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Walt Disney Helped Wernher von Braun Sell Americans on Space
By Dave Bryan
Associated Press
posted: 03:00 pm ET
13 August 2002


HUNTSVILLE, Alabama (AP) -- Wernher von Braun, the German physicist who oversaw most of the achievements of the U.S. space program until his death in 1977, might not have been as successful if it weren't for Walt Disney.

Von Braun, a hero to many for his work as technical chief of the Army's missile program and later NASA's space program, began a concerted effort in the 1950s to sell the idea of space travel to the American public. That included the collaboration with Disney on three highly popular space-related television films.

``He had the ability to take this interest in space exploration and take it to the public,'' said Mike Wright, staff historian for the Marshall Space Flight Center.

Disney's senior producer, Ward Kimball, had taken notice after von Braun and other scientists wrote a series of articles for Collier's magazine, said Wright. He tapped von Braun to work on the popular Disney TV films about space.

Von Braun's work on the Disney films and the Collier's series sold many Americans on the idea of space flight and helped ensure adequate funding of the space program, said Wright.

The German scientist's personality was important for the success of the space program, said Michael Neufeld, a curator at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington who wrote a book about von Braun and his rocket team.

``He was very charming, he was very charismatic,'' Neufeld said. ``He was a very good politician in the context that he understood.''

Disney, who would become an international icon, opened Disneyland the same year that von Braun worked as a technical director on three Disney TV programs about space.

The first, ``Man in Space,'' aired on ABC on March 9, 1955. The second, ``Man and the Moon,'' aired the same year, and the final film, ``Mars and Beyond,'' was televised on Dec. 4, 1957.

Von Braun's talent was that he could communicate a vision of space travel in layman's terms while bringing to the message the authority of a scientist.

``To make people believe that space flight was a possibility was his greatest accomplishment,'' said Wright. ``Von Braun brought all of this out of the realm of science fiction.''

 

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