Article on Von Braun and Walt Disney
"The Disney-Von Braun Collaboration and Its Influence
on Space Exploration"
Marshall Space Flight Center Historian
Note: The following
paper was presented by the author in 1993 at the Southern Humanities
Conference entitled "Inner Space/Outer Space: Humanities, Technology
and the Postmodern World." It was later included in "Selected
Papers from the 1993 Southern Humanities Conference," published
by Southern Humanities Press in Huntsville and edited by Daniel
Schenker, Craig Hanks, and Susan Kray.
The years after World War II left the American public with an almost
insatiable desire for space-related science fiction. In countless
movies and stories space warriors suited with fish bowl helmets
focused their ray guns on creatures from outer space. According
to space historian Walter McDougall, "After V-2s and atomic
bombs, any fantasy seemed credible." Perhaps more important,
he says, the public's post-war devotion to science fiction was a
"form of cultural anticipation" regarding the coming space
Verne's science fiction had inspired Wernher von Braun when he was
young. Years later, von Braun designed the famous World War II V-2
rocket for his native Germany, but he also dreamed of developing
vehicles that would propel artificial satellites and men into outer
space. In fact, his interest in developing rockets for space exploration,
rather than for defense, angered the Gestapo and led to two weeks
in a German prison. As World War II ended, von
Braun and other German rocket experts surrendered to Allied forces
and eventually emigrated from Germany to work for the U.S. Army.
Initially assigned to Fort Bliss, Texas, the von Braun team was
eventually transferred to Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama.
On January 31, 1958, the von Braun team used a modified Jupiter
C rocket to launch Explorer 1, America's first orbiting satellite.
Two years later, von Braun became director of NASA's new George
C. Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville where he and an expanded
team would develop the Saturn rockets that launched men to the moon
As the 1960s ended, von Braun had realized his dream of exploring
outer space by helping place a human on the moon and satellite probes
to the planets. His engineering and managerial expertise contributed
to a technological revolution but his respect for the power of imagination
had changed the way America perceived space exploration much earlier
in the 1950s. He believed that America's devotion to space fiction
in the early 1950s could be channeled into interest in space fact.
"It was a matter of synthesizing the philosophical aspects
into neat packages and solid statements which the public would buy,"
according to Erik Bergaust, von Braun's biographer.
In the early 1950s, Collier's magazine invited von Braun
to publish his vision regarding space exploration. Space historian
Randy Liebermann has explained the significance of the Collier's
articles: "After 25 years of continuous and directed thinking
and endless hours of experimentation, von Braun, the world's leading
rocket engineer, had the chance to come out of his sequestered military
environment and through a national magazine inform the general public
of his detailed blueprint for realizing manned space travel.
The articles, illustrated by leading space artists, seemed to accomplish
more than any other seriously respected cultural or artistic medium
had done in the early 1950s to suggest that the future of space
exploration would emerge indebted to both science fiction and science
fact. At its highest point, Collier's attained a circulation
of approximately 4 million and these readers were excited by von
Braun's vision of the future. Even so, there were already more than
15 million television sets in America by 1952 and von Braun recognized
that this change in American culture had the potential to fundamentally
reshape American past perceptions. So did Walter
Elias Disney who had used film as a powerful medium to entertain
and inform Americans since the 1940s. "Neither Walt Disney
nor Dr. von Braun were ever backward in making maximum use of new
media for advancing their ideas: Now was the age of television,"
said one observer.
Von Braun served as technical advisor on three space-related
television films that Disney produced in the 1950s. Together, von
Braun (the engineer) and Disney (the artist) used the new medium
of television to illustrate how high man might fly on the strength
of technology and the spirit of human imagination. According to
David R. Smith, Director of Archives at Walt Disney Productions,
von Braun caught the attention of Disney senior producer Ward Kimball.
 The Collier's series had appeared
about the time that Disney decided to use television to promote
Disneyland in California. The theme park would include four major
sections: Fantasyland, Frontierland, Adventureland and Tomorrowland.
Disney producers would incorporate ideas from Disney fantasy films
like Snow White, Pinocchio, and others to promote the first area
of the park. The second and third areas would be built around Davy
Crockett and other adventure films. Tomorrowland, however, represented
a real challenge. In response, Kimball contacted von Braun who,
according to Smith, "pounced on the opportunity."
As a technical consultant for Disney, von Braun would join Heinz
Haber, a specialist in the emerging field of space. medicine, and
Willy Ley, a famous rocket historian. All three
space experts had authored the Collier's series. Disney
personally introduced the first television show, "Man in Space,"
which aired on ABC on March 9, 1955. The objective, he said, 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 later called the show "science factual."
The show represented something new in its approach to science. But
it also relied on Disney's trademark animation techniques. 
For example, a portion of the show was devoted to explaining basic
scientific principles using an animated bust of Sir Isaac Newton.
In one scene, an animated puppy sneezes and moves backward across
a sheet of graph paper to illustrate that for every action there
is an equal and opposite reaction. Disney also filled "Man
in Space" with stereo-typical images of learning and science.
For example, Disney appears on camera against a bookcase backdrop
and introduces producer Ward Kimball complete with a sketch pencil
behind his ear. In turn, Kimball introduces the German scientists
whose accents add more style to the show. Kimball then offers viewers
the privilege to go behind the scenes to see the scientists conferring
with the Disney artists. Chalk-talk technical explanations soon
break into humorous animation. Haber begins explaining weightlessness
in space. His points are illustrated by a cigar puffing, slightly
clad animated character called "homo sapiens extra terrestrials,"
whose movements are set against a graph-like grid. Although the
Disney producers employed humor and cartoon animation in the first
part of "Man in Space," von Braun's on-camera segment
was much more straightforward. "If we were to start today on
an organized, well supported space program, I believe a practical
passenger rocket could be built and tested within ten years,"
von Braun said. "Now here is my design for a four-stage orbital
rocket ship... First we would design and build the fourth stage
and then tow it into the air to test it as glider... This is the
section that must ultimately return the men to the earth safely."
If Disney had chosen to close "Man in Space"
after von Braun's brief lecture on the mechanical relationships
between the weight of the four-stage rocket and the fuel and power
requirements for each stage, he would not have achieved his previously
stated objective. Instead, the Disney artists used the tools of
their trade to create a dramatic animation sequence illustrating
von Braun's futuristic ideas for a four-stage rocket. The scene
takes place at a launch site on a "small atoll of coral islands
in the Pacific where man is dedicated to just one cause--the conquest
of space." Against a dark blue pre-dawn sky, search lights
bathe the waiting launch vehicle while sirens sound a warning, and
square-jawed technicians study their consoles. "Now man will
bet his life against the unknown dangers of space travel,"
a narrator reports. 
In reality, von Braun's on-camera appearance in "Man in Space"
and the other two films represented only a portion of his involvement
in the actual production of the three shows. Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger,
who had worked with von Braun since his days in Germany, also worked
for Disney as a technical consultant. According to Stuhlinger, von
Braun made sure the Disney artists built accurate models of the
space vehicles for the three shows. "Here von Braun was really
on home grounds.... He provided a wealth of information on technical
details, from in-orbit fueling operations down to problems of cooking
and eating under weightlessness," Stuhlinger said. He also
recalled the many hours that von Braun devoted to the Disney projects.
Von Braun's official duties for the Army often took him to the West
Coast to meet with Jupiter and Redstone contractors. After the meetings,
he and Stuhlinger would go to the Disney studios where they would
work into the morning hours with the artists and producers.
The second show in the series also aired in 1955
and was called "Man and the Moon." It began with an animated
sequence devoted to legends and superstitions regarding the moon,
among them the idea that the left hind-foot of a rabbit found in
a graveyard during the dark of the moon will bring good luck.
As one reviewer wrote in the New York Times following the
show which aired on December 28, "this is the kind of material
that Walt Disney's technicians can devise their brightest graphic
effects and they made the most of it." 
An educational brochure published to promote "Man and the
Moon," said, "This film presents a realistic and believable
trip to the moon in a rocket ship - not in some far-off fantastic
never-never land, but in the near foreseeable future."
Von Braun, complete with a slide rule in his pocket, narrates a
section of the film and describes his ideas for a two-phase trip
to the moon. The first part of the effort would require building
a space station. This base would serve as the staging area for the
second part of the trip to the moon. "Our space satellite (station)
will have the shape of a wheel measuring 250 feet across. This outside
rim will contain living and working quarters for a crew of 50 men,"
von Braun said. "Just below the radio and radar antenna is
an atomic reactor. Its heat will be used to drive a turbo generator
which supplies the station with electricity."
Disney archivist David Smith noted that von Braun
invented a special space suit for "Man and the Moon" and
nicknamed it the "bottle suit." 
According to Stuhlinger, the suit resembled a miniature space vehicle
with its own atmosphere and rocket propulsion system along with
manipulator arms to accomplish assembly work in orbit.
Just as he had done in "Man in Space," Disney decided
to illustrate von Braun's technical concepts. For the second show,
however, Disney decided to use live actors who portray an astronaut
crew departing from the space station for their journey around the
moon. The drama intensifies when a meteor strikes the ship, and
one astronaut dons a bottle suit to make the repairs. 
The final show in the series aired on December 4, 1957, and was
entitled "Mars and Beyond." E.C. Slipher, an astronomer
from the Lowell Observatory in Arizona, joined von Braun and Stuhlinger
as technical consultants on the film. All three appeared on camera.
The show also included colorful animated accounts of the legend
and lore related to Mars. The narrator introduced the segment featuring
von Braun and Stuhlinger by saying, "at the present time an
atomic-powered space ship has been suggested by a leading scientist
in the rocket and guided missile field, Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger...
This atomic electric space ship features a revolutionary new principle
that will make possible the long trip to Mars with only a small
expenditure of fuel."  Again the Disney
artists employ dramatic animation to convey Stuhlinger's and von
Braun's technical explanations regarding the 13-month journey to
the Red Planet.
An estimated 42 million people saw the first show in the Disney
"science factual" series.  Contemporary
television critics responded favorably to all three shows, and they
recognized the contributions that von Braun and the other technical
advisors made. "Into it went the thinking of the best scientific
minds working on space projects today, making the picture more fact
than fantasy," one reviewer said after seeing "Mars and
Beyond." Disney producer Ward Kimball
realized all three shows were headed for success after the first
one aired on March 9, 1955. On July 29, 1955, President Eisenhower
announced that the U.S. would launch a small unmanned earth-circling
satellite as part of the U.S. participation in the International
Geophysical Year which would be held from July 1957 through December
1958.  On August 24, Kimball wrote a letter
to von Braun saying that in order to promote plans for the next
show in the series, the Disney studios planned to "ballyhoo"
the first show as an item that contributed to Eisenhower's satellite
announcement.  In an August 30 letter back
to Kimball, von Braun reacted with astonishment. "For God's
sake don't put it that this show triggered the presidential announcement."
Kimball agreed and replied with a letter of apology.
Von Braun feared that Kimball's idea might be embarrassing and upset
serious discussions regarding America's future role in space.
In an article published in 1978, David R. Smith, the Disney archivist,
reprinted the correspondence between Kimball and von Braun.
He also published an account from Kimball which stated that on the
morning after "Man in Space" aired, Eisenhower called
Disney to compliment him on the show and to request a copy that
could be shown to top space-related officials in the Pentagon.
Although it is difficult to verify Kimball's account, the story
has gained increased attention in recent years. For example, one
historian has recently used it to illustrate that, contrary to other
viewpoints, Eisenhower was not "hostile to the idea of space
exploration or to science in general."
Eisenhower's personal response to the first Disney
film is open to debate. However, "Man in Space," apparently
impressed one high-level Soviet space official. This is indicated
by a copy of a September 24, 1955, letter from L. Sedov to F.C.
Durant, President of the International Astronautical Federation.
"If the Disney Studios supplies us with one copy of this film
on whatever terms it may put, it will make considerably for the
cause of promoting our contact."  Erik
Bergaust, von Braun's biographer, called Sedov the "front man
for Russian space delegations during the Sputnik era." Bergaust
also claims to have introduced von Braun to Sedov in 1958. 
Naturally, many leaders in the emerging American aerospace industry
endorsed the efforts that von Braun and Disney had made to promote
public interest in space exploration. In 1955, the American Rocket
Society held its largest-ever regional meeting in Los Angeles. As
part of the entertainment for the meeting, more than 600 persons
were invited to tour Disneyland and participate in a special screening
of "Man in Space."
As indicated by von Braun's response to Kimball's plan to relate
the Eisenhower satellite announcement to the first Disney space
show, von Braun wanted to avoid any indication "that I myself
through the vehicle of the Disney Studio am trying to get credit
for more than I deserve."  Biographer
Erik Bergaust has written that von Braun understood the perils of
going to the public for support of the space program: "During
the fifties, many people thought of von Braun as some sort of science
fiction hero who for the most part was dreaming of big space conquests
and who spent most of his time on Walt Disney television shows...
Some high priests of science were, of course, snobbish enough to
frown on all this loud glamour." Another
author has written that the Walt Disney documentaries and the Collier's
articles made von Braun a "space nut" or a "space
hero."  In 1958, one von Braun supporter
lamented "the discouraging spectacle of hard headed and reputable
scientists calling the latest proposal of Dr. Wernher von Braun
to send a man 150 miles into space a 'circus stunt.'"
Ernst Stuhlinger acknowledges that von Braun was aware of being
criticized for promoting space outside of previously established
circles. But he adds that von Braun's desire to see man travel into
space meant convincing scientists, industry, politicians and, in
particular, the public. "He fought on all fronts each in its
own language. That was his genius," Stuhlinger said.
In 1965, 10 years after "Man in Space" first aired, von
Braun invited Disney and others involved in the 1950s films to tour
the Marshall Space Flight Center. Von Braun
and his employees clearly hoped that the reunion might rekindle
Disney's enthusiasm for space exploration. One Marshall official
wrote, "Out of this we would at least establish good will,
and maybe (if we play our cards right) we could get something going
that would be of tremendous benefit to MSFC, Apollo, NASA, and the
entire space effort."  Von Braun himself
wrote that the Disney tour "may easily result in a Disney picture
about manned space flight."  On April
13, 1965, Walt Disney, his brother Roy, and other Disney executives
visited the Marshall Center. In an interview
with The Huntsville Times, Disney said, "If I can help through
my TV shows... to wake people up to the fact that we've got to keep
exploring, I'll do it." In reality, the
tour at Marshall and other NASA sites did not inspire Disney to
use the 1950s television series as a model for a new film about
space exploration. No doubt, Wernher von Braun was well qualified
to imagine what the show and the future American space program might
have looked like if Disney had chosen to do so.
Back to Top
1. Walter A. McDougall, ...the Heavens and
the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age (New York:
Basic Books, 1985) p. 100.
2. Wernher von Braun and Frederick I. Ordway III,
History of Rocketry and Space Travel 3d revised ed. (New
York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1975) p. 108.
3. Erik Bergaust, Wernher von Braun (Washington,
D. C.: National Space Institute, 1976) p. 161.
4. Randy Liebermann, "Wernher von Braun and
Collier's Magazine's Man in Space Series," 37th Congress of
the International Astronautical Federation, Innsbruck, Austria,
October 4-11, 1986.
5. The Encyclopedia Americana, 1990 ed.
s.v. "Collier's", s.v. "Television."
6. Adrian Perkins, "The 1950's, A Pivotal
Decade," Spaceflight, July/August 1983, p. 323.
Back To Top
7. David R. Smith, "They're Following Our
Script: Walt Disney's Trip to Tomorrowland," Future,
May 1978, p. 55. Mr. Smith's article represents the best overall
account of the three Disney space-related films. Randy Liebermann
also presents an excellent account of the films in an essay entitled
"The Collier's and Disney Series" in Frederick I. Ordway
III and Randy Liebermann eds. Blueprint for Space: Science Fiction
to Science Fact (Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution
Press, 1992) pp. 135-146.
10. The author is grateful to the Walt Disney
Company for the opportunity to borrow copies of all three Walt Disney
films mentioned in this paper. The material cited in this section
of the paper is from the film "Man in Space." Some of
the material cited in latter portions of the paper is from the film
"Man and the Moon," and from the film "Mars and Beyond."
11. "Man in Space."
13. Ernst Stuhlinger, oral history interview by
Mike Wright, December 17, 1992, Huntsville, Alabama.
Back To Top
14. "Man and the Moon."
15. J.P. Shanley, New York Times, December
29, 1955, p. 41.
16. The material cited here is from a brochure
describing the Disney film, "Man and the Moon." The text
was prepared by the Division of Audio-Visual Education, Los Angeles
17. This is from the film, "Man and the Moon."
18. Smith, p. 60.
19. Stuhlinger Interview.
20. "Man and the Moon"
Back To Top
23. Willy Ley, Rockets, Missiles, and Space
Travel (New York, The Viking Press, 1961), p. 331.
24. TV Guide, March 5,1955, p.9
25. Eugene M. Emme, ed., Aeronautics and Astronautics:
An American Chronology of Science and Technology in the Exploration
of Space, 1915-1960 (Washington, 1961), p.78.
26. Letter from Ward Kimball to Wernher von Braun,
August 25, 1955, reprinted by Smith, p. 59.
27 Letter from Wernher von Braun to Ward Kimball,
August 30, 1955, reprinted by Smith, p. 59.
28. Letter from Ward Kimball to Wernher von Braun,
September 1, 1955, reprinted by Smith, p. 59.
29. Smith, p. 59.
Back To Top
31. Rip Bulkeley, The Sputniks Crisis and
Early United States Space Policy, A Critique of the Historiography
of Space (Indiana University Press, 1990), p. 128. It should
be noted that the Office of the Historian at the Pentagon as well
as the archivists at the Eisenhower Library were unable to locate
documentation supporting Eisenhower's interest in the Disney films.
32. Letter from L. Sedov to F.C. Durant, 24 September
33. Bergaust, p. 488.
34. John W. Herrick, "Los Angeles Meeting
Attended by Over 500," Jet Propulsion, Journal of the American
Rocket Society, March 1955, pp. 652-654.
35. Letter from von Braun to Kimball, August
36. Bergaust, p. 488.
37. "The World Pays Tribute to Wernher von
Braun," The National Space Institute. There is no date on this
pamphlet. It was prepared following von Braun's death.
Back To Top
38. I.M. Levitt, "Is von Braun's Plan a 'Circus
Stunt'?" Army Navy Air Force Register, May 10, 1958.
39. Stuhlinger Interview.
40. Letter from Wernher von Braun to William Bosche,
January 8, 1965. Mr. Bosche represented one of von Braun's key contacts
during his involvement in the three Disney films.
41. Note from Frank Williams to
Bart Slattery, November 13, 1964. Mr. Williams was Director of Marshall's
Future Projects Office and a close associate of von Braun . Mr.
Slattery was Director of the Public Affairs Office at the Marshall
Space Flight Center.
42. Note from Wernher von Braun to Bart Slattery.
This is a handwritten note initiated by von Braun and sent to "Bart."
It is dated "3/6," probably March 6, 1965.
43. Wernher von Braun's Daily Journal,
April 13, 1965.
44 Bob Ward, "Walt Disney Makes Pledge to
Aid Space," The Huntsville Times, April 13, 1965, p.
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