Man in Space

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

The term “Disneyana” was first used extensively during the 40th birthday of Mickey Mouse in 1968 as people began actively re-collecting classic Disney merchandise from the 1930s and 1940s.The word quickly became common that, by 1974, a book with that title was published. As the years have passed, the term has expanded to include the 1950s, 1960s, and, even the 1970s (and perhaps beyond).

Many readers are probably still enjoying the gifts that Santa and his elves delivered this year. I assume that some (if not the majority) of those treasures are Disney oriented and perhaps might even include an example or two of Disneyana.

While researching my presentation on Walt Disney's fascination with outer space for the Disney Family Museum last July, I was surprised at the quantity and variety of merchandise produced by Disney for the trilogy of television space shows. It was of good quality and it related very closely to the shows.

A handful of those Disneyana items are in my personal collection and the Disney Family Museum has some examples that I never knew existed. While we take our last sips of eggnog for the year and think about the coming new year (although I much prefer Walt’s concepts of a retro-future from the 1950s), here is a story about the first Disney space show and its related merchandise.

By the mid-1950s, the idea of space flight and outer space exploration had gone beyond the fantasies of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers to be a real technological possibility.

During this time, Walt Disney never showed any interest in the space opera fantasies that had captured the imagination of the American public. Television shows like Space Patrol, Rocky Jones Space Ranger and Tom Corbett Space Cadet among many others were as prominent as cowboy Westerns. The space shows were also very similar to the cowboy shows with blazing ray guns and hostile aliens and barren landscapes substituting for the traditional Western elements.

Walt’s interest was in the future just around the corner, inspired by the “World of Tomorrow” exhibits at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. At Disneyland, the Tomorrowland area that opened in 1955 was supposed to represent the world of 1986, which was the next scheduled appearance of Halley’s Comet.

The icon for this themed area was the 80-foot tall Moonliner, the tallest structure in the entire park at the time. It was designed by Imagineer John Hench, who sought input from Dr. Werhner Von Braun, which accounts for its superficial resemblance to Von Braun’s infamous V-2 missiles.

The Rocket to the Moon attraction was influenced by space expert Willy Ley, who came up with the idea that the ship would flip over—with the Earth and the moon trading places on the fore and aft viewscreens. Guests were told there were two “sister ships” to explain the two different theaters, Star of Polaris and the Star of Antares. (However, whatever chamber guests entered, it was always the Star of Polaris.)

While the attraction was developed independently of the Disney television space programs, there were some common connections. First, technical advice of noted space experts Ley and Von Braun were utilized by both projects. Second, research material and models were shared including the enormous model of the moon. Third, the storyline of the show, Man and the Moon, and the attraction of a rocket flight that circled the moon with glimpses of Wathel Rogers’ model of the space wheel and the dark side of the moon, briefly illuminated by flares were very similar.

All of these additions to the original Disneyland were the result of the Disneyland television show on ABC. Walt needed segments for his new weekly television show to promote this new area.

Under the guidance of producer, director, co-writer Ward Kimball, three segments were produced utilizing the input of several space authorities. The first episode was titled Man in Space and aired on March 9, 1955. It had cost approximately $250,000 to produce, an enormous amount of money for an hour-long television show with no chance to recoup its costs. It ended up that close to 42 million people watched the show resulting in multiple reruns and a theatrical release.

Man in Space was 48 minutes long without commercials. Walt introduced the show and then writer-director Ward Kimball. The show begins with a history of rocketry using both live action and animated footage to show the progress. Space expert Ley appeared to explain that the next logical step would be a multistage rocket that would go into orbit and send back necessary information.

Then, space medicine specialist Heinz Haber discussed the possible effects of outer space on man. An animated bulb nosed man labeled “homo sapiens extra-terrestrialis” or more commonly “space man” humorously demonstrated some of the challenges and dangers. Finally von Braun described his proposal of a four-stage orbital rocket using an impressive model and charts.The show finished with a dramatic limited animation re-creation of what the launch of that rocket would be like and laid the foundation for the building of a space station and a trip to the moon.

Walt said that the objective of the production was to combine "the tools of our trade with the knowledge of the scientists to give a factual picture of the latest plans for man's newest adventure." He told his staff, “We want the public to know that these are not science fiction.”

He emphasized, in an April 1954, story conference, “There are two sides to go on this—comedy interest and factual interest. Both of them are vital to keep the show from becoming dry…. To make this information interesting to the whole family, you have to have the comedy touch in there for the younger kids. The facts are fascinating but if you lighten it up with cartoons or something, it would make a complete family deal….”

Of course, Walt was absolutely correct.

It is difficult to imagine today the impact the show had during an era where there were maybe a half-dozen television stations broadcasting in most American cities. In addition, television shows about outer space had limited budgets and were aimed at a more juvenile audience.

As the Disney theatrical press book stated, “Man in Space presents a fascinating view of the future, when humans will travel to the moon with the same aplomb that they now fly the Atlantic. This will not be accomplished without danger and excitement, as the picture reveals.”

According to Ward Kimball, one of the biggest fans of Man in Space was President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who asked to borrow the film for two weeks to show some of his top advisers and the military brass in the Pentagon the advantages of an aggressive space program.

“The call came in to the Studio and I guess at first the switchboard didn’t believe it was the President of the United States,” Kimball said with a laugh.

Man in Space was rerun on June 1 and, on July 30, President Eisenhower announced that the United States would launch earth-circling satellites as part of the U.S. participation in the International Geophysical Year. It has always been a matter of speculation whether Disney’s show influenced that decision.

However, Disney publicists decided to capitalize on the event by scheduling another airing for September 7 and promote the fact the Eisenhower had borrowed the film. When von Braun heard about these plans, he wrote to Kimball in August explaining he was “quite upset” fearing that it would “antagonize quite a few people who had a hand in putting the project across. They will feel that I myself through the vehicle of the Disney Studio am trying to get credit for more than I deserve…I would appreciate it if you would take up this matter with Walt and try to have the pitch changed…don’t put it that this show triggered the presidential announcement.”

Von Braun was justifiably concerned because the political struggles between the different branches of the military concerning a space program had literally hobbled American efforts. For instance, both the Navy and the Army had competing programs while other branches were annoyed that funds for the military were being diverted to these programs. Strangely, there is no documentation either at the Disney Archives or the Eisenhower Library that has yet been found to confirm that Eisenhower personally requested a copy of the film although it is apparent that he did see it.

In 1955, the American Rocket Society (ARS) held its largest-ever regional meeting in Los Angeles. The ARS, founded in 1930, is an organization devoted to the challenges of rockets and space flight and holds yearly meetings. As part of the entertainment for the 1955 meeting, more than 600 persons were invited to tour Disneyland and participate in a special screening of Man in Space. While the members overall enjoyed the film, some were disturbed by the prominence of the German rocket scientists.

The International Astronautical Federation (IAF), founded in 1951 and composed of members from 58 countries of the world, showed Disney’s Man in Space during the August 1955 Sixth Congress of the IAF in Copenhagen. The receptive audience was enthused by the theories of experts like Ley and von Braun that were brought to life by the skills of the Disney artists.

Among the viewers of Man in Space were Leonid Ivanovich Sedov and Kyril Feodorovich Ogorodnikov, the first Soviets to attend an IAF Congress. They asked about borrowing the film for use in the Soviet Union both to show American interest in manned space flight as well as promote their own space research.

“Walt flatly turned them down,” recalled Disney Legend Ward Kimball. “I asked him why and he said, ‘Well, they [the Russian government] borrowed a print of Snow White back in the late 1930s and were going to keep it for just two weeks. Ten years later we got it back, all scratched up, with Russian titles on it.”

Man in Space was 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. In this time before consumer videotapes, audiences eagerly embraced the chance to see the outer space show again in vivid Technicolor on a large movie screen.

The press book proclaimed “Gear your promotional campaign so that it garners full profit from the popular sales appeal of the two Man in Space merchandising items that are set for national marketing. They will be on sale in stores in your vicinity. Exploit your engagement to the fullest by arranging cooperative efforts that bring in topnotch box office results.”

This promotion included the StromBecKer Man in Space model space ship for a dollar and the Dell comic book adaptation for ten cents.

Dell issued several comic book issues devoted to the Disney space series, labeled on the cover as “a science feature from Tomorrowland” for a dime apiece. They were all 32 pages long and scripted by Don Christensen with artwork by Tony Sgroi: Walt Disney’s Man in Space (Dell Four Color 716), Walt Disney’s Man in Space: Satellites (Dell Four Color 954), and Walt Disney’s Mars and Beyond (Dell Four Color 866). All three issues were reprinted in the oversized Dell Giant No. 27 for 35 cents and simply titled Walt Disney’s Man in Space “Three Full-Length Science Features.”

Starting in 1957, the famous model making company StromBecKer issued the first kits from the popular Disney space trilogy. Additionally, they also issued a model based on the TWA Moonliner that stood prominently in Tomorrowland at Disneyland in California.

The Disney model kits included: D35 Satellite Launcher, D32 Space Station, D27 TWA Moon Liner, D34 RM-1 Rocket Ship and D26 Man-In-Space Ship.

Walt Disney’s Man-In-Space Ship (“World’s first 4 Stage Rocket! Easy to Assemble! 61 Pieces! All Plastic!”) was based on von Braun’s model shown in the television episode that included the XR-1 prototype Space Shuttle. Amusingly, the decals and instructions incorrectly show the wing markings as "RX-1". The first issue of the kit was in bright yellow styrene plastic. The second issue, D-26A was gray-green styrene plastic.

When the kits were issued in the United Kingdom under the Selcol brand, the box cover art by Cal Smith remained the same, but the lettering removed the credit “Walt Disney’s” and substituted “Dr. Werhner von Braun’s” so the Disneyland TWA Moonliner was issued as “Dr. Werhner von Braun’s Moonliner”, etc.

Glencoe (thanks to the affection for these models by Nick Argento, the CEO) now owns the StromBecKer molds for the space line and began reissuing them as part of Glencoe's "Blueprint for the Future" series, so they can be purchased and built fairly inexpensively by current Disney fans.

The popularity of the trilogy of Disney space shows prompted Walt to make arrangements to have space expert and writer Ley adapt the Disney material into a series of books (issued in softcover and library hardbound versions) published by L.W. Singer Company of Syracuse, New York in 1959. The titles included: Man In Flight, Man In Space, Tomorrow the Moon, Mars and Beyond, and Man and Weather Satellites. Each book was approximately 50 pages long and in full color with clear, simple but scientifically accurate text aimed primarily at a young classroom readership. Additional illustrations were supplied by Nino Carbe to supplement the artwork from the actual productions.

However, despite all the accolades, despite all the international attention, despite all the merchandise, not everyone was a fan of the innovative show.

“Walt said after Man in Space aired that his wife was a little bored by it,” Kimball said with a smile.



  1. By jpg391

    Jim, another great article!!!

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