March 9, 1955 – Man in Space Premieres on the Disneyland Television Show
“One of man’s oldest dreams has been the desire for space travel, to travel to other worlds.” – Walt Disney
On March 9, 1955, audiences watching the Disneyland Television Show saw a different kind of episode, called Man in Space. The first installment of the Tomorrowland segments of the show, Man in Space was directed and produced by Ward Kimball (see March 4th entry), who had written the episode with William Bosche, and features guests Werner von Braun, Willy Ley, and Heinz Haber, who were major scientists associated with space exploration. It was so well received that President Dwight D. Eisenhower asked for a copy to present to the Pentagon, and this helped push the space program into the forefront of the public imagination. In 1956, an edited version of Man in Space was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Documentary), after it was released to theaters on a double bill with Davy Crockett and the River Pirates.
As the Man in Space episode opens, the audience is taken to a design room, where men are hard at work designing prototypes of rockets and developing methods of space travel. Walt explains that the creative talents of the Disney Studios are working with engineers and scientists to make the dream of interplanetary travel a reality. “In working with engineers and scientists,” director and producer Ward Kimball explains, “we have found that there are many different opinions as to how we will eventually cross the space frontier.” The one common point between these opinions, though, is that it will be a rocket-powered ship heading into space. Kimball then leads the viewers into a history of rocketry, beginning with China in the 13th century.
The rocket was not a modern invention, Kimball points out; the Chinese invented it at the battle of Kai-fung-fu in 1232. A brief animation segment shows two Chinese men shooting rockets at each other from far distances, with each rocket increasing in size. Kimball then jumps forward 500 years to Sir Isaac Newton and his often paraphrased “for every action force, there is always an equal but opposite reaction force.” Kimball makes this clearer by using the example of the family dog when it sneezes. The segment also shows a few examples of rocket propulsion experiments, including a steam-powered rocket, and notes that designers ultimately stuck with gunpowder-powered designs.
In 1865, Jules Verne published From the Earth to the Moon, which again piqued people’s interest in flying into space. Verne’s story inspired the French filmmaker Georges Melies to create the first space-travel film in 1902. Kimball shows the audience this silent film, and continues with a history of the different kinds of fuels used to power small rockets that could one day be used to send men to space. Rocket frenzy was highly evident in the 1920s and ’30s, with rockets attached to any possible vehicle. Around this time, a new society in Germany was founded, with the mission of scientifically exploring the possibility of space travel. The German army took a keen interest, and used the society’s findings to create rocket missiles and one of the forerunners of a spaceship, known as the V-2. After WWII, 75 of these V-2 rockets were taken to the U.S. for study in its newly developed rocket program.
Kimball then introduces rocket historian Willy Ley to explain how rocket firing works. Ley begins by showing a model of a rocket motor and explaining to Disney artists how it works. An animated sequence explains how the motor continues to work in space where there is no oxygen. Ley asks the animators to create a sketch of a three-stage rocket to help him explain how it would work. The animators ask some very interesting questions as Ley uses the chalkboard to help his explanations, but the section is not overly technical, so the audience is still be able to understand well.
In the next segment of Man in Space, Kimball describes a new field of science known as space medicine, or how man will react physically and mentally in space, and introduces the expert in this field, Dr. Heinz Haber. Haber pulls down a screen to set the stage for another animated segment, this time of the “common man” who will be sent into space. As we follow this common man through his daily routine in space, Kimball’s special brand of humor keeps things light.
In the third segment of the episode, Kimball explains the two problems of space flight: building a rocket ship, and preparing and training the men to travel into outer space. Kimball then introduces Dr. Wernher von Braun, the chief of the Army’s guided missile division, who was the overall director of development for the original V-2 rocket. Von Braun is seen explaining to two other men the problems of space travel. Looking at some similar present-day situations can help come up with solutions, von Braun says. He gives a few examples of the current research, with testing performed on the ground in simulated atmospheres. The tests that von Braun describes are then presented in an animated sequence narrated by Dick Tufeld, best known as the voice of the robot in the television show, Lost in Space. The animated short ends with an accomplished mission into space, with the next goal of getting man to the moon, then the planets, and then to what lies beyond.