Movie Review – Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo

It’s not often that a film gets made about your line of work. For most people, this might be a once-in-a-lifetime event. I am lucky: not only am I in a career but also an office building that attracts film productions on an annual basis. Some of the biggest movies of the past couple of years involve NASA astronauts or flight controllers: Gravity, Hidden Figures, The Martian. Nevertheless, it’s still rare for a film to focus directly on the mission operations team here on the ground. Don’t get me wrong, plenty of films get made that show the beauty and wonder of spaceflight. But in all of the IMAX movies (Space Station 3D, Hubble 3D, Journey to Mars, A Beautiful Planet) the flight controllers work quietly off-screen. Astronaut bio-pics are also a popular type of space movie, but of course in those films (In the Shadow of the Moon, The Last Man on the Moon) they are heavy on astronaut interviews and not much else. The last time a movie had NASA flight controllers as central characters was Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, over two decades ago. Finally, the drought is over. The new feature length documentary Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo, has captured the soul of Houston’s Mission Control Center in a way not even Apollo 13 could.

Mission Control is based loosely on the book Go, Flight! by Rick Houston. If you read my review of the book, you’ll know that I highly recommend it. Since the film consists entirely of interviews, it diverges from the book in many ways. The two major differences is that fewer people are profiled – only 17 men are interviewed – and the focus changes from the entire 30 year history of the MOCR down to the decade of work on Apollo. The focus gives the film life in that we get to really meet and hear from the flight controllers. In fact, the only audio we hear in the whole film is either the voices of the interviewees, or TV news coverage from the Apollo era. The editing removes all need for narration or a back-and-forth with an interviewer. While some of the interviewees are astronauts (Charlie Duke, Eugene Cernan, and Jim Lovell) most of the time is spent on the flight directors and flight controllers, whom the audience will not have seen before (with the exception of Gene Kranz of course). The men are frank and emotional. We really get a sense of what it was like to figure out how to fly to the moon with no instruction manual.

Mission control movie premier

Disclosure: my wife and i were invited to the premiere, but i was not compensated for this review

Most of the stories told in Mission Control are stories you’ve heard before: the Apollo 1 fire, the Apollo 11 program alarms, and Apollo 13. So you might ask, why do I need to hear these stories told again? Viewers should temper their concerns that they might be bored by the retelling. Instead, you will feel in some cases like you are hearing the stories for the first time. Hearing it from the point of view of the consoles in mission control lends a new perspective and drama that is missing from a History Channel documentary. Not to mention, the filmmakers of Mission Control were able to find a lot of very interesting archival footage that I had never seen before. The video of a technician inspecting the burned out Apollo 1 capsule while taking notes was especially unexpected and haunting.

Mission Control will certainly be enjoyed by general space fans, but it will be loved by anyone who has worked in mission control, from 1961 to today. The filmmakers do a great job of tying the history to the present day, with two brief bonus interviews near the beginning of the film with current flight directors Courtenay McMillan and Ginger Kerrick. McMillan and Kerrick discuss the strong influence of the founders of mission control on the current generation in both emotional and humorous terms (McMillan tells of referring to the movie Apollo 13 and “the guy with the buzz cut and the vest” when explaining her job to friends and family). There was a lot for me to relate to in the film, from descriptions of simulation training to the look of simultaneous fear and satisfaction on Steve Bales face when singled out for recognition by legendary flight director Chris Kraft.

NASA’s Apollo program of the 1960s was an odd moment in time. You have to wonder if those who made the moon landings happen realized the impact they had at the time; did they even realize what was going on in the outside world? Bob Carlton in the movie talks of being so busy that he neglected his family. If he had to do it all over again, he said he wouldn’t. You have to imagine they were so heads down that the social and political turmoil outside may have gone unnoticed. Gene Kranz confirms that they often got consumed with their work while planning for a mission. He says that after moving on to management work during the later Apollo missions, he found himself more appreciative of Apollo’s impact. Ed Fendell relates a story of walking into a diner the morning after the Apollo 11 landing and hearing a man say the only time he had been prouder to be an American was when he landed at Normandy in 1943.

However, we also get a sense that the men of mission control were indeed a bit insulated from anything not NASA related. Jim Lovell himself, when talking about his Apollo 8 mission in December 1968 – the first to the moon – refers to The Christmas Eve broadcast from lunar orbit. This is a familiar story. Apollo 8 was a ray of hope at the end of a very difficult year in America. But rather than point out how Apollo 8 felt uplifting to Americans, Lovell instead says “it all just fell into place,” as if sending three men to the moon – impressive as it was – could simply erase for nearly 17,000 men lost in Vietnam (the worst of any year), the violence at the DNC, and the assassinations of RFK and Dr. King*.

This is the beauty of Mission Control. We get real insight into an era we all love, but from the nuanced and flawed perspectives of 17 men that made it happen. One historical theory of the Apollo Program is that it was a flash in the pan – a combination of leaders, money, fear, talent, and other motivations that can only come together once in a century. A key part of that recipe was Dr. Chris Kraft and his ability to take his vision of a mission control center and bring it to life by collecting an incredible team of engineers from all over the country. They were of varied backgrounds, temperaments, and leadership styles; some were abrasive; some were quiet. But all of them were committed to their task in a singular way. East coast, West coast, Midwest, southern drawl, and even son of Chinese immigrants, it didn’t matter. They were the embodiment of teamwork, giving us a lot to learn from their history.

I had a few nitpicks of the film, mostly to do with some editing choices and the omission of some of my favorite stories. The biggest mistake is that it took someone so long to make Mission Control. While the average age in mission control during Apollo 11 was younger than 30 years old, the men of that era are now approaching an average age of 80, and many important men (Jack Garman, John Llewellyn, and others) have died. Without their voices, we would be missing an important part of the tale of the origins of NASA. I am thankful to author Rick Houston for doing the extensive research that led to the book Go, Flight! and to the filmmakers for making a documentary that has so much meaning to me. Hopefully Mission Control will be successful enough to encourage someone to pursue a similar project for other eras in mission control. There are still many stories to hear from Shuttle, Skylab, Mir, and ISS. Help encourage this kind of filmmaking is appreciated by ordering Mission Control on streaming or buying the DVD (go to missioncontrol.movie). I guarantee you will learn something new!

*See Jeffrey Kluger’s new book Apollo 8 for more on 1968 and NASA’s impact.

 

June 3, 2017 8:03 am

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