I just finished watching the new Documentary movie Mission Control, and it transported me back to my roots so cleanly and completely that the emotions washing over me are hard to describe. Based on last year’s book Go Flight, it tells the story of the Apollo mission to the moon, told from the perspective of the flight control teams in Mission Control. Most space histories look at the events of those days from the astronauts’ perspectives – but as Gene Cernan said in this movie, “the astronauts might have been the tip of the arrow – but the people in mission control were the feathers” – guiding the flights and making them happen. It’s as true today as it was then – and the film began (and ended) with short interviews of current International Space Station Flight Directors who are still doing today what the men of the Apollo era did in the same room decades before.
I was so fortunate to have been trained by, and work for, those men who flew Apollo to the moon and back. When I started at Johnson Space Center as a Coop student assigned to flight operations back in 1980, the lunar missions seemed like ancient history. Looking back with today’s perspective, they had ended only a few short years before. Many of the men (and very few women) from that era had moved on into management positions in the growing Shuttle program or of NASA itself, but many were still in flight operations, teaching us newcomers the values, skills, and techniques required to send people into space in complex flying machines.
It was great to see so many of the men I knew as senior mentors are still around today, participating in the act of recording the history before it is lost. When I joined the team, Gene Kranz was Deputy Director of Flight Operations. Steve Bales was Division Chief when I was cutting my teeth as a front room flight controller. Ed Fendell was the wild section head of the communications group – and every time I saw him for years to come, he was still the wild guy in the convertible, usually with a good looking companion in the other seat. John Aaron, Rod Loe, Bill Moon – all guys I learned from by watching them in meetings, or in how they managed the teams they went on to lead.
When people ask me how accurate a space movie really was, I always have to point to dramatic 1990’s Apollo 13 as a great example of how things really worked during a mission, but Mission Control really tells the story of what the men did then – and how what they did then is still the way things are done today – and were done throughout the Shuttle years in between. “Tough and Competent” is what we learned to be, and in Mission Control, nothing was impossible. You just might not have figured out a way to do it yet. Fear had to be put aside, and your discipline learned so that no one could stump you on anything. This was true for the back-room controller, the front room controller – and for those of us who became Flight Directors. There was no such thing as “can’t”, and while sometimes we might have failed, we never thought that we could. You fought until the bitter end, every time.
If you really want to know what it’s like to be part of a team doing important and difficult work, what it was like to fly people in space, and what it was like to become extraordinary – you should watch this film.