“In our modern world, everywhere we look we see the influence science has upon our daily lives. Discoveries that were miracles a few short years ago are accepted as commonplace today. Many of the things that seem impossible now will become realities tomorrow. One of man’s oldest dreams has been the desire for space travel—to travel to other worlds. Until recently, this seemed to be an impossibility, but great new discoveries have brought us to the thresehold of a new frontier—the frontier of interplanetary space." — Walt Disney, March 9, 1955 (introduction to Man in Space)
Back in the 1950s, scientist Wernher von Braun believed he could transform the public's fascination with science fiction into an interest in science fact that might spark faster development of a viable American space program. UFO sightings and a flood of science-fiction films preying on post-war paranoia filled the imagination of the American public.
Collier’s magazine (which had a weekly circulation of 3 million to 4 million readers) offered von Braun and other scientists like Heinz Haber and Willy Ley an opportunity to write a series of "science factual" articles. Ward Kimball eagerly read these articles. He was in charge of developing the space shows for the Tomorrowland segment of the Disneyland television series. Kimball contacted von Braun to act as a consultant and the scientist leapt at the chance. Von Braun realized that there were 15 million Americans with television sets and 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 42 million viewers saw the first Disney Tomorrowland space show, Man in Space, when it premiered on March 1955. It was followed by Man in the Moon in December 1955 and Mars and Beyond in December 1957. These three films are often credited with popularizing the United States government space program in the 1950s.
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. 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.
In March 1961, when Walt talked with reporters about his new Wonderful World of Color show on NBC TV, he said that he wasn't going to make any more of the Tomorrowland space shows because they were just too expensive.
Donn Tatum, in an interview with Richard Hubler, stated, "Our experience was that they don't have as broad an appeal audience-wise and they are expensive to do and generally speaking the networks and the advertisers, while they didn't have any direct control over what we did, they would prefer things that got a bigger rating."
However, during Walt’s lifetime, there were three other Disney space shows that got to various stages of development: The Vanguard Project, The UFO Show and The NASA Show.
The Vanguard Project
Plans for Mars and Beyond began as early as 1954, with Kimball hoping the show would be finished by spring 1956. That airdate would coincide with Mars being closest to the Earth. However, the show didn’t end up being aired until December 1957. The reason was that Kimball and his team were temporarily sidetracked by another space show that was never made.
The National Academy of Sciences and the Naval Research Laboratory supported a new space program known as Project Vanguard. Von Braun worked on a competing program for the U.S. Army known as Redstone with the Explorer satellite. For a variety of reasons, the United States government chose to back Project Vanguard, especially since it gave the impression of being more scientific than military. Redstone was more of a public relations risk because of the involvement of Von Braun and his past connections with the German rocketry program during World War II.
The National Academy of Sciences and IBM (who were supplying the computer power for the project) asked Disney to make a film on Project Vanguard. They wanted the same support and enthusiasm of the American public for their plans as had been generated by the first two space shows. Kimball and his unit were pulled away from finishing up Mars and Beyond to concentrate on the timely topic, since the prediction was that the first Vanguard launch would be in the latter part of 1957. That prediction turned out to be more than a little optimistic. Kimball’s team prepared a story again utilizing the information from the experts on the project. Disney was ready to go into production when something happened that immediately cancelled the proposed Disney space episode.
On October 4, 1957, Russia orbited Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite, and marked the beginning of the "Space Race." A month later, the Russians launched Sputnik II with a dog as a passenger. By the time of Sputnik III, the United States government had reinstated Von Braun’s Redstone program, since it seemed that Vanguard would not be ready in the immediate future. Von Braun boldly announced on November 8, 1957, that the United States would have a satellite in orbit within 90 days.
Kimball’s crew had gone back to finishing Mars and Beyond. Fortunately, all the story meetings and filming sessions with Von Braun had taken place before October. Von Braun no longer had any time for the Disney television show as he raced on presidential orders to put America in space as quickly as possible.
Mars and Beyond aired on December 4, 1957. Two days later, the Vanguard rocket blew up on its launch pad. True to his word, Von Braun successfully launched Explorer I on January 31, 1958. It discovered the Van Allen Radiation Belt. Vanguard I was later successfully launched on March 17, 1958. Of the 11 Vanguard rockets that the project attempted to launch, only three successfully placed satellites into orbit.
Reportedly, the story and notes for the Vanguard Project still reside in the Disney Archives and the abandoned project was all but forgotten—except by the handful of Disney artists who had originally worked on it.
The UFO Show
At the very end of Mars and Beyond, a trio of flying saucers briefly zoom across the screen. Both technical consultants Willy Ley and Heinz Haber had been adamant when they first started working on the Disney space shows that there should be no mention of UFOs. They felt it would undercut the validity of the other material being presented and they were not pleased.
“When Walt came to me asking what we should with the Tomorrowland programs, he said, ‘You’re interested in UFOs and all that stuff…’ And I was. I had stacks of books and magazines about UFO sightings and I knew someday I would do something on the subject,” said Ward Kimball who produced and directed all three space shows.
One of Kimball’s 1950s cartoons for his Asinine Alley panel detailing the trials and tribulations of early motorists in The Horseless Carriage Gazette depicts a flying saucer with an intricate hook stealing an old time automobile while the helpless driver is held at raygun point by a helmeted alien from outer space.
Disney animation director Jack Kinney was originally assigned to do the space programs.
Kimball told Disney historian Michael Barrier, “Jack was not necessarily interested in the fact that we were going out into space, and I was always a UFO fan anyway.”
Kimball was given the job and a “blank check” from Walt Disney to do it.
Kimball had placed the flying saucers in the “beyond” section of the television show for several reasons. This episode of the space shows was more speculative than the previous “science-factual” episodes. He also realized that audiences wanted at least a glimpse of a flying saucer, especially with the UFO mania of the time. However, Kimball hedged his bets because, earlier in the show, this spacecraft had been introduced as a possible future “electromagnetic drive spaceship.” Since, in the last scene, Mars had been colonized, it could be assumed that these vehicles were of human origin.
“Even while I was doing the first three television shows, this [UFOs] was my idea for the fourth Tomorrowland program…that’s why you see the animated UFOs taking off at the end of Mars and Beyond. I had talked to Walt about this fourth show and what I was thinking about, and he said, ‘Great, but we’ve got to get convincing footage!’ We researched some of the incidents where people had taken actual films of flying saucers, and the trail led us to the Air Force establishment,” remembered Kimball for an interview in E Ticket magazine No. 24 (Summer 1996).
“We were told they had thousands of feet of so-called ‘alien objects’ footage, but that the material was classified," Kimball said. "We ran into a brick wall, dressed in khaki uniforms. I went to Walt with the fact that we couldn’t get ‘smoking gun’ footage of UFOs and we both agreed, that was the end of it.”
Kimball regaled an audience at the July 1979 MUFON Symposium in San Francisco with his speech about Disney and UFOs. The Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) founded in 1969 is an American nonprofit organization that investigates cases of reported UFO sightings. Kimball claimed that sometime in the mid-1950s, Walt Disney was contacted by the United States Air Force to cooperate on a documentary about UFOs. In addition, the USAF offered to supply actual UFO footage. However, once work began on the project, the USAF supposedly withdrew the offer to supply film footage.
Kimball claimed that he had personally talked with an Air Force colonel who was the USAF liaison on the project who told him that there was plenty of UFO footage. However, the colonel also emphasized that Disney was not going to be given access to it. Unfortunately, Kimball had a well-deserved reputation as a prankster who loved to stir people up so it is difficult to know whether he was being sincere when telling this story. There is no other documentation to support Kimball’s claims.
At the event, Kimball also showed an episode from the Disney Mouse Factory syndicated television series that ran from 1972-1974. It was titled Interplanetary Travel and hosted by comedian Jonathan Winters who dressed up as a variety of different alien creatures. Kimball had produced and directed the series but the attendees believed it contained lost excerpts from that proposed USAF documentary.
The closest that Walt Disney ever got to UFOs was the Flying Saucers attraction in Tomorrowland at Disneyland from 1961-1966 where guests rode in a flying saucer-shaped vehicle on a cushion of air to bump into other guests in their vehicles.
The NASA Show
In 1964, roughly 10 years after Man in Space aired, Wernher von Braun once again found himself frustrated by the U.S. government's current lack of enthusiasm about putting a man on the moon and, once again, von Braun saw that the solution was to involve Walt Disney.
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. Bosche was an artist, writer, and producer at Disney for more than 30 years. In the letter, von Braun invited Walt and other key Disney personnel to tour the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
"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 von Braun, who was now director of NASA's space flight center in Huntsville. "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 the 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—visited the three chief space centers at Houston, Cape Kennedy and Huntsville.
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 63 "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.
Disney Legend Card Walker told interviewer Richard Hubler: "[Walt] made a trip down to Houston, down to Cape Canaveral and all that through Wernher Von Braun to see the space program, the astronaut training and all that, and then went down to the space program at Kennedy and what they were doing. He was mulling this thing, we hadn't got it started, but he was ready to make a film to show the peace benefits that would come with the development of atomic energy. The government was interested, Wernher was interested—[Walt] just didn't get around to it. But that would have been the next step."
The usually reticent Roy O. Disney, Walt’s older brother, was 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 said. "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, 300,000 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 more than 20 years, the still definitive article about the three original 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 Smith's excellent article is deserving of reprinting since every article written about the Disney space shows in the last 30 years cites Smith's outstanding research. And I just did, as well.