Look Closer: Artifacts from the “Man in Space” Series

Posted on Mon, 08/01/2011 - 06:00

July’s Look Closer presentations focused on a case in The Walt Disney Family Museum that is often overlooked by visitors. Though this case seems unassuming at first (positioned in Gallery 9 to the left of a large bank of video monitors that capture and hold one’s attention), and to the right of a display about the ever-popular Mickey Mouse Club from the 1950’s, it houses artifacts relating to a fascinating period in the Disney story: the time when the Studio became involved with the promotion of the American space program during its formative years.

The common thread that unites all of the artifacts is the Disneyland TV “Man in Space” series, three one-hour shows that both educated and entertained the public with information about space exploration.  Arguably the most influential series produced about the topic, the programs used animation, live action, mockups, models, and graphics to demonstrate the feasibility of space travel and to foster public support for its development. Walt chose animator Ward Kimball, who first gave him the idea for the series after seeing a series of articles in Collier's Magazine, to produce, write, and direct the project. Collaborating with three expatriate German scientists, one of whom—Wernher von Braun—was later called "the Walt Disney of space," Kimball created shows that balanced humor, creativity, and fact to present space research as science and not science fiction. The approach was dubbed by Walt as "science factual."

Interestingly, Kimball advocated a more limited or “stylized” animation for the series, which was the opposite of full, flowing, and naturalistic Disney animation. This "limited animation" style was actually the technique of choice for animated TV ads in 1950s. Because large amounts of animation had to be produced quickly and inexpensively, it was important to use fewer drawings to tell stories. The five publicity stills that were created for the “Man in Space” series reflect this technique. They show fascinating, otherworldly figures in action poses, but there is very little background or supplemental detail—quite a difference from the usual Disney offerings with their "illusion of life" and attention to detail in every frame. 

Other artifacts of particular interest from Gallery 9 are five “Flight to the Moon” school tablets designed to excite children about space research while instructing them about the facts; these tablets reflect Walt’s passion for children’s education. In addition, the “Man in Space” artifacts include two pictures of Walt and Ralph Damon, the popular president of TWA during much of the 1950’s. TWA was brought in as part of a marketing coup by Disney to sponsor the Moonliner attraction in Tomorrowland at Disneyland. TWA was the official airline of Disneyland, and as a result, designers adorned the new Moonliner with the airline’s classic red stripes on white.

Finally, the case in Gallery 9 contains the manuscript written by Ward Kimball which describes the making of the episodes for the “Man in Space” series. The first page addresses the unique challenge that Kimball, the host of the series, and fellow animators faced as they prepared to engage American viewers about the wonders of space:

“Projection into the future could best be attained by animation, since it could not yet be photographed, and our main concern was producing entertainment, the stock-in-trade of any Disney artist or writer. 

"Selectivity in dealing with man’s most complex field of exploration would be a towering problem here. We had to build a story that would be interesting to and within the understanding of 45 million viewers. So, who better than a novice to lead novices through hour-long trips into tomorrow?”



Mary Beth Culler
Museum Interpreter
at The Walt Disney Family Museum