On February 1st, 1958, the United States launched its first artificial satellite into orbit. A key member of the scientific team responsible for Explorer I was Wernher von Braun, the German rocket scientist who had previously worked with Walt Disney Productions on a trio of specials for the Disneyland television show. Ward Kimball, renowned Disney animator and one of Walt’s “Nine Old Men”, produced and directed those specials, and along with artist John Dunn created and sent this excellent drawing to congratulate von Braun.
The three Kimball specials – Man In Space, Man And The Moon, and Mars And Beyond – had their roots four years earlier when Disney was looking for ideas for his new Disneyland television hour. The show, which debuted in October of 1954, was intended to drum up enthusiasm for the impending arrival of Disneyland park in 1955. The show was structured to familiarize viewers with the concept of the theme park and its cardinal realms; specific episodes were themed to Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland and Tomorrowland.
While Disney had plenty of existing properties that could be adapted to those first three themes, Walt had precious few creations that could be associated with the Tomorrowland banner. So, Walt went to animator Ward Kimball and asked him to come up with some ideas for Tomorrowland-themed shows. Luckily, Kimball had been following a series of articles in Collier’s Magazine that had been written by a number of pre-eminent space scientists in order to stoke public enthusiasm for an American space program. The articles, by von Braun, Heinz Haber and others, were accompanied by evocative illustrations by Chesley Bonestell. Kimball suggested combining the scientific ideas presented in the Collier’s articles with Disney’s trademark humor and accessibility.
Walt liked the idea and gave Kimball carte blanche to proceed with the project. Kimball sought out many of the scientists from the magazine articles to lend credibility to Disney’s project, but ironically many of them were not eager to take part. Some experts, so far unable to convince the Pentagon of the merits of a space exploration program, despaired that Americans would ever support a space program. Indeed, before the space race with the Soviets began with the launch of Sputnik in 1957, American space efforts were mostly dead in the water.
Eventually Kimball brought on von Braun and other experts, and the results were stunningly successful. The shows, which combined live-action segments with more humorous animated sequences, were big hits; many observers have credited them with kick-starting the American space program. We do know that President Eisenhower personally called Walt after the first episode, Man In Space, aired to ask for a copy of the film to show to officials at the Pentagon. The show was such a hit that it was re-run twice after its debut in March of 1955, and that July it was announced by President Eisenhower that the United States would begin launching a series of orbiting satellites by 1958. The American space program had begun.
Ironically, von Braun’s ideas took a circuitous route to the launch pad. The project on which he was working was passed over by the military in 1955, in favor of the Navy’s Project Vanguard rocket system. When the Soviets surprised everyone by beating America to space in October of 1957, Vanguard was not yet ready. Already a step behind, the Vanguard program was shelved when its first attempts to launch met with spectacular and embarrassing failure. The call was made to restart von Braun’s Explorer program, which successfully built and launched Explorer 1 in an amazing 84 days. It was America’s first successful space launch, and resulted in the discovery of the Van Allen radiation belts. The Explorer program remains America’s longest running space science program, and continues to this day.