kimball, a lot of attention has been spent on Walt Disney's interest in space and how it also resulted in the creation of illusion rides at Disneyland to mimic an outer space voyage to the moon (and later to Mars).

With so much information on the space shows and all the information on the attractions like ROCKET TO THE MOON, FLIGHT TO THE MOON, MISSION TO MARS not to mention the Moonliner (named to suggest TWA's Jet liners and designed by John Hench), it is sad that another Walt Disney space story goes unrecorded which includes Walt's experience in a NASA simulator and Roy O. Disney's praise for NASA.

Back in the Fifties, scientist Wernher von Braun was justifiably frustrated at how passive the United States was at developing a space rocket program. He believed he could transform the public's fascination with science fiction into an interest in science fact that might spark faster development of a space program. Remember, this was the era of UFO sightings and a flood of science fiction films preying on post-war paranoia.

COLLIER'S magazine (which had a weekly circulation of between three and four million readers) offered von Braun and other scientists like Haber and Ley an opportunity to write a series of "science factual" articles. When Ward Kimball, who had read these articles, was developing the space shows for the DISNEYLAND television series contacted von Braun to perhaps act as a consultant, the scientist jumped at the chance because he realized that there were fifteen million Americans with television sets and like the COLLIER'S articles that this was a perfect opportunity to "sell" the average American on the exploration of space.

"To make people believe that space flight was a possibility was his greatest accomplishment," said Mike Wright, staff historian for the Marshall Space Flight Center. "Von Braun brought all of this out of the realm of science fiction."

An estimated forty-two million viewers saw the first show, MAN IN SPACE, when it premiered in March 1955. When the show was rerun just three months later in June 1955, supposedly President Eisenhower requested a copy of the television show to show the Pentagon. Shortly afterwards in July, President Eisenhower announced that the U.S. would launch a small unmanned earth-circling satellite as part of the U.S. participation in the International Geophysical Year.

Though Ward Kimball frequently told this story (sometimes elaborating on the confusion at the Disney switchboard when the President's office called with operators thinking it was a prank by animators) and definitely corresponded with von Braun indicating that Disney was planning to publicize this involvement when the show was scheduled to be rerun again in September, it is important to remember that neither the Office of the Historian at the Pentagon nor the archivists at the Eisenhower Library have been able to locate documentation supporting Eisenhower's interest in the Disney film.

That doesn't mean that Kimball's story is untrue. It only means that supporting documentation has been elusive. One thing that cannot be denied is the huge impact the three Disney space oriented shows had on public opinion which obviously influenced the acceleration of effort on the U.S. space program. The films also influenced many people who later became aerospace engineers and even top NASA officials and had a significant cultural impact on the American space program, especially when news articles half seriously suggested that the United States should turn over the space program to Disney since Disney had a plan and a vision.

So it was not surprising when in 1965, exactly ten years after MAN IN SPACE aired, von Braun once again found himself frustrated by the U.S. government's lack of enthusiasm about putting a man on the moon and once again, von Braun saw that the solution was to involve Walt Disney.

Wernher von Braun wrote to Bill Bosche, a sketch artist and writer on the earlier Disney space films with whom von Braun had worked closely. It was Bosche who sent von Braun long lists of technical questions that needed to be answered in order to develop the storyboards for the show. Bill Bosche was an artist, writer, and producer at Disney for over thirty years and helped compile the film for THE WALT DISNEY STORY attraction. In the letter, von Braun invited Walt Disney and other key Disney personnel to tour the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

"It is really only a few short years ago since I had the pleasure of working at your studios (on a project) which, it turns out was quite prophetic," wrote Dr. von Braun who was now director of NASA's space flight center in Huntsville, Alabama, "I understand that over the years you have kept up a rather lively interest in the space program and, particularly, in manned space flight. For this reason, I thought you might like to have an opportunity to see just how prophetic (you were)."

It was apparent that von Braun was hoping lightning would strike twice and that he could get Walt so excited about what they were doing that it might generate another series of Disney television programs to enthuse the public to actively support a more aggressive space program.

Frank Williams, Director of the Future Projects Office and a close associate of von Braun, wrote to Bart Slattery, Director of Public Affairs Office at the Marshall Space Flight Center, on November 13, 1964 that: "Out of this we would at least establish good will, and maybe (if we play our cards right) we could get something going that would be of tremendous benefit to MSFC, Apollo, NASA, and the entire space effort."

In April 1965, Walt Disney accompanied by his brother Roy as well as several WED Enterprise personnel including Bill Bosche, Ken Peterson, John Hench, Claude Coats and Ken O'Connor swung through the three chief space centers at Houston, Cape Kennedy and Huntsville, Alabama.

Walt took time out between his looking around to fly a couple of simulators! His earth-bound flight missions were both accomplished at NASA's manned spacecraft center at Houston. There, Walt at the age of sixty-three "flew" a Gemini simulator to a successful space rendezvous or docking, then "landed" on the moon in a LEM (lunar excursion module) after two professional airplane pilots had well overshot the green-dot target area on a simulated moon.

Without any previous experience, Walt had to quickly learn to operate and "fire" the retro-rockets which provide capsule control, accounting for drift and the other momentum factors that plague spacemen. (A month or two later, Walt would get a chance to take off from an aircraft carrier at sea with a massive catapult sending his plane over the waves. Walt was highly active the last couple of years of his life.)

On the front page of the April 13, 1965 edition of THE HUNTSVILLE TIMES with a headline proclaiming "Walt Disney Makes Pledge to Aid Space," Walt was quoted as saying "If I can help through my TV shows ... to wake people up to the fact we've got to keep exploring, I'll do it."

Von Braun's daily journal entry for April 13, 1965 indicated his hope that the tour "may easily result in a Disney picture about manned space flight." However, if von Braun was hoping that Walt would immediately put such a project into the works, he was sadly disappointed. Walt's attention was consumed with other projects. While Walt may have had an interest in space exploration, he was passionate about EPCOT, Cal Arts, Mineral King and a half dozen other projects that took precedence over developing another space series.

In 1970 von Braun was removed as Director and promoted to where he was no longer in a decision making position. He continued to plan for a Mars mission but gave up and resigned in 1972 when it became apparent that none of his proposals received any sort of serious consideration. He took a private sector job, developing and deploying satellites for the Fairchild Corporation. He became seriously in 1975 and on June 16, 1977 succumbed to cancer at sixty-five years of age. Von Braun was one of the inspirations for the Disney animated character Ludwig von Drake (although my personal opinion is that Willy Ley who impressed the Disney staff as a living encyclopedia and foremost authority on most things was also an inspiration).

Officially, NASA did assist the Disney Company to present a more realistic experience when Disneyland converted the ROCKET TO THE MOON attraction into FLIGHT TO THE MOON in 1967 at Disneyland. Although unofficially, Imagineers grumbled that NASA purposely withheld information like the design concepts of the moon vehicle so that when a man did land on the moon two years later, the Disney attraction was hopelessly out of date.

While researching this piece, I was surprised to find the usually reticent Roy O. Disney quite verbose on his experience at Cape Kennedy at the time, where the great Saturn rockets were being made ready for possible manned flights to the moon.

"I was completely thrilled with what we saw," Roy stated. "Anyone would be thrilled if he could see the fantastic effort and organization that must go behind space flights like the one McDivitt and White completed so brilliantly on their history-making four day mission. It's hard to comprehend -- unless you've seen some of it first hand, as we did just prior to the flight-to really understand the daring that necessarily goes into an effort such as this one."

"The whole thing lies almost beyond the comprehension of the non-scientific mind," Roy continued. "For instance, three hundred thousand people are needed to set up, check out and operate a space flight, staffing a network that covers most of the world. These NASA crews are not permitted a single mistake, of course. All mistakes must be made ahead of time. And then the entire performance must be carried out before the eyes and ears of billions of people, both friendly and the unfriendly. Any American would be-should be-proud that all of us are in some way part of our country's efforts in tackling this fabulous new space frontier."

After over twenty years, the still definitive article about the Disney space shows is the one written by Disney Archivist Dave Smith: "They're Following Our Script: Walt Disney's Trip to Tomorrowland" (FUTURE, May 1978). FUTURE was a short-lived magazine published by the same folks who publish STARLOG and Dave's excellent article is deserving of reprinting since every article written about the Disney space shows in the last twenty years cites Dave's outstanding research. And I just did as well.

And so readers of JimHillMedia now know an interesting footnote to the many Walt space stories that have fascinated us for so many years.

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