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Ties Run Deep Between Disney and Space Exploration

Disney,Space Tourism,Wernher von Braun
Chelsea Tatham Zukowski
June 7, 202110:00 AM UTC (UTC +0)

One man built a theme park, the other built rockets. 

One needed space intel to sell Tomorrowland. The other needed a platform to promote his endeavors to send humans into space.

The result was an entertaining, informative television trilogy promoting a futuristic theme park and the possibility of human life among the stars.

The year was 1954 and Walt Disney really — really — wanted his own amusement park. He was already a household name with accolades and the adoration of a public that loved Mickey Mouse and animated films. Meanwhile, a German rocket scientist named Wernher von Braun was making his transition to the United States following World War II.

Disney, possessed by an entrepreneurial spirit, wanted to reach more of his audience with a place that set itself apart from other amusement parks, boardwalks, and circuses of the time. He called it Disneyland. Inside was filled with lands of adventure, frontier, fantasy, and the nostalgic Main Street U.S.A.

There was even a Tomorrowland, created to showcase the “world of tomorrow” — and the technology paving the way for a brighter, more efficient future.

(Nearly 30 years later, Disney’s love for the future would be furthered with the opening of EPCOT Center, the second theme park at Walt Disney World in Florida. One of Disney’s last grand ideas before his death had been for an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, which built upon the popularity of a space-age future and a world’s fair-type showcase of Earth’s history and culture. EPCOT, which opened in 1982, now boasts Spaceship Earth, Mission: Space, and the upcoming Space 220 restaurant that will simulate dining in orbit 220 miles above the planet.)

Stills from Disney's Man in Space (Copyright Disney)

But back in 1954, bringing just Tomorrowland to life was one of Disney’s biggest challenges. What rides and attractions would it feature? Disney didn’t have a main character or animated film to anchor Tomorrowland to like he did with other Disneyland areas. It was easy to sell those themed lands to an eager public through the Disneyland television series: nature documentaries of “unusual people and faraway places” for Adventureland, condensed versions of Disney films for Fantasyland, and Davy Crockett stories for Frontierland.

But there was nothing to air for Tomorrowland. Enter Ward Kimball, one of Disney’s lead writers and producers. Ward’s pitch was a Collier’s magazine series on space exploration (1952-1954) as the foundation for three television episodes to promote the themes of Tomorrowland.

Disney instantly signed off on the topic, handing over the reins to Kimball to make the magic happen. And happen it did — with Man in Space, Man and the Moon, and Mars and Beyond.

Disney and Kimball kicked off the episodes to connect the content to Tomorrowland, but the real stars of the series were Collier’s authors and leading aerospace and science experts Wernher von Braun, Willy Ley, and Heinz Haber.

For the first time, millions of Americans witnessed illustrations and animations of a possible future in space, thanks to the Man in Space trilogy. In his iconic thick German accent, von Braun deftly explained rocketry and aerospace engineering to present his plans for a four-stage rocket to shoot a man into space.

“If we were to start today on an organized and well-supported space program, I believe a practical passenger rocket can be built and tested within ten years,” von Braun says in an episode, before launching into a spiel about the steps necessary to get such a government-run program off the ground.

While Ley taught rocket mechanics and Haber explained the effects of space travel on the human body, the core of von Braun’s presentation was promoting his decades-long goal of creating a space program. Though he was the man behind the infamous V-2 during World War II, he had also been chastised in Germany for focusing more on creating a space rocket than on developing more missiles for the war.

Post-World War II, von Braun was best known publicly as Nazi Germany’s chief rocket engineer and the creator of the world’s first long-range ballistic missile and large rocket. After more than 3,100 V-2s launched against European targets during the war and details emerged about Germany army research center Peenemünde’s use of concentration camp labor, many speculated as to whether von Braun committed war crimes. That speculation followed von Braun — who fell in love with rocketry through tales from Jules Verne and H.G. Wells — until he became a U.S. citizen in 1955.

That same year in Disney’s Man in Space, von Braun’s passion for rocketry was on full display in an appearance that was equal parts educational and colorful “science factual” storytelling — a term coined by Disney for the series.

The Tomorrowland-themed series, especially Man in Space and Man and the Moon, helped launch Disney and von Braun to the forefront of their respective endeavors. It provided a “science factual” peg for Tomorrowland attractions at Disneyland and put notions of space travel in the forefront of millions of Americans’ minds.

Disney and von Braun became influencers for space exploration and future technology in the earliest years of the U.S. space program.

Stills from Disney's Man in Space (Copyright Disney)

Disney and the Space Community

Flash forward about 65 years and the worlds of Disney and space exploration seems to still be colliding. Among the pioneering professionals responsible for the often complex messaging and public relations associated with new science and technology, are being carried out by a not-so-hidden community of former Disney employees who now use their entertainment and marketing training to help the public be a part of the new space era.

“The culture and attitude are the same in both worlds––work together for the greater good and to inspire those around you,” Kelli Sullivan tells Supercluster. "The bonds formed in pursuit of those goals are strong and something I've experienced in both communities. There's a shared ambition to make the world around you better."

Sullivan is the Public Relations Manager of Iridium Communications, a satellite company headquartered in Virginia that operates the world's only satellite constellation with complete global coverage. When planning their second-generation constellation of satellites, Iridium made a huge gamble on SpaceX, an unproven and relatively unknown launch provider at the time. Iridium's network is used around the world by adventurers, explorers, and NGOs doing work in wildlife and environmental protection.

Iridium satellite phones are even used by astronauts like SpaceX's historic DM-2 crewmembers Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley who made prank calls with an Iridium phone upon splashing down in the ocean after their successful mission to the ISS.

Sullivan attended the DM-2 launch and previously worked a Falcon Heavy mission at Kennedy Space Center as a member of the media. Her first engagement with today's space industry was attending the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, where Elon Musk originally unveiled SpaceX's plan for sending humans to Mars.

As part of her tenure at Disney, Sullivan was based at the Mission Space ride at EPCOT, wearing the “old-style astronaut costume” to greet riders after their simulated space adventure. Her time as a Future World cast member combined with popular science entertainment sparked a passion for exploration.

“Pursuing the next best thing; reaching as high as you can get,” she said. “This idea always included a future in space. Disney kind of put that in my head: it’s only up from here.”

Jillianne Pierce also points to her experiences at Disney for guiding her to a career in the space industry – as the federal government relations director for Space Florida, the state-run agency promoting Florida’s strengths in aerospace commerce, research, and exploration. Pierce credits her time coordinating Star Wars Weekends at the parks and “sheer curiosity” about Disney’s government and public relations for leading her to where she is today.

“My experience there was really fantastic. I felt like I was empowered to take things into my own hands,” she said. “Now, I try to get people prepared and excited for space enterprise. I think everyone has a closet space nerd inside them.” Pierce was also in attendance at the IAC in Guadalajara and has been a staple at high-profile events, like the yearly Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, throughout her career.

Pierce started as a Photopass photographer at Disney, then got connected with the special events photography group to help shoot after-hours park events, weddings, and media events. That’s when she got to help coordinate events for Star Wars Weekends, working with special attendees who eventually led her to government relations work at Disney, which included connecting big names in the space industry with Disney executives and experiences.

It took about two years of aggressive networking for Pierce to land her first full-time job in the space industry, but she credits the training and sense of camaraderie she received while at Disney.

Stills from Disney's Man in Space (Copyright Disney)

“Everyone knows Disney has the best training – customer service, teamwork, leadership…Disney is kind of the gold standard,” Pierce said. “It’s like a badge on your resume; everyone is curious about someone who’s worked for the mouse.”

Pierce said there have been many times where her Disney training and experience were directly applicable to her current role. One of those times was being asked to help organize a reception for former Vice President Mike Pence and council staff during a National Space Council meeting at Kennedy Space Center.

“It was like working special events again at Disney,” she said.

For engineer, space communicator, and Emmy-nominated TV host Emily Calandrelli, her work at Disney didn’t exactly lead her to the space industry. Rather, Disney’s style of family-friendly entertainment and magical energy is something she aims to incorporate in her brand of science communication.

“There’s so much theater that Disney has mastered,” she said. “I have tried to incorporate things…to invoke awe and wonder.”

Calandrelli is best known for Emily’s Wonder Lab on Netflix and Xploration Outer Space on Fox as well as her charming, informative TikTok videos breaking down major events and common space questions. Known as The Space Gal, Calandrelli also has her own line of space and STEM clothing and accessories and is the author of the popular Ada Lace book series.

Her love of Disney started young and because of her father. Calandrelli said the movies and family vacations to Disney World were a huge part of her childhood. Though she quickly realized a career at Disney was not a good fit, she does fondly look back on all the things she learned during an Imagineering course while in the Disney College Program.

“Disney represents this little bit of fantasy — lots of dreaming these big bold goals,” she said. “Space feels very similar. For me, that had a bit of synergy.”

Contemplating Disney’s role in space

It’s a bit of an understatement to say Disney holds an influential place in mass media and entertainment. The Walt Disney Company’s movies, television shows, literature, music, characters, and the other media entities it has acquired have an overwhelming impact on popular culture.

That includes crafting and marketing a dialogue around science and space exploration through both science fiction and fantasy and documentary-style entertainment. That influence on the public’s ideas about space stems all the way back to Disney’s 1955 television trilogy and runs through today with a slew of sci-fi flicks, the massive Star Wars brand, and attractions at its theme parks.

Stills from Disney's Man in Space (Copyright Disney)

“Disney continues to inspire the next generation — and part of that is in space,” Sullivan said. “Disney has the potential to lean even more into space entertainment.”

Calandrelli explains it frankly: “If you make a movie that is based in space, you’re going to have a large portion of the public thinking about space — and contemplating our role in space exploration.”

Even with a mostly science-fantasy space opera like Star Wars, fans still latch onto the films’ portrayals of astrophysics and space technology and contemplate how they can bring those concepts into reality. In a similar vein is Disney’s lauded concept of “Imagineering” — a combination of imagination and engineering to create entertainment with roots in reality.

One of Disney’s most celebrated Imagineers, Joe Rohde, was recently announced as Virgin Galactic’s first Experience Architect.

Rohde’s role is to “help design and guide the overall experience journey for future astronauts, friends, and family, and inspired fans alike,” the company said.

Rohde was a key player in making Disney’s experiences and theme parks what they are today, especially as the lead designer of the Animal Kingdom park in Florida. Rohde’s creative style stems from his passion for creating authentic experiences based on his own travels around the world. Now, he will be a crucial architect for Virgin Galactic’s space tourism brand.

“This is one of the most profound things that can happen to you,” Rohde told his new employer. “To go beyond the reaches of the earth, to space, and look back down. “It’s a spectacularly unique opportunity with huge potential for transformational change in a person…”

With Rohde at the helm of crafting space tourism experiences and a slate of former Disney cast members turned space communicators, there’s an undeniable connection between Disney entertainment and space exploration. There’s also limitless potential for that bond to grow even stronger — from Disney’s plans for the Space 220 restaurant at EPCOT and the Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser hotel to the company’s potential influence on the space tourism industry.

“The core of it is that…space is for dreamers,” Calandrelli said. “For people who want to do something that’s never been done before. Disney also attracts dreamers.”

Editor's note: The Chief of Content of Supercluster, Robin Seemangal, is also a former Disney cast member that worked in theme park operations and as a trainer at EPCOT.

Chelsea Tatham Zukowski
June 7, 202110:00 AM UTC (UTC +0)