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Disneyland "Moonliner"

by Jack Hagerty, LUNAR #002

[Moonliner w/TWA] (29KB)
Photo 1. Moonliner w/TWA logo. (©The Walt Disney Company)

John Hench was in a quandary. John, one of the original "Imagineers," had been tapped by Walt Disney to design most of the futuristic attractions in the Tomorrowland section of Disneyland. John had to come up with a rocket design which would stand outside of the Rocket to the Moon attraction. It would be, as Walt liked to call it, "the weenie at the end of Tomorrowland," the draw that would make folks want to come into that area. Most importantly, it had to be believable. Your average, non-technical visitor had to look at it and say "Yep, that's a moon rocket, all right!"

To lend some authenticity to the design, he borrowed Wernher von Braun (who was working as a consultant on the Man in Space segments of the Disneyland TV program) for a few design sessions. While this explains the strong family resemblance of the Moonliner to the V2, the final look and visual impact created by this attraction was strictly Hench's. Actually, even if von Braun hadn't been available, the Moonliner probably would have come out looking a lot like the V2 since to achieve that "believable" look, John used a psychological technique that he excels at, imbedded cultural icons.

In any culture, there are certain shapes, forms and colors that people will respond to at a subliminal level. They are understood subconsciously because people within that culture are bombarded with them constantly over the course of daily life. In the case of the space ship, Americans by the mid '50s had had nearly a decade of magazines, newsreels and science fiction movies showing both real and fictional spacecraft, nearly all of which were based on the V2.

With the understanding of a social psychologist, but the skills of a fine artist, John incorporated dozens of these icons into the Moonliner's design. Some of the more obvious ones are:

Shape - The V2 set the standard. Any space ship that has to look "right" to the general public must be substantially cylindrical with a rounded, but ultimately pointy, nose and a tapering tail. The overall length has to be eight or nine times the maximum diameter. For the Moonliner, the basic V2 shape was modified to suggest a fuselage like the new transcontinental passenger planes of the period.

Functionality - This was a passenger liner, not some experimental scientific vehicle. Airplanes don't shed pieces of themselves in flight so neither will the Moonliner. Single stage to orbit? Ha! This baby is single stage all the way to the moon and back!

Landing gear - Single stage rockets need something to take off from and land on, so most of the fictional designs of the period built their fins substantial enough to support the rocket's weight with footpads on the bottom. Nearly all of them trace their lineage back to Chesley Bonestell's Conquest of the late '40s which was blatantly plagiarized by hordes of low budget movie producers. John, though, wanted something more elegant and less weighty. Knowing that rockets don't need fins in space, he made his landing gear retractable. Shortly after liftoff, the legs would fold up into the sides both getting the footpads out of the exhaust plume and giving a neat, compact appearance. Keeping with the airliner analogy, the legs and struts seem to have been inspired by the spindly front landing gear of a Lockheed Super Constellation.

Getting In - While the actual rocket you saw standing outside didn't have any obvious way in, this was all cleared up as you entered the building. In the "preshow" (the part of the ride that entertained you while you were waiting in line) several TV monitors showed your rocket being prepped. On one of them was the scene of a rocket with a covered gangway plugged into it, just above the landing gear. Today we would call this a "jetway" and it seems quite ordinary, but it was actually an innovation on Hench's part. As hard as it may be for younger readers to believe, at the time of the Moonliner's design, the standard way of boarding an airplane was to walk out onto the tarmac and climb a flight of stairs into the plane! The covered jetway that we know today wasn't introduced for nearly a decade after this ride was designed.

Seeing Out - The multiple rows of round portholes suggested both the new (pressurized airliners) and the old (steamship travel) thus seeming both technologically advanced and comfortably safe. Interestingly, once you were "inside" the rocket for the ride, you never saw any portholes or any other way to see out except for the view screens in the floor and ceiling.

Cockpit - A place for the pilot. Without ever seeing him, you know that there's someone in control up there. Strangely, this is the one feature of the Moonliner that seems out of place. None of the fiction movies of the period had a cockpit for the crew (everyone just sort of milled about the nose section of the rocket). While some of the serious proposals, such as von Braun's Ferry Rocket had a bubble canopy for the pilot, the squared off frame and flat windshield of the Moonliner's cockpit seem better suited to a World War II Boeing bomber than a spacecraft.

When Disneyland opened to the public, the full sized pylon, as it is officially known, was the centerpiece of Tomorrowland. At 80 feet tall it was, in fact, the highest point in the whole park, some 8 feet taller than Sleeping Beauty Castle! Its gleaming presence foretold with great optimism the day (set as 1986 according to early Disneyland literature) when average folks like you and I could board for our vacations in Clavius Crater.

In 1960 it lost its red stripes and "TWA" logo when the airline pulled its sponsorship of the attraction. The new sponsor, Douglas Aerospace, got to design a new paint scheme so for the next four years it sported a small Douglas company logo in the middle of some enormous blue bars. The bars were surrounded by red piping and broken up in the middle by an equally enormous "DOUGLAS" running vertically down the sides.

[Moonliner w/Douglas] (43KB)
Photo 2. Moonliner w/Douglas logo. (©The Walt Disney Company)

Other minor updates were the replacement of the "Steering Rudder" thrust vanes (an already antiquated Von Braun idea) by a more conventional nozzle skirt, and the addition of some steam pipes to simulate lox boil-off. In 1963 stainless steel aprons were added under the "lox" steam pipes since real liquid oxygen doesn't condense and roll down the side of a rocket!

The pylon only lasted until the 1965 season after which they removed it in preparation for the overhaul of Tomorrowland which opened in 1967. Although its spiritual descendent, the "Rocket Jets" ride stands only a few yards away, they're really light years apart conceptually. The Rocket Jets' central pylon with its Saturn-inspired tapering stages, black/white roll pattern and Apollo capsule nose reflected this new era as clearly as the smoothly curving V2-esque lines of the Moonliner did its own. There is irony in the implied purpose of the two. Whereas the Moonliner purported to be a real space ship, it was actually completely static and the action took place in the adjoining building. Conversely, you really get to ride in the Rocket Jets, although it never pretends to be anything but what it is ... a theme park ride.

[Rocket Jets] (44KB)
Photo 3. "Rocket Jets" theme park ride. (©The Walt Disney Company)

As for the Flight to the Moon itself, that only lasted a couple more years before men really did land on the moon. It was revamped to become the Mission to Mars which soldiered on for another 18 years or so until Star Tours opened up next door. After that it was quietly retired as being hopelessly pedestrian in this age of flight simulators and virtual reality.

[CAD Drawing] (15KB)
Figure 1. CAD Drawing of Moonliner.

Quickspec: Disneyland Moonliner

Vehicle Morphology...............BFNC

Year .......................................1955

Medium..................Full Scale Pylon

Designer........................John Hench

Height............................80 ft (24 m)

Max Diameter....................9 ft (3 m)

Modelers' Note:

There are many different renderings of the Moonliner in existence. In particular, there is a great deal of pre- and post-production art showing many variations of the body shape. Most of this artwork, as well as the model used on the TV program, show the profile to be much more rounded and "V2-esque." In particular, the area between conical nose and the cylindrical body section has a pronounced "blend" radius.

Some of John Hench's early planning drawings, in fact, show a continuous curvature from nose to tail. Additionally, the aspect ratio (the ratio of length to maximum diameter) started out quite large and thin, then became more "squat" as the project progressed. The data presented here represent the Moonliner pylon as actually built in Tomorrowland. In order to be manufacturable using standard boiler making techniques, the subtle curvature was abandoned in favor of straight cones and cylinders. Photographs seem to indicate a blending of the bottom-most cone of the nose and the cylindrical body, but this is not indicated on the Disneyland fabrication drawing which was the basis for the accompanying data drawing.

Copyright © 1997 by LUNAR, All rights reserved.

Information date: November 25, 1997 lk