Years before Apollo 11, KC-based TWA and Walt Disney Co. envisioned this moon rocket

Fifty years ago this Saturday, American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped off Apollo 11 and became the first humans to walk on the moon.

John Roper, board director for the National Airline History Museum — located in Hanger 9 of the Kansas City Downtown Airport — remembers vividly the significance of the Apollo missions. As a student in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Roper recalls his teachers wheeling televisions into classrooms so students could watch NASA astronauts walk in outer space.

“All of those landings,” Roper said. “It was just huge.”

Now, Roper and the museum are guardians to a piece of moon-landing history with roots in Kansas City.

A decade before the Apollo landing, two powerhouse local companies had a vision of a commercial spacecraft that would land people on the moon: Trans World Airlines (TWA), headquartered in the Crossroads district from 1954-1966; and the Walt Disney company, which, though based in California during that era, had roots in the city. The Disney family lived in Kansas City during Walt Disney’s teenage years; and an early Disney animation and film studio was located in the McConahay Building on East 31st Street.

The evidence is the TWA Moonliner, a model rocket that has been reproduced three times. The original was designed by rocket scientist Wernher von Braun and John Hench, a Disney Imagineer, for Disney for the Tomorrowland theme park. TWA head Howard Hughes sponsored the model rocket.

The second Moonliner, now located in the Airline History Museum, was a replica created in 1956 to adorn the roof of TWA’s headquarters in Kansas City. A third is in Disney’s New Tomorrowland.

The TWA Moonliner rocketship dominates the Tomorrowland attraction at the Disneyland Amusement Park, which opened on July 17, 1955. Edward Kitch AP

Barkley, Inc., an advertising agency, designed a fourth Moonliner when it took over TWA’s old building on East 18th Street and Baltimore Avenue, and refurbished everything to match the style of the airline’s former headquarters.

All four Moonliners remain on public display.

Though NASA’s astronauts have far outpaced the development of private, commercial spacecraft, space tourism may be closer to reality than ever before. Aerospace companies are racing to bring travelers into orbit, including Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic and Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

Meanwhile, NASA announced in June that it would open the International Space Station for commerical business and private astronauts, while it also is meeting a goal of landing the first woman and next man on the moon by 2024.

Tickets start at $58 million — so walking on the moon will likely still remain a dream for most people of Earth.

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