March 9, 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.
At the time there had been no Disney 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. Kimball showed Walt articles about space in Collier’s magazine written by a trio of Germans: rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, space expert Willy Ley, and physics professor Heinz Haber. After a preliminary meeting Walt grabbed a piece a paper and scribbled a note to Kimball: “Write your own ticket.” Longtime employees recall this as a 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 soon recruited to join the project as well.
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. 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.
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.
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, Ward, it looks like they’re following our script.”
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Growing up in Los Angeles in the 70s/80s we visited Disneyland on a regular basis and often after school, before "Annual Passes".
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