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First Launch – May 27th, 1977

With our recent look at the engineering process behind the creation of Space Mountain, I thought that now would be a good time to take a look back at the opening of the attraction itself courtesy of this very nifty program.

Space Mountain had opened at Walt Disney World in 1975, but it wasn’t until 1977 that it arrived in Anaheim. The attraction originally conceived for Disneyland was much different than the final version; its double-track layout would have occupied a much larger footprint and would have been contained in a show building behind a large facade. While Walt Disney World did receive a dual-track system, at Disneyland the Imagineers eventually decided on a single-track, self-contained circular building on a smaller scale than that in Florida.

When Florida’s Space Mountain proved to be such a hit, it’s not surprising that it was decided to bring the concept to Anaheim as well. As befitted such a monumental debut, a big grand opening celebration was held on May 27th, 1977, to unveil the attraction.

Most of the standard Disney park entertainment of the day was on hand – after the “Fanfaronade of Herald Trumpets” (now there’s a word that needs reviving), the Disneyland Band played The Star-Spangled Banner. Later, the Kids of the Kingdom performed a “Disneyland Musicale Interlude” for the rapt attendees. An outside group, the Long Beach Jr. Concert Band, tied things up with the Grand Finale – March of the Olympians.

Now, almost every Disney press event has celebrities on hand. But rarely are they that impressive these days, and they’re certainly not as impressive as the special participants at Space Mountain’s opening. All six living Mercury astronauts were on hand that day – Scott Carpenter, Gordo Cooper (remember that at this time, Cooper was on the Disney payroll as part of the WED team working on EPCOT), John Glenn, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton. Gus Grissom’s widow was there as well. After the ceremony, the astronauts piled into the rockets for a trip into the cosmos, and then returned to answer questions from the press.

Alan Shepard said that the ride was “spectacular with the way it duplicates the forces and vibrations of launch.” Carpenter called it “great fun,” and said that “the visuals are gorgeous. I recommend it to one and all.” There was only one awkward moment in the proceedings, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times from May 30th. Susan Donald, the Disneyland Ambassador who was presiding over things, turned at one point to the widow of Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom. “Mrs. Grissom, would you like to tell what your husband’s been doing lately?”

I’ll remind you that Grissom had died in the tragic Apollo 1 launchpad fire in 1967.

“Oh no!” she said as she realized what she’d asked. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

Other than that blip, things seemed to go smoothly and Space Mountain had been officially inaugurated. Disneyland had received a shot in the arm with the new attraction, and fans looked ahead with great excitement to the next expansion – two new lands called Discovery Bay and Dumbo’s Circus…

Special thanks to Progress Citizen “Another Voice” for sharing this bit o’ historical ephemera with us…

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6 comments to First Launch – May 27th, 1977

  • Adam S

    Random Tangent Alert!

    I took some classes with Gordo Coopers daughter in college, who in conversation, if I am remembering correctly (unlikely as this was college), worked at Disneyland for a summer, working on none other then…..Space Mountain.

    And we have come full circle.

  • RO93461

    I recall riding SM when it was soft opened and you were greeted by the smell of smoldering brake pads upon entering the space station load area. The ride was insanely fast and very few guests were there so you could re ride many times. The word was that the vehicles were hitting speeds up to 55mph (compared to the 25 today) with lots of G’s, and they had different trains that had different types of wheels so the trip was either really slow or blazing fast. Today the trip time can vary about 20 seconds depending on the heat of the wheels and the overall weight of the guests in the train.

  • Bill Watkins

    To RO93461
    There have been a lot of myths about the speed of Space Mountain. I overheard someone in a restaurant one time say that it went 100 mph. It never went even 55mph and if it did, it would still be going that fast, because it is the same track layout and, primarily, change of elevation is what determines speed. At the fastest point it peaks at 40 feet per second. 44 fps. is 30 mph. So you work it out. The sensation of high speed is an illusion which is partially created by light effects. It’s show biz.

  • RO93461

    To a teen like me at the time “perception is reality”. (No one is disputing the brake smell.) I think there is truth to the rumor that they were trying out different wheels on the vehicles to fine tune the speed. I would like to know more about what really went on during the final stages of testing on the vehicles.

  • Bill Watkins

    As I mention in the article, it is the job of the designer to convert the energy added to the vehicle by the lifts to heat as it rolls down the track. The first concern is that the cold/empty vehicles do not stall somewhere when starting up in the morning. So that means that the hot/loaded vehicles will have an excess of energy when they return. That is why there are retarders and brakes at the end. (Most brake materials smell when they are new due to the bonding agents). During the T & A (test and adjust) period we substituted softer treaded wheels for some of the hard nylon wheels in order to absorb some more energy. We’re talking here about absorbing 1.7% additional energy. The effect on the highest speeds in mid-course are negligible. I know that all of the rumors spread by the employees that rode the cars during the tests gave the impression that radical changes were being made. One day, on the way to DL, I stopped at the Red Cross to give blood. The nurse asked me what I did for Disney and I told her. She said rather accusingly,”Why are slowing it down?” That’s when I knew that the rumor had spread all over town. Maybe it’s better to use sand bags for weight.

  • It never ceases to amaze me all the considerations that must go into a ride that most of us would never even think about.

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