No endeavour takes place in a vacuum, even if a vacuum is where it eventually arrives. With its goal of placing humans on the Moon, the Apollo programme of the sixties and seventies had the eyes of the entire world upon it and remains the greatest technological achievement of the human race despite four subsequent decades of development of science and technology.
In all of history only twenty four people have flown to the Moon and twelve have walked on its surface of whom only six remain alive, but while those names are remembered and celebrated, principal among them Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin of the Apollo 11 Mission of July 1969 they could not have achieved that without a veritable army of scientists and engineers backing them, their efforts coordinated by those individuals who formed Mission Control.
Directed by David Fairhead and produced by Keith Haviland and Gareth Dodds, the editor, producer and co-executive producer of The Last Man on the Moon which told the story of Captain Gene Cernan of Apollo 17, Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo follows the same format as that documentary, a mix of contemporary interviews, extensive archive material and occasional newly rendered effects blended with the original camera footage to enhance or illustrate an event.
Unlike the single narrative of Last Man on the Moon, there are a great many talking heads in this documentary, over twenty of them; wisely all are captioned on every appearance to assist those of frugal memory, and they present a wealth of insight and recollection, inspiration and anecdote, told not by first hand witnesses but by those who actually made it happen, though there is also analysis from the time courtesy of James Burke, touring mission control for the BBC, and a surprisingly sinister monochrome Project Apollo showreel.
Not a stage managed spin doctor among them, these elderly engineers are refreshingly plain speaking, John Aaron who operated as EECOM (Electrical, Environmental and Consumables Manager) who used to gaze up at the sky as a child and joined NASA when they made him “an offer for more money than a country boy had ever seen,” flight director Glynn Lunney whose father worked in coal mines and who once built model aeroplanes, INCO (Integrated Communications Officer) Ed Fendell, smoking, drinking whisky, chasing girls and still effortlessly cool six decades later.
Even those in the space programme had unrealistic dreams: Chris Kraft, director of flight operations, had wanted to be a baseball player. “I knew I wasn’t good enough,” he comments without regret, equally sanguine about the mechanical aspects of the challenge the team collectively undertook. “It may not seem complicated today, but they were complicated as hell back then.”
Coming from a background of experimental aeroplane testing, Kraft had worked on the X-1, the first manned airplane to exceed the speed of sound in level flight, and it was that ground based flight operation which evolved to become NASA’s embryonic flight control with a list of ambitious technical requirements, many of which only existed theoretically and had to be developed by the team.
With the NASA programmes Mercury, Gemini and Apollo escalating in ambition, complexity and risk, astronaut Gene Cernan looks upon Kraft as “the creator of mission control… his was the very first voice that we heard and he was the foundation for what mission control became,” but despite the reassurance of hindsight there were no guarantees at the time.
Recalling President Kennedy’s speech which declared the Moon as the eventual goal of the space programme, flight director Gerry Griffin’s first thought was “Can that be done?” and while the dream was realised it was not without cost beyond the hard cash cost of $25.4 billion, unadjusted from 1973’s estimate for the Apollo programme alone, as evidenced on 27th January 1967.
“We knew that there was bad workmanship. We knew that the wires were exposed,” Kraft states. “I’ve seen death happen in various ways, but not like that… I think that we killed those three men. It was almost murder.” Following the deaths of Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee there were no manned flights for twenty months as flight director Gene Kranz introduced a new ethic and approach.
“Tough because we are never going to shirk our responsibilities because we are forever accountable for what we do, or in the case of Apollo 1 what we failed to do, competent because we’ll never take anything for granted, we will never stop learning, from now on as a team we will be perfect.”
Kraft feels that avoidable tragedy was a huge moment of learning which pushed them all to do better if manned flights were to resume: “Had that not happened, we would never have gotten to the Moon… It brought the whole organisation together.” By December 1968, Apollo 8 was orbiting the Moon, though Kraft is frank in his description of the module as “a horrible piece of hardware.”
America was a country colonised by European settlers relatively recently; to them, it was not a nation with a long and great history and so as a consequence they made a great deal of history very quickly, but caught in the grind the men of mission control couldn’t appreciate or enjoy what they were doing or lessen impact on their lives, and credit is given to their wives for taking over their home lives as NASA and the stars consumed their time.
While the multiple voices mean Mission Control is not as personal a film as The Last Man on the Moon it is a fascinating document of a select group of individuals whose legacy continues: while historically a male dominated establishment, the baton has been passed to flight directors such as Courtenay McMillan who acknowledges “We wouldn’t be here today without the achievements that those folks made and those strides that they took” and Ginger Kerrick who says their visits still inspire their successors. “All of us are very grateful to our founding fathers.”
Mission Control is available is available on DVD and on demand from 14th April