Time flies by! The famous Space Mountain hits its 40th anniversary January 15, 1015. Yes, the roller coaster (and the oldest one in operation in the state of Florida) opened officially January 15, 1975. It was the grand new attraction in Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland at Walt Disney World.
And just a few weeks after its opening, Space Mountain was honored by the visit of real astronauts and even cosmonauts! After all, this was logical given the theme of the ride, but let’s see why this happened and why it is a historic visit.
The idea of a space themed roller coaster in the dark is said to come from Walt Disney himself. Let’s not forget that Walt Disney was a futurist and that he produced a television series(3 episodes) about space that aired in 1955 and 1957 (Man in Space, Man and the Moon, Mars and Beyond). Always looking for new attractions, especially Disneyland’s Tomorrowland at that time, it is no surprise that he thought about space as a suitable theme, especially in a time frame when his country was in a full space race with the Soviet Union. Imagineers revived the idea a few years after Walt Disney’s death and thus, Space Mountain was born.
In 1975, the space race was won by the United States, thanks to the Apollo program that put the first (and only to date) men on the Moon from 1969 (Apollo 11) to 1972 (Apollo 17). Also, USA and USSR were trying to set up a political “détente” between them, and a common space mission was quickly seen as a huge symbol. NASA, and its equivalent in Soviet Union, decided to do a mission where an Apollo capsule would do a rendez-vous and docking with a Soviet Soyuz spacecraft in Earth orbit. Something never done and that asked for the two countries to share technical informations that were just months before considered secret…
The preparation of this spaceflight saw American astronauts going to Russia for training and a visit from Soviet cosmonauts to the USA. During a February 1975 visit of the Soyuz crew, the Kennedy Space Center in Florida was a mandatory destination. That’s when this historical picture was taken on February 9, 1975, as Orlando is not far from NASA’s spaceport: the crews of the Apollo-Soyouz mission in front of Space Mountain at Walt Disney World with Mickey greeting real space men!
In this picture, from left to right: cosmonaut Valeriy N. Kubasov (engineer on the Soyuz soviet spacecraft), astronaut Donald K. Slayton (in charge of the docking module on the Apollo capsule), astronaut Vance D. Brand (Apollo capsule pilot), Mickey in spacesuit, cosmonaut Aleksey A. Leonov (commander of the Soviet crew), astronaut Thomas P. Stafford (commander of the American crew) and cosmonaut Vladimir A. Shatalov (head of cosmonauts training). Worth noting is the fact that Aleksey A. Leonov was already, at that time, a true astronautical legend, as he did the first ever spacewalk in March, 1965.
It is quite difficult for the younger ones to see the historical meaning of such a picture. For some, even the notion of the USSR is something fuzzy. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (that was including Russia) was a authoritarian communist regime with a single-party state. So, that cosmonauts, in a way ambassadors of their country/system, visit Walt Disney World (a symbol of the free enterprise system) was really a sign of “détente” between USSR and USA.
The same year, the “détente” also took place in space when, on July 15, the American and Soviet spacecrafts docked. Kubasov, Leonov, Stafford, Brand and Slayton then met in Earth orbit for 2 days before returning home (Wikipedia article).
Twenty years later, after the collapse of the USSR, a NASA space shuttle docked at the Russian space station Mir in Earth orbit, opening a new era of cooperation that led to the International Space Station (ISS) that is right now circling around our planet with 6 crew members, among them Americans and Russians, with astronauts from other countries.