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

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Two very accomplished former NASA astronauts, Dr. Mike Foale and Dr. Ellen Ochoa, were inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame.

SpaceX conducted a static fire test in Florida in preparations for their next rocket launch on Thursday, June 1. This launch is a Dragon cargo mission headed to the ISS.

The New Zealand company (but based in Los Angeles), Rocket Lab, had their first launch last week. The Electron rocket was launched as strictly a test flight, and thus carried no payload.

In Orbit

Astronauts Peggy Whitson and Jack Fischer conducted a contingency spacewalk on May 23rd to replace a failed computer outside the ISS. The repair was successful and Peggy Whitson now has the 3rd all-time most hours on spacewalks, having been on 10 EVAs.

Three orbital rocket launches since my last post on May 14th:

  • May 15 – A Falcon 9 rocket launched a communications satellite for Inmarsat from Florida
  • May 18 – An ESA Soyuz rocket launched a communications satellite for SES from French Guiana
  • May 25 – A Russian Soyuz rocket launched a military satellite from Plesetsk in northern Russia

Two astronauts will undock their Soyuz from the ISS later this week and head home. Check out these brief reflections from ESA’s Thomas Pesquet as he prepares to end his mission:

May 29, 2017 10:02 pm

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Virgin Galactic completed a successful glide flight of their latest SpaceShipTwo. The test included a test of the “feathering” system. The feathering system is what resulted in the loss of the first SpaceShipTwo during a powered ascent in 2014. This flight was an unpowered glide descent.

The air force’s secret space plane, the X-37B built by Boeing, landed after its 4th flight in space. The plane is small and unmanned, but is still impressive, flying and landing a lot like the Space Shuttle. This fourth mission spent an amazing 718 days in space.

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) – scheduled for launch next year – has been shipped from Goddard Spaceflight Center to Johnson Spaceflight Center for thermal vacuum testing.

In Orbit

Three successful orbital rocket launches since my last post (with another SpaceX Falcon 9 launch from Florida planned for tomorrow):

The video coverage of the SpaceX launch was some of their best ever, with video tracking of the rocket all the way from launch through stage separation and back to the recovery of the first stage booster on land. See below.

NASA astronauts Peggy Whitson and Jack Fischer completed a 4-hour spacewalk on Friday, May 12th, to do various ISS maintenance and upgrade tasks. The spacewalk was the 200th in support of ISS assembly and maintenance and put Whitson at 5th all time for spacewalking hours.

Around the Solar System

After Cassini’s first “deep dive” between Saturn and its rings (the first in a series as the mission ends), results show that this part of the area near Saturn is more dust-free than expected.

The Mars rover Curiosity is investigating sand dunes on Mars to learn more about local wind patterns in Gale Crater.

May 14, 2017 3:55 pm

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Gennady Padalka, who holds the record for most days in space by any person ever, is retiring from the Russian space program.

Back home at NASA, Anna Fisher, hired in the first class of space shuttle astronauts in 1978, has retired from the agency.

It was a busy week with some important milestones across NASA. Some of the key events are summed up well by this quick video:

In Orbit

Peggy Whitson made history by breaking fellow astronaut Jeff Williams for most accumulated days in space for any NASA astronaut. Whitson is at 538 days and counting. She will be the most experience active astronaut or cosmonaut by far when she gets home, now that Padalka has retired. Here is video of the president’s live phone call to congratulate Whitson:

Three rocket launches since my post last week:

  • April 18 – an Atlas V rocket launched from Florida carrying a Cygnus cargo resupply to the ISS
  • April 20 – a Soyuz rocket launched from Kazakhstan carrying NASA astronaut Jack Fischer and Russian Cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin to the ISS
  • April 20 – a Chinese Long March 7 rocket launched from the Hainan Island spaceport carrying an unmanned Tianzhou resupply craft headed for the Chinese space station

Both the Cygnus cargo freighter and the Soyuz crew arrived at ISS with no problems. The Chinese Tiangong also successfully docked with the Tiangong space station (which is currently unmaneed).

Cygnus in flight below ISS

Today, April 30th, SpaceX attempted to launch another Falcon 9 rocket from Florida, carrying a payload for the US National Reconnaissance Office. The launch was scrubbed during the last minute before ignition due to an issue with the booster. SpaceX will try again tomorrow.

Around the Solar System

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, in orbit of asteroid Ceres, has lost another reaction control wheel, and is now flying on its remaining wheel. The spacecraft launched in 2007. Mission managers believe the spacecraft should make it through the remainder of the mission on the last of four wheels.

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, in orbit of Saturn, is wrapping up operations as it heads toward the end of its mission in September. The mission is going out in style, with several new images from its new closer orbit. Including this view of Earth through Saturn’s rings and these images from the closest ever orbit of Saturn.

April 30, 2017 9:58 pm

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

JAXA has included a replacement for their lost Hitomi X-Ray astronomy satellite in next year’s budget.

A new documentary about the early days of NASA Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Mission Control was released last week.

Marine, astronaut, and Senator John Glenn was laid to rest at the Arlington National Cemetery last week.

In Orbit

There have been only two orbital rocket launches since my last post on March 28th:

The first launch was a much-anticipated flight from SpaceX. The launch on March 30th was a relatively routine launch of a communications satellite to geosynchronous orbit. What made it unique was the the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket had previously been flown before on a NASA cargo launch last spring. The launch was flawless, including recovery of the first stage booster on the droneship at sea, marking the first operational reuse of a rocket by a commercial company (components of the Space Shuttle system, such as the Orbiter and the SRBs, were frequently reflown).

The second launch was a Chinese Long March 3B rocket with a communications satellite aboard. This launch was mostly notable for this incredible video of the launch filmed from a dangerously close range:

Meanwhile, things have been very busy at the International Space Station. Astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Peggy Whitson conducted another spacewalk (designated US EVA 41) on March 30th. The pair of experienced spacewalkers managed to complete all planned tasks, including hooking up a new docking port at the front of the space station. However, the EVA was not without some excitement: one of four special thermal “shields” was accidentally dropped overboard and mission control teams had to come up with a plan to replace the shield in order to keep components of the ISS thermally protected.

Shortly after the spacewalk, Commander Shane Kimbrough handed the space station over the Whitson and then returned to Earth with the rest of his Soyuz crew, completing Expedition 50.

It was then announced that Peggy Whitson has agreed to stay onboard the ISS an extra 3 months and use a bonus empty seat on next week’s Soyuz mission to come home in September. Peggy will be the most experienced non-Russian astronaut in history when she comes home.

Around the Solar System

New results from the Cassini spacecraft, which orbits Saturn, have shown that the “plumes” coming from the ocean moon Enceladus’ subsurface seas contain molecular hydrogen, which could be used by microbial life to conduct methanogenesis (like the life living near Earth’s deep sea hydrothermal vents).

Measurements of elemental argon in Mars’ atmosphere by the MAVEN spacecraft have revealed that most of the planet’s atmosphere has been lost to space.

April 15, 2017 7:45 am

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

SpaceX’s latest Dragon capsule left the ISS on March 19th and was successfully recovered by the company at sea.

A new exhibit about Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, has opened at the Science Museum in London.

The White House released their budget proposal for 2018, including proposed spending on NASA. The proposal funds NASA at $19.1 billion, which is a slight cut. Taking into account inflation, it comes out to a few percent less than what NASA is working under in 2017. If you really really love reading about budgets, here is a super long post from Casey Dreier at the Planetary Society breaking down the proposal.

The European Space Agency is having trouble with their only orbital launch site down in French Guiana as a general strike is causing most of society in the small French territory to grind to a halt. There had been an Ariane 5 rocket launch planned for last week that continues to be delayed.

In Orbit

There have been three successful orbital rocket launches since my last post on March 12th:

Meanwhile, SpaceX is working towards their next rocket launch. The next Falcon 9 rocket will be a commercial launch of the SES-10 communications satellite. The exciting part of this mission is that it will be the first flight of a reused first stage booster. The static fire test was completed today, with launch scheduled for Thursday evening.

On the International Space Station, the Expedition 50 crew is very busy with a series of spacewalks that will serve as Commander Shane Kimbrough’s send off before he comes home in early April. The first spacewalk was conducted last Friday, March 24th, when Kimbrough and Thomas Pesquet spent six and a half hours outside conducting various repairs and upgrades.

One of the spacewalk’s tasks was to disconnect Pressurized Mating Adapter 3 (PMA-3) before it was robotically moved this past Sunday to its new home on top of Node 2 for future dockings of the Dragon and Starliner spacecraft.

The next spacewalk is this coming Thursday. here is an hour long briefing from last week that describes the spacewalk plans in detail (keep in mind the discussed arrival of the Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo craft has since slipped):

Next up is your weekly dose of awesome Twitter photos from the ISS crew (and go check out Oleg Novitskiy who posts exclusively to his Instagram account).

March 28, 2017 9:30 pm

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Check out this new video of Blue Origin’s orbital rocket concept, New Glenn.

If you like planetary science and are excited by the idea of future missions to Europa, you should read this detailed post at Ars Technica about how Congressman John Culbertson is working to make it happen.

SpaceX successfully conducted the static fire test for their next rocket launch from Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. A Falcon 9 carrying a commercial satellite will liftoff very early Tuesday morning, March 14th.

In Orbit

Only one orbital rocket launch since my last post. A European Space Agency Vega rocket launched the Earth-observing Sentinel-2B satellite from French Guiana on March 7th.

As usual, there are lots of good pictures from the crew on the ISS to share. Here’s a selection.

https://twitter.com/Thom_astro/status/839769655971627008

https://twitter.com/Thom_astro/status/839831200780988418

Around the Solar System

New data from the Dawn probe in orbit of Ceres indicates that the “bright spots” are much younger than the craters they inhabit. This is evidence of relatively recent cryovulcanism.

Check out these incredible images of Saturn’s tiny moon Pan. It has a unique shape no one has ever seen before.

This is a pretty cool series of images showing a global dust storm moving across Mars.

March 12, 2017 4:06 pm

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

NASA has finalized an agreement with Boeing to use the extra seats on two Soyuz flights to the ISS over the next year and a half for additional US astronauts. There is some contractual stuff going on here, but basically NASA is going to use seats that Roscosmos was going to leave empty to save money.

Virgin Galactic has spun off its LauncherOne program into a new company called Virgin Orbit.

Jeff Bezos’ company Blue Origin is now getting in on the new moon missions also. According to the Washington Post (owned by Bezos), Blue Origin has floated a proposal to the new US presidential administration that they want to help support NASA missions to the moon with their Blue Moon concept.

PBS News Hour did a brief segment on all of this new interest in lunar missions:

In Orbit

Two rocket launches since my last post:

It’s hard to keep up with the current ISS crew, the members of Expedition 50, as they tweet like its all they do in what little spare time they have. Here’s a selection of the best pictures from just the last week.

 

Around the Solar System

NASA’s MAVEN probe in orbit of Mars executed an avoidance maneuver of about 0.4 m/s to avoid colliding with the moon Phobos. That velocity change is small, about on the order of the debris avoidance maneuvers we do with the ISS.

Check out these dust devils spotted by Curiosity rover on Mars.

Did you know that Saturn’s moon Enceladus is half cratered and half smooth? Check out this recent image from NASA’s Cassini probe to see for yourself.

March 6, 2017 10:17 pm

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

During a media conference call on Friday, NASA managers provided some details about the potential plan to put astronauts onto the first test flight of the new SLS rockets. In particular, they stated that they would look at putting a crew of 2 onto the EM-1 mission for a 9-day loop around the moon (the baseline EM-1 mission is a 31-day mission, including a period in lunary orbit). The study should be completed in the Spring.

And then, on Monday, SpaceX held its own media conference call to announce plans to send a Dragon 2 capsule on a very similar trajectory to the revised crewed EM-1 mission. The plan would send two paying civilian astronauts on a trip around the moon next year. Welcome to the new space race?

Virgin Galactic had another glide flight of its new SpaceShipTwo spaceplane last Friday.

The popular movie Hidden Figures, which tells the story of three women mathematicians and engineers who worked at NASA in the 1950s and 1960s, had three nominations for the Academy Awards on Sunday, but did not win any. During the award show, Katherine Johnson, one of the women on which the movie is based, was invited on stage.

Speaking of movies, check out this new theatrical trailer for Mission Control, a movie based on the book Go, Flight! by Rick Houston.

And here’s one more fun video before we move on to actual news that happened in space. Check out this segment Stephen Colbert did on his visit to Boeing’s facilities at Kennedy Space Center.

In Orbit

There was only one orbital launch since my last post: On Thursday, February 23 Roscosmos launched a Soyuz rocket carrying a Progress cargo spacecraft headed to the International Space Station.

That Progress spacecraft arrived at the ISS a day later without issue, less than a day after the SpaceX Dragon capsule – launched on Sunday, February 19th – was captured using the Space Station’s Canadarm 2. Here’s a timelapse of what it looks like to conduct that operation from inside the Cupola module.

While the Dragon rendezvous on Thursday was flawless, it came a day after a previous attempt had to be aborted due to an issue with relative GPS navigation with the space station.

Out There

NASA announced on Wednesday that the Spitzer Space Telescope had confirmed the existence of 7 small rocky worlds (similar in size to Earth) around the star TRAPPIST-1, which is 40 light years away.

February 28, 2017 7:44 am

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Funeral services were held for Gemini and Apollo astronaut Eugene Cernan in Houston on January 24th.

The Russian workhorse heavy-lift rocket, the Proton, is currently grounded due to a new hardware recall. The rocket may be grounded through the spring, delaying a backlog of commercial flights.

The new US presidential administration and Congress are starting to have an impact on NASA’s plans. A few notable things happened in the beltway over the past few months.

  1. Acting NASA administrator Robert Lightfoot is looking into whether the first SLS flight could be crewed by astronauts rather than unmanned. This would potentially move up the timeline for NASA’s exploration plans by several years.
  2. An authorization bill in Congress could direct NASA back to having Orion capable of supporting ISS crew flights as a backup to the Commercial Crew plan.
  3. The Sierra Nevada Corporation is proposing that their Dreamchaser spacecraft could be used for a sixth Hubble servicing mission.

Severe weather in Louisiana on February 7th included a tornado which struck NASA’s Michoud facility near New Orleans. NASA facilities sustained damage but all employees are safe with no major injuries.

In Orbit

There have been five successful orbital rocket launches since my last update on January 23rd:

  1. On January 24th, Japan launched a military communications satellite on an H-IIA rocket.
  2. On January 28th, Arianespace launched a spanish communications satellite from French Guiana on a Soyuz rocket.
  3. On February 14th, Arianespace launch telecommunications satellites for Indonesia and Brasil from French Guiana on an Ariane 5 rocket.
  4. On February 15th, India launched a wide array of small satellites (104 in all) on their PSLV rocket.
  5. On February 19th, SpaceX launched an uncrewed Dragon spacecraft to the ISS on a Falcon 9 rocket from Florida.

And of course, here’s the awesome video of the Falcon 9’s first stage booster returning to Landing Zone 1 at CCAFS.

Up on the ISS, two cargo spacecraft departed. First, the Japanese HTV left ISS in late January. It stayed in orbit for another week with plans to conduct a tether experiment. However, the tether failed to deploy. HTV was followed quickly by the departure of Progress MS-03 from a nadir facing port of the space station.

Around the Solar System

NASA has decided to leave the Juno probe in it’s longer 56-day orbit around Jupiter instead of the planned closer 14-day orbit. This decision is based on anomalies seen with the probe’s main engine and worries that another burn will not go per plan.

February 21, 2017 10:06 pm