Walt Disney is always associated with the phrase, “when you wish upon a star… ” and for good reason.
But Disney history reminds us that Walt was not wishing on stars, he was reaching for them. In the 1950’s Walt Disney produced the famous “Man in Space” TV series. It was during this time that Walt became friends and began a relationship with a man that he believed was the best rocket scientist alive: Wernher von Braun.
The pages of history remember that Wernher von Braun was one of the leading figures in the development of rocket technology during World War II. During his young adult years, Braun was the central figure in Germany’s rocket development program, credited with the design of the V-2 combat rocket during World War II. A one-time member of the Nazi party and a commissioned SS officer, he and some of his rocket team were taken to the U.S. as part of the then-secret Operation Paperclip after the war. In 1955, ten years after entering the country, Braun became a naturalized U.S. citizen.
When the United States was trying to win the space race against Russia, it was Wernher von Braun who stepped up and stepped in to make sure that happened. The events surrounding those tense days are fascinating and well worth researching if you are fascinated with the history of space flight. Eventually Wernher would become the director of the newly-formed Marshall Space Flight Center where he would be the chief architect of the Saturn V launch vehicle, the superbooster that propelled the Apollo spacecraft to the Moon. By many he is considered the greatest rocket scientist in history.
But let me go back to the connection between Walt Disney and Wernher von Braun. As stated above, Wernher was a consultant and appeared in the famous television shows Disney created on space. These programs were influential in captivating the attention of the public, igniting the imagination of viewers, and shaping the culture with a desire and dream of space exploration. These programs were considered essential in moving the space program forward and are historic in their significance.
Years after these programs aired, Wernher von Braun invited his friend Walt and his associates to tour the NASA facilities across the country to talk about the possibility of a new project. In April 1965, Walt Disney accompanied by his brother Roy as well as several WED Enterprise personnel including Bill Bosche, Ken Peterson, John Hench, Claude Coats and Ken O’Connor visited the three chief space centers at Houston, Cape Kennedy and Huntsville, Alabama. As a sidenote here – Walt took time out between his looking around to fly a couple of simulators! These high-tech simulated flight missions were accomplished at NASA’s manned spacecraft center at Houston. (Some of the details of that moment and this historic trip are unpacked in the adventure novel, Storming the Kingdom. Although a work of fiction, it is built on the very real history of the life and times of Walt Disney. The book series has been called a blending of fact and fiction – “faction.” Sometimes
it is seamless and you can’t tell where the facts end and fiction begins.)
The Team Disney Tour in 1965 was Braun’s hope for a renewed public interest in the future of the Space Program at NASA. Walt was quoted as saying “If I can help through my TV shows … to wake people up to the fact we’ve got to keep exploring, I’ll do it.”
Wernher hoped that the tour would result in a Disney picture about manned space flight. While very much in favor and a huge fan of space. Walt’s attention was focused on other projects. He was busy with EPCOT, Cal Arts, Mineral King and a handful of other things that took precedence over developing another space series.
Walt’s involvement in the space program had helped to shape the way people looked toward space. His vision and his ability to tell a story in a compelling way had created the narrative that people needed to understand space exploration.
His excitement and enthusiasm about the future and about the nature of making new discoveries inspired people then and continues to inspire people to this day. And Walt Disney proved himself to be far more than just a film-maker, instead he was a genius that the world recognized for his ability to stay anchored in the present as he reached for the future.
Our lives get very busy dealing with the things of the present. Sometimes we get so busy that we can’t even think about the future. But when you learn to balance life, you begin to discover that being anchored to the present is what helps you reach
for the future with confidence, boldness, and clarity. Understanding history, the world surrounding you, and how you navigate it become essential as you stretch and move toward the horizons of what could be. Anchor in the present, reach for the future, and you will not only discover that your dreams can come true but you will inspire others along the way.