Learning Mission Control’s Backstory

By Scott Spangler on February 24th, 2020

mcWandering through Netflix’s streaming options hoping to trip over something that would hold my attention, in the Hidden Gems category I saw Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo. Having visited the recently restored facility (See 87 Steps to the Moon: Journey to Mission Control Enriches Memories of Apollo 11), I pressed play. And I didn’t move or divert my eyes from the screen for the next 101 minutes.

What held me rapt was the unexpected story of mission control told by the men (and as several of the active duty female flight directors interviewed, “they were all men then”) who conceived the idea of mission control and worked long hours (with noted sacrifices to their families) to make it a critical component of not only the Apollo adventure, but all of America’s aerospace efforts that preceded it and grew from it.

kranz panelIt begins with Christopher Kraft, who explains Mission Controls genesis from the flight data collection effort on the X-1 project. It steps lightly through the Mercury and Gemini programs, which represent Mission Controls infancy and and adolescence, before one of Apollo’s flight directors, Gene Kranz, delves into its adulthood.

Many of the interviews are held in Mission Control itself, and through them the subjects share who sat where and their responsibilities. Meeting the men, in the white shirts with their skinny ties and ever-present cigarettes who sat unknown at their Mission Control consoles, was captivating.  And before they spoke about their working lives, the film delved into where they came from and what ultimately led them to Mission Control.

Stephen BalesThere was Stephen Bales, who grew up in an Iowa farming community, earned a degree in aerospace engineering from Iowa State, and was the guidance officer during the lunar landing of Apollo 11. Among many others was Glynn Lunney, another Apollo flight director, and his contribution to the Apollo 13 effort subtlety emphasized the supportive teamwork of everyone who worked the shifts that covered every space flight around the clock.

The film delves deeper into the missions of Apollo 8, 11, and 13, with interview contributions from astronauts including Charlie Duke and Gene Cernan. But Jim Lovell had the best line when he talked about the delayed acquisition of signal (AOS, and the subjects do an excellent job of unobtrusively giving life to a seemingly endless stream of acronyms) on Apollo 13’s reentry. He might have been joking, but he said the crew decided to stay quiet for a bit. “It’ll make a great movie!” he concluded, laughing. Indeed! –Scott Spangler, Editor

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2 Responses to “Learning Mission Control’s Backstory”

  1. Learning Mission Control’s Backstory | Industry news Says:

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  2. Mary Annie Says:

    Thanks for featuring this excellent video. I read anything I can find about our space program — this is the frosting on the cake!

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