How Walt Disney Helped Promote the Space Race to America

Walt Disney pitches spaceflight to park goers in a recording about Tomorrowland’s Moonliner and its “Flight to the Moon” attraction.
Walt Disney pitches spaceflight to park goers in a recording about Tomorrowland’s Moonliner and its “Flight to the Moon” attraction.
Image: PBS

In the 1950s, the world started to wonder in earnest about what it would take to see humanity reach beyond its home and into the stars. The rise of speculative work on space colonization—and the science fiction to match—helped propel the United States into the earliest days of the space race. And part of the boom is thanks to Walt Disney himself.


Disney found himself enchanted by the work of Dr. Werhner Von Braun—the, uh, former Nazi rocket scientist recruited into the U.S. Army’s Ordnance Guided Missiles Development Group as part of Operation Paperclip after World War II—whose articles in the likes of Colliers about the potential for human spaceflight stoked Disney’s interest in futurism, as well as his interest in expanding the breadth of his growing theme park empire. Tomorrowland’s opening at Disneyland in 1955 brought with it the tallest structure in the park, even larger than the iconic Sleeping Beauty Castle—the TWA Moonliner, designed in part by a collaboration between Disney’s Imagineers and Von Braun.

But the Moonliner was only really the beginning of Von Braun and Disney’s relationship—and Von Braun’s wider influence on Hollywood sci-fi in the ‘50s and ‘60s. It’s something you can learn a bit more about in our exclusive clip from PBS and Robert Stone’s upcoming documentary Chasing the Moon.

The six-hour, three-part documentary series, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landings, takes an imaginative new look at the space race’s evolution, using archival footage to examine the political and public relations drama—as well as the human ones—behind sending humanity on its first steps into the stars.

Chasing the Moon premieres on PBS starting July 8.

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James is a News Editor at io9, where you can find him delivering your morning spoilers, writing about superheroes, and having many feelings about Star Wars. He wants pictures. Pictures of Spider-Man!



Speaking of the Apollo 11 moon mission, did anyone see that 2019 Apollo 11 documentary. It’s visually outstanding the way in which they’ve enhanced old and previously forgotten about footage of that era and transformed it into something so clear that it could be footage from this decade. I believe Peter Jackson used some of the same techniques for his ww1 documentary “They shall not grow old”, but doing it for the moon landing was seriously special. Can’t recommend it enough.