Walt Disney's Secrets of Space

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

On Saturday afternoon, July 23, I will be speaking at the Disney Family Museum in San Francisco about Walt Disney’s contribution to America’s space program, especially through his trilogy of television shows in the 1950s. As always, I am excited to share with others some of the information I have uncovered in my research. Unfortunately, there was so much material that some of it won’t be able to be squeezed into the presentation.

So, especially for the MousePlanet readers unable to join me on Saturday, here are a few “secrets” and surprises about Walt and outer space that ended up on the cutting room floor as I prepared the presentation.

Collier’s Magazine

Collier’s magazine was a popular and respected American magazine for almost 70 years.

In March 1952, the magazine began a series of articles by scientists and other experts, like Dr. Wernher von Braun, Willie Ley, and Heinz Haber about the possibilities of the conquest of outer space in the near future. Subjects ranged from spacecraft and spacesuits to the exploration of Mars and the legal aspects of who owns the universe, all based on existing technology and current research.

The articles, illustrated by Chesley Bonestell, Fred Freeman and Rolf Klep, were written in clear layman’s language and were optimistic, although conservative, about the possibilities. Approximately 3 million to 4 million readers were enthused about this glimpse into the near future and the series was very popular.

Here is a listing of those Collier’s magazine issues for those who might like to track down copies, although much of this material was later compiled into a series of three books:

  • March 22, 1952: Man Will Conquer Space Soon, a collection of eight articles.
  • October 18, 1952: Man on the Moon, The Journey, and Inside the Moon Ship
  • October 25, 1952: Man on the Moon, Inside the Lunar Base
  • February 28, 1953: World’s First Space Suit
  • March 7, 1953: Testing the Men in Space
  • March 14, 1953: How Man Will Meet Emergency in Space
  • June 27, 1953: Baby Space Station
  • April 30, 1954: Can We Get to Mars? and Is There Life on Mars?

You can also check out some of the covers.

It is well known that when director Ward Kimball embarked on making a Tomorrowland television episode for the weekly Disneyland television series about rockets and outer space, that he consulted these issues and, with Walt’s approval, brought in some of the writers to assist with the shows.

So what is the secret and the surprise? Well, in the fall of 1998 when I was working as an animation instructor at the Disney Institute, I spent a very pleasant afternoon interviewing Disney Legend Marc Davis while his charming and talented wife, Alice, listened patiently nearby.

One of the things he shared with me has never appeared in any other Davis interview. It was that it was Marc Davis who first discussed the Collier’s magazine articles with Walt Disney in the Disney Studio parking lot in 1952 when the articles first began appearing:

“You didn’t walk up to Walt and say ‘Hey, I’ve got a great idea for something’ and not have something to show him. He wasn’t very patient to listen to words about what a great idea you had. He had great ideas of his own. He didn’t need to listen to yours. If you showed him something, he preferred that.

“After the war, there was a man named Chesley Bonestell who visualized what the moon looked like, what a flight to the moon looked like. It was in Colliers. I saw this and thought, ‘What a wonderful thing we could do with that.’

“Being kind of fat headed, one morning I ran into Walt in the parking lot at the studio: ‘Hey, I got a great idea. A flight to the moon.’

“He looked at me, ‘Oh, for crissakes, Marc, I am so sick of making educational films. I don’t want to see another one as long as I live.’

“The reason he said that was he was so sick and tired of all these professors and military guys giving him such a hard time when we were making these types of films during the war. He didn’t want anything to do with those people ever again.

“If we had done that thing at that time, this flight to the moon and hired Bonestell to do the backgrounds, we would have had something so far ahead that….(sighs) We had that chance.”

Walt was indeed a visual person and preferred seeing models and storyboards and concept drawings to get a sense of the possibility of a project. Walt was also tired of having to deal with outside experts who complained about Walt including humorous material in an educational film and didn’t understand the process of filmmaking.

In 1952, there was no Disney television show that needed a segment on the future. If Walt produced something on outer space, it would have been at best a short subject like the True-Life Adventures series and would not have generated sufficient revenue for the expense and time devoted to its production.

However, in April 1954, with the need for segments for the weekly television series, Walt gave his approval for the development of an episode to be called “Rockets and Space.” So much material was developed that it evolved by May 14 into two shows that Walt planned to eventually combine and release theatrically as a feature after its television run.

As the Disney team brought in experts who had written for the Collier’s series, like Ley, Von Braun and Haber, the show expanded into three segments following the pattern of the Collier’s series: Man goes into orbit, Man goes to the Moon, and Man goes to Mars.

That first television segment, “Man in Space” was also edited down to 33 minutes and released to theaters as a documentary short subject along with the feature Davy Crockett and the River Pirates (a compilation of the final two Davy Crockett television episodes) in 1956. Man in Space was nominated for an Academy Award in the documentary short subject category, but lost to The True Story of the Civil War” Nearly 42 million people had originally seen the show in black and white on television, but in the days before videotapes and DVDs, audiences embraced the chance to see it again in color on a large movie screen.

Moon Watch

About six months ago, I wrote about three Walt Disney space shows that were never produced.

Originally, the airdate for “Mars and Beyond” was scheduled for spring 1956, coinciding with Mars being closest to the Earth. In fact, preparation for the show began as early as 1954 and story meetings and filming sessions with Von Braun were completed before the launch of Sputnik.

However, Ward Kimball and his team were delayed from completing that program to work on an episode that would have focused on the U.S. Navy’s Project Vanguard publicized as putting an artificial satellite into orbit supposedly in 1957. After seeing the popularity of the first two Disney television shows devoted to space, the National Academy of Sciences and IBM (who were supplying the computer power for the project) wanted Disney to generate the same public support and enthusiasm for this project.

However, the Vanguard launches were fraught with problems, including blowing up on the launching pad. When Russia launched Sputnik I in October 1957, it was the first satellite put into orbit and it looked like Russia was winning the “Space Race.” The United States government threw all its support to the U.S. Army’s competing Redstone rocket program and, under the direction of Von Braun, it was able to put an American satellite in orbit within 90 days. Explorer I was launched successfully on January 31, 1958; Vanguard I was finally successfully launched on March 17, 1958.

Since writing that article, I got access to two previously unpublished Ward Kimball interviews that shed a little more light on the project that was to be titled “Moon Watch.”

“So when the Russians fired Sputnik, at that time we were working on a show about our satellite program called ‘Moon Watch.’ We were doing that in conjunction with IBM, because all the information was going to be funneled through their Poughkeepsie plant. This was the Navy Vanguard, and we went back there to Washington and saw the thing. And the Russians fired theirs off and upstaged us.”

Additional information appeared in another Kimball interview:

“(I) was working on the IBM picture called ‘Moon Watch’ which was going to trace our first Vanguard shuttle, our little satellite, the size of a grapefruit… ‘Moon Watch’ was all the amateur astronomers all over the world would be lining up with their telescopes in a straight line, and if they saw something come overhead that was blinking, pulsating, they would mark the time, and the latitude and the longitude, and so forth, and all that, and then IBM would put it in the computers, that are now laptop size, but filled two or three huge rooms back east plotting the course."

In another unpublished interview, Bill Bosche, who worked as a writer on the three Disney space shows, was also involved and commented on the “lost” Vanguard episode:

“That whole IGY [International Geophysical Year] artificial satellite thing was a very complicated program and very political… We were going to do a show for IBM on the Vanguard project. IBM came to us to do a film about the project and about their participation and I guess we must have started on that about February and got through story and were just about to go into production when the Russians put up the Sputnik and, of course, that cooled the whole thing…it was made pretty clear that the Vanguard project itself—this came from the Navy people—was an all-American project and they didn’t want the ‘Krauts’ [Von Braun, Ley, Haber] on it.” (Von Braun was working on the competitive U.S. Army Redstone project at the time that had been put on hiatus because of Project Vanguard.)

Man In Space: Then and Now

Wernher Von Braun was always trying to have Walt Disney do another show or two on NASA and space exploration because he felt the progress on the space program had slowed down. In April 1965, he arranged to have Walt and his brother Roy visit the three chief space centers at Houston, Cape Kennedy and Huntsville, hoping it would inspire Walt to do a show that would prod the United States to focus aggressively on putting a man on the Moon.

While Walt was interested, his attention was focused on other projects including E.P.C.O.T. in Florida, California Institute of the Arts, and Mineral King. However, even after Walt’s passing, von Braun continued communicating with the Disney Studio. Former Disney archivist Dave Smith discovered in the inactive story file a project titled “Man in Space, Then and Now.” Smith interviewed Bill Bosche about what happened to the project that was never made:

“One of the reasons was that Von Braun became ill. (Von Braun was diagnosed with cancer in 1973 and died in 1977) And he visited us here. This was a project that I had started and Von Braun did visit us here at one time and we talked about it and the idea was to use footage and use Von Braun from the old show and some things that he had predicted then and how it had turned out and then let him make predictions for the future. And because of other production commitments and things like that it just never really got off the ground. And it would have been a fairly expensive show. I still think it would have been fun to do.”

To the Moon

Who were the actors that Ward Kimball directed who played the captain, navigator, engineer and radioman on the space crew circling the moon in “Man and the Moon”? Frank Gerstle (captain), Richard Emory, Frank Connor, and Leo Needham. The pair of pilots’ chairs for the cockpit were from a Boeing 737 and the two aft crew chairs were from a Douglas 618M. The helmets were real prototypes borrowed from a research lab but the space suits were designed by studio artist Ken O’Connor with input from Von Braun and writer Bill Bosche.

Kimball told “E Ticket” magazine:

“We filmed live actors in space suits working with the realistic models. We shot them against a black background with little holes pricked in it for stars. The miniatures would be ‘doubled’ in. We actually took the space wheel model and showed it flying and rotating around, as if it was seen in space by the actors in the cockpit of the moon rocket. We posed the live action with the model in the background. We didn’t have a sodium screen back then, so we had to make masks, using a ‘traveling matte’. If we had available all this new computer animation they have now, it would have been easy, and more realistic!”

Why was this section done in live action rather than animation like so many of the other segments dealing with space flight? Kimball told Dave Smith:

“To make it more believable, and to cut on costs. Doing it live action was a fraction of what it would have cost in animation. And if we would have had to do full animation it would have cost $900,000. By shooting live action with scale members [minimum actor wage] of the Actor’s Guild you did it in a fraction of what it would cost to do it in cartooning. Another thing: time, as I said before, was of extreme importance. By doing it live action you could see what we had, it was done. And we couldn’t get any of the animators (since they were all assigned to other projects at the studio at the time from Sleeping Beauty to Disneyland).”

Why is the 53-foot long spacecraft labeled “RM-1”? For many years, I just thought it meant “Rocket to the Moon” like the fabled attraction at Disneyland but actually it stands for “Reconnaissance Moon” as I discovered looking at the Collier’s articles. It is a “recon moon” craft to go “round the moon” and since it is the first one to do so, it is No. 1.

Who was the narrator for that episode? Dick Tufeld, who was also the voice of the robot on Lost In Space and the announcer on several of Irwin Allen’s science-fiction shows.

After more than three decades, the still definitive article about the three original Disney space shows is the one written by Dave Smith (I saw Dave two months ago out in Florida and he seemed happy and doing well): "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 published 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 original research.

And I just did, as well.



  1. By jpg391

    Intersting article on Disney got involved in outer space.

  2. Discuss this article on MousePad.