Walt Disney visiting Wernher von Braun at the Marshall Space Flight Center
When preparing my article on the Walt Disney Family Museum’s video contest, I searched a stock photography website for historic images of Walt Disney. I was baffled to find a NASA-owned picture of him alongside scientist Dr. Wernher von Braun.
My husband didn’t understand my incredulity. He said that’s what top executives do: rub shoulders with other powerful people. Walt Disney was a great mover and shaker in his day and it makes sense that he’d hang around NASA or any other large company or government institution. I remained convinced, however, that there was more to this story than just some random photo op.
I was right; a quick internet search revealed the academic article “The Disney-Von Braun Collaboration and Its Influence on Space Exploration” by Mike Wright, historian for the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Von Braun was the director of the center for ten years, beginning with its opening in 1960. The paper details Disney’s acquaintance with von Braun and thus the former’s relationship with NASA.
Von Braun was a German scientist who immigrated to the United States after World War II and began working for NASA. He and Walt Disney met in the 1950s through their shared fascination of television as a medium for connecting with and educating the nation.
By the 1950s Disney was becoming less interested in animation and more preoccupied with developing his parks and his television properties. He was also enthralled by the technology of the future, a concept evident in the Tomorrowland and Epcot sections of his parks. Thus it’s no surprise that he would also be drawn to the budding field of space flight and exploration.
Disney and von Braun joined up in the mid-1950s to make a series of Disney Corp.-produced made-for-television-films on space. Von Braun provided his science expertise and Disney his animation/entertainment genius to make the movies, which Disney himself described as “science factual.” In the introduction he recorded to the first piece, which aired in 1955, Disney outlined the objective of the films as combining “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.”
Disney used the films to promote his new Disneyland park, its Tomorrowland section in particular. Von Braun might have been involved in the project on a personal level due to his interest both in television and in space, but he had a professional agenda as well. NASA saw the films as a way to stimulate public interest and support for space exploration.
Wright’s paper mentions an intriguing if unsubstantiated report that Disney’s space television reach might have extended beyond NASA to the White House and Pentagon. A Disney archivist in the late 1970s printed an account by Disney senior producer Ward Kimball, the man who was rumored to have recruited von Braun to consult for Disney, that on the day after the first piece “Man in Space” aired, President Eisenhower himself called Disney to congratulate him on the show and ask for a copy to screen to Pentagon space officials.
The report sounds like something Kimball may have fabricated to increase the Disney mythos, but its possible plausibility illustrates how far Disney’s influence reached. Because my interest in the company revolves around its films, I often forget how powerful a businessman Walt Disney was in his day. It’s always interesting to read stories like this on the lesser-known history of the company and of the man himself.