We’ll make this film review simple and straightforward: Mission Control is a wonderful movie. Go see it.
This new movie is both timely and overdue. It is timely in that we’re nearing the 50th anniversary of the Apollo program’s glory days, and it’s overdue in the sense that mission control is finally getting some of the limelight it deserves. A few years ago a book titled Go Flight! brought the life and times of NASA’s mission control during the Apollo and early space shuttle eras alive. These flight directors and controllers worked inside the “Cathedral,” the third floor of Building 30 on Johnson Space Center’s sprawling campus. They were always watching, running the missions, and ready to make split-second decisions.
Now a documentary movie has built upon this book, and brought mission control onto the screen, from its creation in the mind of Chris Kraft through the brilliant and tense execution of the Apollo missions. The 100-minute documentary is a fantastic way to relive the glory days of America’s space program through the eyes of those sitting behind the consoles, poring over data, and making difficult calls.
“The one thing I learned in my experiences as Capcom is the absolute necessity for a well-integrated team, that everybody would be focused on their job, and know their system, and would not be afraid to speak up if necessary,” said Apollo 16’s lunar module pilot, Charlie Duke, in an interview with Ars. Duke served as the capsule communicator during the Apollo 11 mission. “The confidence I got in the knowledge of mission control, and it rolled over when I became a crew member, was that if we got in trouble those were the guys and gals I wanted working on it, and they would come up with a solution of some sort.”
One of the best aspects of the film is its homage to Kraft, the nation’s first flight director, who used his experience in flight testing at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics to conceive of, and develop plans for tracking and controlling the flight of spacecraft into outer space. Kraft tells some of the story of mission control’s origin in his own words, saying that he became notorious for “saying what he thought.”
The film excels in other ways, at least from my perspective as a space buff, space writer, and amateur space historian. It puts the spotlight on a group of men from varying backgrounds, many of them quite humble, and then shows the evolution of mission control from a basic operation into the complex organization that led to human landings on the Moon.
Gene Kranz, the flight director for the lunar module landing during Apollo 11, expresses this sentiment when he recalls a short talk he gave his flight controllers that day in 1969 when humanity truly went into the unknown. “I believe we were born for this day,” he said. “We were meant to be here. We did a great job preparing for this mission. I will stand behind every decision you will make. We came into this room as a team, and we will leave this room as a team.”
Amid the modern-day interviews, historical footage, and sound from ground-to-space loops, a atmospheric soundtrack helps to heighten the tension. In our uncertain times, such a film serves as a marvelous tonic to remind us what America is capable of when we work together, toward a common goal.
Listing image by Mission Control Movie