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From The Disneyland Space Cadets

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.

Ward Kimball drawing for Wernher von Braun, 1958

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.

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6 comments to From The Disneyland Space Cadets

  • Von Braun was amazing – I’m so glad Walt took him aboard.

    Very interesting – thanks for the history lesson.

  • Fascinating! Where do you FIND this stuff?

  • Haha… Well, it involves wayyy too much time digging through references and databases and libraries, but there’s a lot of great stuff to find! Actually, this piece came from an article by Disney archivist Dave Smith in a 1970s futurism magazine. I’m going to post the entire article – it’s excellent – as soon as I get time to scan it all in, but I had to get this one drawing up ASAP because I loved it and had never seen it before.

  • Joe Shelby

    There are some who say that Ward’s move into TV, especially through the 60s, was something of a punishment for his insubordination to Walt over some animation projects in the 50s, and then the failure of Babes in Toyland, but I really think that the film media was getting too stodgy for what Ward could contribute. In television, Ward was a pioneer in embracing the world of surrealism that was the height of the art world in the late 50s and throughout the 60s, his expression culminating in the brilliant “Dad, Can I Borrow The Car” from 1970. These projects found a home for the kind of material that wouldn’t ever find an audience in the much more expensive film world, and as such if Ward hadn’t moved into TV, he probably would have had to leave the studio much sooner, and on much more negative terms. The Disney legacy really is that much larger and more special with Ward being given that freedom on TV.

    There is, to me, no finer tribute to Ward’s style and humor than the “Your Friend, The Rat” special on the Ratatouille DVD from Pixar. His sense of truth through visual absurdity rings throughout it.

  • Joe – I’ve thought the same thing about Ward’s “exile”. While I always thought it unfortunate that he and Walt had their falling out, it’s clear that Walt placed a lot of trust in him. In the article I pulled this image from, it’s made clear that after the concept was approved, Walt explicitly gave Ward free reign to do whatever he wanted. In fact, there’s a quote in the article from one of the story artists that Ward’s pitch for “Man In Space” was the only one after which he saw Walt leave with a smile on his face.

    I think you’re right that the animated films of the 50s and 60s would have been a poor match for Ward anyway – his style was better used in the avant garde early films and the freewheeling possibilities presented by the package features of the 40s. While his TV work is obviously less seen than the contemporaneous feature films, his work on animated segments for Disneyland/WWOC are a key element of those shows’ success. I only wish “The Mouse Factory” was available today.

    You’re also right about “Your Friend, The Rat” – that short absolutely knocked me out when I saw it, and was a terrific homage to Ward’s less-heralded work at WDP.

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