A Script for Space

On this date in 1955 the Man in Space episode of the Disneyland television show premiered on ABC. An estimated 42 million Americans tuned in to watch the first of three “science factual” programs Disney would air on the future of space exploration. The show, which is currently available to stream on Disney+, would influence the development of Tomorrowland as well as launch the public’s interest in space into a new orbit. 

The Disneyland television show’s primary contribution to Disneyland was financial in nature. Walt Disney desperately needed funding to build his ever-expanding park ideas and the company had already tapped their existing credit line with Bank of America. Walt pitched the idea of a Disneyland television show to his brother, Roy, who was ultimately able to strike a deal with ABC. In addition to providing a lifeline of money, the television show presented Walt with a venue to give Americans a preview of what he was planning for Disneyland. Walt and his team at the Studio decided to produce episodes highlighting the various themes of the lands in his forthcoming park. The Disney Studio had plenty of content, characters and ideas to fill the episodes focused on Fantasyland, Adventureland and Frontierland. But at the time there had been no films or projects about the future, making Tomorrowland a unique challenge for both the theme park and television show. 

To help fill that void Walt turned to his in-house Renaissance man Ward Kimball to produce and direct the episode. According to Kimball: “Walt came to me and said ‘You guys are the modern thinkers around here’ – probably using the term in a snide way – ‘can you think of anything we can do in Tomorrowland?’ And that’s when I said I had been following some very interesting articles about space in Collier’s Magazine. It was fascinating for me that there were these reputable scientists who actually believed that we were going out in space.”  The Collier’s issues included pieces written by a trio of Germans: rocket scientist and leader of the U.S. Army’s rocket development team Wernher von Braun, space expert and author Willy Ley, and UCLA physics professor Heinz Haber.

Ward Kimball (seated), Willy Ley (with jacket), and others from the Man in Space production team

On April 17, 1954, Kimball presented his initial outline for the show to Walt. Both understood the program would need to carefully balance humor with science to keep parents and children engaged in the topic. Walt placed a special emphasis on the theme of man’s curiosity. According to those present, after the meeting finished Walt grabbed a piece a paper and scribbled a note to Kimball: “Write your own ticket.” Longtime Studio employees recall this as one of the highly rare occasions when Walt issued a blank check for a project. Two weeks later, Willy Ley was at the Studio. Von Braun and Haber were successfully recruited to join the project as well. All involved quickly realized a Disney produced television show was a far more powerful platform than any newspaper article for promoting the potential of space exploration. 

From left to right: Von Braun, Ley, Disney and Haber

With the presence of aerospace companies in the Los Angeles region, von Braun’s government duties required him to be a frequent visitor to the region. After he wrapped up his meetings for the day, von Braun would head over to the the Disney Studio in Burbank to work with the team on the project into the early morning when Kimball would drive him back to his hotel. Kimball recounted that after one lengthy and tiresome brainstorming session von Braun “threw down his pencil and turned around to a piano and for ten minutes played Bach, wide open. I didn’t even know he played the piano. He just rattled it off, flawless. He was a genius. He could do anything. Then he stopped, clapped his hands, and said, ‘Well, Wahd,’ (that’s the way he pronounced my name) ‘how about taking us back to the hotel?’”

The development of Man in Space came during an era in which Walt’s attention shifted from the work at the Studio to the construction of Disneyland.  Before that, Walt would be actively involved in virtually all film projects. According to Disney animator Milt Kahl, in those days “the difference was that on weekends and evenings and sitting on the john and all that stuff, he [Walt] wasn’t thinking about our pictures. He was thinking about Disneyland.” In an interview years later, Kimball expressed his embarrassment as being listed as the shows producer, director and writer, so he made sure a research assistant was given credit as a co-writer. 

The 51 minute episode was hosted by Walt, like all episodes of the Disneyland series, and featured appearances by Kimball, Von Braun, Ley and Haber. As Walt told Kimball during a pre-production meeting “I think there is something exciting to the audience if we set it up and the group is made up of part of the staff here and the experts. Men dealing with fantasy and men dealing with fact coming together, meeting and combining their resources to present this material.” The episode also included a number of scale model rockets and a space station, all of which were built by Disney Legend Wathel Rogers, one of the three founding members of the WED model shop. The Space Station S-1 Model can be found today on display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

Los Angeles Herald and Express hailed the success of the program and its effect bringing upon the realization for millions of Americans “that space travel is no longer a wild dream.” President Eisenhower called Walt after the episode aired and asked for a print to show skeptical military generals and explain space exploration to them. While the space race would officially start two years later with the launch of Sputnik, the episode had a profound effect sparking the imagination of Americans. As Disney biographer Neil Gabler put it, Walt’s “forward-looking television programs depicting the future helped shape attitudes about technological change, and NASA acknowledged that Disney’s early drumbeating for its program was instrumental in generating public support for space exploration.”

The Apollo 8 mission in 1968 marked the first time man had orbited the moon. On the day of the historic achievement, von Braun telephoned Ward Kimball and said “Well, Wahd, it looks like they’re following our script.”

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