Saturday, October 16, 2010

Walt Disney, Wernher von Braun, and the Space Program

In the 1950's Walt Disney produced the famous "Man in Space" TV series. And when Walt needed for the show a technical director he called the best rocket specialist: Wernher von Braun, a man who knew what the word "rocket" means. Von Braun was one of the leading figures in the development of rocket technology during World War II. A one-time member of the Nazi party and a commissioned SS officer, Von Braun would later be regarded as the preeminent rocket engineer of the 20th century in his role with the United States civilian space agency NASA.

In his 20s and early 30s, von Braun was the central figure in Germany's pre-war rocket development programme, responsible for the design and realization of the deadly V-2 combat rocket during World War II. After the war, he and some of his rocket team were taken to the U.S. as part of the then-secret Operation Paperclip. In 1955, ten years after entering the country, von Braun became a naturalized U.S. citizen.

Von Braun worked on the US Army intermediate range ballistic missile program before his group was assimilated by NASA, under which he served as director of the newly-formed Marshall Space Flight Center and as the chief architect of the Saturn V launch vehicle, the superbooster that propelled the Apollo spacecraft to the Moon.According to one NASA source, he is "without doubt, the greatest rocket scientist in history. His crowning achievement was to lead the development of the Saturn V booster rocket that helped land the first men on the Moon in July 1969." He even received the 1975 National Medal of Science.

To come back to Walt and the Space TV series here above is a picture of Wernher von Braun, Marshall Center Director, with Walt Disney during a visit to the Marshall Space Flight Center in 1954. Later, Von Braun while working in California on the Saturn project, worked with Disney studios as the technical director in the three Disney films about Space Exploration.

On the picture above, shot at the Walt Disney Studios in California, Wernher von Braun and Ernst Stuhlinger are shown discussing the concepts of nuclear-electric spaceships designed to undertake the mission to the planet Mars. As a part of the Disney "Tomorrowland" series on the exploration of space, the nuclear-electric vehicles were shown in the last three television films, entitled "Mars and Beyond," which first aired in December 1957.

Below, von Braun stands beside a model of the upper stage (Earth-returnable stage) of the three-stage launch vehicle built for the Disney TV series.

Years later, Wernher von Braun invited Disney and his associates to tour the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Disney's tour of Marshall in 1965 was Von Braun's hope for a renewed public interest in the future of the Space Program at NASA.

On the rare picture below Walt Disney toured the West Test Area during his visit to the Marshall Space Flight Center on April 13, 1965. The three in center foreground are Karl Heimburg, Director, Test Division; Wernher von Braun, Director, MSFC; and Walt Disney. The Dynamic Test Stand with the S-1C stage being installed is in the background.

Another rare photograph shot the same day, April 13, 1965, during Walt's visit at the Marshall Space Flight Center. From left are R.J. Schwinghamer from the MSFC, Disney, B.J. Bernight, and Wernher von Braun. Walt looks tired on this picture.

The next picture is a famous one of Walt in his office introducing to the TV audience a program about space, with rocket models on his desk...

...And it's interesting to compare Walt's picture with the these pictures of Wernher von Braun, also at his desk with moon lander in background and also with rocket models! Funny is that von Braun's second picture below looks a lot like the pictures of Walt sitting at his famous desk in his TV appearances!

Years later, when Apollo 11 landed on the moon in 1969, von Braun saw his big dream finally realised. When i think about it, there is something incredible in the fact that the first men on the moon wouldn't have succeed without the help of a brilliant rocket engineer who was also a former Nazi, member of the waffen SS!?! Von Braun died eight years later, in 1977, of a pancreatic cancer. He was only 65 years old.

I found most of the above pictures, including the two rare shots of Walt's 1965 visit at the Marshall Space Flight Center on the fantastic NASA Images web site, a gold mine of space program pictures, all in high-res. If you're a fan of the NASA space program just go HERE.

Finally, for those of you who have never seen Von Braun in the Man in Space TV series here is a video showing an excerpt of the show, with von Braun and his famous "Dr Folamour" german accent!

Pictures: copyright NASA and Disney

Video: copyright Disney


DisWedWay said...

Alain, I believe that is Ward Kimball at the start of your film, doing the introduction. Yes Walt's arms are crossed in your picture, which is not a good sign for the trips itinerary that day. I see the XR1 name, was picked up for the new rugged notebook computer by General Dynamics, called The "GoBook XR1".

Marco Antonio Garcia said...

These tomorrowland shows are excellent, very entertaining and educational, and still very interesting and fun to watch!
All these TV programs are available on the Walt Disney treasures series, in the Tomorrowland edition, which is a must have for any Disney or Space program fan. There is also a very interesting program of Walt, just a few months before his death, introducing his EPCOT concept in the same DVD box set.