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New on Disney+ in July: How Walt Disney Helped Launch the Space Race

Two episodes of the 1950s “Disneyland” series with real historical import hit the service — and show how much the company has changed.

Walt Disney holds a rocket

Walt Disney holds a model rocket in the 1955 “Disneyland” episode “Man in Space.”

Animation

“Many of the things that seem impossible now will become realities tomorrow.”

Walt Disney said this in his introductory opening to “Man in Space,” the 20th episode of his “Disneyland” TV series from 1955, now on Disney+ alongside its 1957 follow-up “Mars and Beyond.” It’s hard to imagine a more purely optimistic vision of the future — one that seems more than a bit disconnected from the reality we’re facing now.

The attention of Disney+ users in July will rightly be on “Hamilton,” but the phenomenal success that the Broadway musical  represents for the streaming service is one of acquisition, of the world’s biggest film studio doing what it does best these days: opening its wallet. “Hamilton” is just the latest blockbuster IP gobbled up by the Mouse House, sanded down to ensure a PG-13 rating. The artistic triumph here is that of Lin-Manuel Miranda, Thomas Kail, and their extraordinary cast — not the suits at Disney.

Which makes “Man in Space” and “Mars and Beyond” so novel by comparison. Here’s Walt Disney himself — that rarest combination: the ultimate corporate suit but also a visionary artist — presenting a stunning glimpse at where we might go if we’re daring enough. Before NASA was even founded (in 1958), he helped kick off the Space Race by showing that humanity’s future lies in the stars.

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Wernher Von Braun presents a sequence of gorgeous animation imagining his early vision for a space shuttle — 26 years before the actual NASA space shuttle would make its first flight.

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“Man in Space” is the more purely science-minded of the two installments. Uncle Walt quickly turns hosting duties over to animator Ward Kimball, one of the “Nine Old Men” and an obvious space enthusiast, and the credited director of these animation-heavy episodes. What follows is a point-by-point cartoon history of rocket science, from medieval China to the development of the German V2 rocket, with film clips from Melies’ “Trip to the Moon” (1903) and Fritz Lang’s “Woman in the Moon” (1929) interspersed. The implication is clear. There’s no need for a separation between art and science at all: the artists who capture the wonder of the universe share much with the scientists who study it. The animators who can dream possible futures align comfortably with the engineers who could actually build it.

German rocket scientist Willy Ley, who advised on the designs for “Woman in the Moon” before fleeing the Nazis, narrates an animated segment, as does Wernher von Braun, who served the Nazis and created the V2 rocket before joining NASA. (Conveniently, the technical triumph of the V2 is extolled without mention of the over 9,000 civilians, including 2,500 in London, who were killed by it during World War II.) Von Braun reveals his vision for an early version of the space shuttle, with a reusable airplane-like orbiter sitting atop booster rockets.

The special ends with blatant call for the U.S. government to create a space agency of its own. This is a company that didn’t just want to make a ton of money or promote its theme park but actually believed it could influence public policy. And apparently it worked: historian Bill Cotter reveals that among the 40 million viewers of “Man in Space” (also nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Short because it played in theaters before features) was President Dwight D. Eisenhower himself, who urged Pentagon rocket scientists to watch it.

“Mars and Beyond” contrasts hard science with the burgeoning science fiction of the 1950s in one humorous sequence.

Disney+

This is not the first time Disney had sought to affect government strategy. In 1943, Walt released “Victory Through Air Power,” which follows a very similar template to “Man in Space”: in that case, it was an animated history of aviation followed by a detailed visual argument narrated by the Russian flyer Russian P. de Seversky for how long-range bombing could shift the fight against the Axis that much more in favor of the Allies. It involved specs for new types of bombers that could be developed and even a suggestion (an admittedly questionable one) to make the Aleutians the hub for an air campaign against Japan. The movie is such a treatise, such a visual essay prioritizing inquiry over entertainment, that Disney’s usual distributor RKO refused to release it: United Artists picked it up instead, and, unsurprisingly, the movie flopped.

There’s an oddly utopian spirit behind the Walt Disney Company at moments like this in the ‘40s and ‘50s — a sincere belief they could change the world and that some things are more important than making money. It’s the same spirit that Walt would carry with him in his initial conception of Epcot Center as the “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.”

Sixty two years before “Captain Marvel,” Disney presented its first female superhero, who stands up to a bunch of sinister aliens in “Mars and Beyond.”

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“Mars and Beyond” is a more light-hearted and animation-heavy installment than “Man in Space” but equally impressive: it imagines the forms that life might take on other planets, including silicon-based life, which must have been mind-blowing to the TV audience in 1957. Before it considers the possibility of extraterrestrial life, though, it devotes an entire segment to the evolution of life on earth, a decidedly Darwinian vision that makes you wonder if we’d even see anything as rigorously non-theistic on network TV today. It also makes us long for when we could have more TV science educators than just Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

These two specials are startling — and a reminder that sometimes when you look back you can be surprised at how much people were looking forward.

Click to the next page for the archive of new releases to Disney+ from previous months.

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