Included as part of the Tomorrowland: Disney in Space and Beyond release from the Disney Treasures series, the famous “Man in Space” episode is a vintage classic. Originally airing on March 9, 1955, it was one of four episodes of the Disneyland TV show on that DVD that focused on space travel. If you haven’t picked up Tomorrowland, it’s one of the series’ more reasonably priced sets.
Introduced by Walt Disney as one of his “Tomorrowland” programs, “Man in Space” mixes education and entertainment to provide a strangely effective mix. Renowned animator Ward Kimball directs and narrates this presentation, which received an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Short. We look back to Jules Verne’s stories and even Georges Méliès’ early short A Trip to the Moon. Kimball moves quickly through time and gives an informative overview using animation and video clips. The journey then leads to increasingly powerful rockets, which were still progressing during the 1950s.
“Man in Space” appeared as part of a family TV show that millions watched each week. Would your average kid today sit through this slow-moving episode? There are many shots of rockets taking off to keep us engaged, and the attention to detail is stunning. We even have appearances from scientists like spaceflight expert Dr. Willy Ley, who describes how to fuel these rockets. Kimball wisely incorporates some animation and other visual techniques to energize the dry explanation.
Space Travel is Scary!
Venturing beyond the rockets, the next segment examines how humans will react to space travel. A George Jetson-like animated guy encounters the physical challenges of the environment and the difficulties of gravitational forces. The lighter touch works here. Poor George; he goes through a lot of trouble to bring us this information. If Mission: Space is any guide, my stomach would handle space travel so well.
The sequence drags on for a surprisingly long time, which might be a bit of overkill. German physicist Heinz Haber isn’t exactly a thrilling narrator either. Arriving to save the day is Wernher von Braun, a household name to even casual space enthusiasts. He describes the dangers of the atmosphere outside the spacecraft and the tests to see how much humans can handle. While the flight simulator he presents is simple by today’s standards, it was amazing for 1955.
“Man in Space” should intrigue viewers interested in the history of spaceflight or Disney completists. While the presentation is well-done, I’m not sure there’s enough to entice viewers who don’t care about space. It’s definitely in my wheelhouse, so it was an easy watch for me. The animated short looking into the future is a highlight and cleverly projects how the missions will happen. While the predictions differ greatly from what actually occurred during the Apollo program, it’s that difference that makes this feature so much fun.
A Missed Opportunity
The space vessels in this short look more like the Battlestar Galactica Vipers than anything we actually used to reach the Moon. The follow-up episodes “Man and the Moon” and “Mars and Beyond” expand on this topic and are also included in the Tomorrowland DVD release. They’re worth checking out if you’re curious about views on spaceflight well before the first man actually reached that great milestone. I really wish that Disney made it easier to pick up vintage releases like this one. There’s so much history on the backburner. We need a TV channel dedicated to these vintage shows. Let’s make this happen!