Welcome to Tomorrowland!

Man in Space

One of man’s wildest dreams has been the desire to travel through space to other worlds…

By the time of my birth, human flight was more than a foregone conclusion, it was our birthright as homo sapiens.  Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic solo had taken place less than three decades earlier, and already the idea of flying non-stop from New York to Paris, while still the stuff of glamour, was no more of a technological challenge than boarding a Greyhound bus for Buffalo.


The Bell X1

The jet age and I grew up together.  As early as I can remember, my imagination was captivated by images of the latest experimental aircraft — machines with names that seemed as though they had been lifted from the black & white sci-fi cinema of the times: the Bell X!, the X15, the F-105 Starfighter.

It was also the time of the Sabre Jet vs. the MiG — a bloody contest between the United States and the Soviet Union to decide for the world whether capitalism or communism was more capable of producing the most advanced technologies.  This was a competition that took place not just in the skies over Korea, but in outer space as well.

As a kid, man’s foray into outer space was more to me than just a brave excursion into The Final Frontier, it was a cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil — which was why the launch of Sputnik came as such a blow.  It was like the Giants losing a pennant race to the Dodgers, but with the potential downside of being nuked from the cosmos.  This was, at any rate, how the Space Race, as we referred to it at the time, was seen by many Americans, and why it was so heavily tinged with Cold War paranoia.

Walt Disney introduces his Man in Space feature.

Walt Disney introduces his Man in Space series

Before Kennedy announced that America would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade (the decade in reference being the ’60s), I already knew how this cosmic contest was going to go down — thanks to a man you could trust more than anyone in Washington, D.C.  That man was Walt Disney.  In 1955, Disney defined how I was to look at the future of human space travel.  My kids had George Lucas…I had Uncle Walt.

Thanks to YouTube, I have been able to relive the first in a series that Disney produced on manned space travel, no doubt as part of a marketing strategy to bolster enthusiasm for the Tomorrowland section of his newly created Anaheim theme park.  For me, Tomorrowland was the hippest neighborhood in the Magic Kingdom — and Man in Space was the reason I wanted to hang out there.  Today, I’d probably opt for Main Street — a place that never quite was, versus a place that may never quite be.  But then, that’s the power of fantasy.

The depiction of man's first foray into space, as depicted by Disney, was way cooler than the real thing.

The depiction of man’s first foray into space, as depicted by Disney, was way cooler than the real thing.

As you watch this hour-long Disney program (divided into four segments by YouTube), I should call your attention to a few things:

  • The rocket scientists interviewed were former Nazis.  Okay…that may be a bit unfair.  Let’s just say that they were dedicated German scientists who had faithfully served the Fatherland during the Second World War.  Of course, this line of argument didn’t go down all that well in Nuremberg, as Albert Speer could have told you — but America needed scientists to defeat Godless Communism, and not architects with neoclassical affectations rendered in  meglomaniacal proportions.  Speer served over 20 years in Spandau Prison — Willy Ley and Werner Von Braun got guest celebrity spots on Disney.  Nobody said the world is fair. 
  • Man in Space showed us that teaching science to kids could be a form of entertainment, if done right…and Disney did it right.
  • The animated sequences depicting man’s first successful space flight have a very cool ’50s vibe, and actually foresaw America’s space shuttle program long before it became reality.  Sadly, the design of the reusable spacecraft depicted by Disney’s artists make the Shuttle look like a cosmic Winnebago.
  • Finally, take note that not a single human being represented in Man in Space is female.  As the feature title plainly suggests, you could bust out of Earth’s gravitation pull more easily in the ’50s than you could shatter the glass ceiling.  Of course, it was also cool to smoke on camera — as you’ll discover in a scene in the second or third segment that has a twisted but endearing sense of nostalgia.

I have to say that thanks to Man in Space, the first actual space flight (by an American, at least) was a bit of a let down for me.  It wasn’t just that it was sub-orbital (a fact that rankled, given that Yuri Gagarin not only became the first man in space, but had actually orbited the Earth), it just wasn’t as cool as Disney had portrayed the event so many years before Project Mercury.

Back in the days of rampant pharmacological experimentation, it was popular to say that “drugs are for people who can’t handle reality.”  I always thought that about Disney.


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