Stop and take a moment to think about what you were doing at the age of 27 or what you will do if it’s yet to come. If you’re a musician it is likely that you are dead but if you were working at NASA during the Apollo era then you had a hand in putting man on the moon. Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo is a documentary that takes a leaf out of Hidden Figures’ book because it puts the focus on the boffins that achieved great things by working at mission control and it is one truly fascinating story.
The film marks the directorial debut of David Fairhead who has worked as a film editor for several decades. Fairhead was also the editor of the previous SXSW documentary, The Last Man on the Moon. In Mission Control Fairhead is close to the subject matter as he wears the multiple hats of director and editor yet he manages to produce a compelling, if rather technical story.
This documentary includes and focuses on interviews with the men who worked at NASA during the Apollo era. This includes astronauts: Charlie Duke and the late Gene Cernan as well the founder of mission control, Dr Christopher Kraft. It also includes a huge roll call of men who worked as flight directors, in life support systems and other areas. There are also two female interviewees: Ginger Kerrick and Courtenay McMiller who currently work at NASA.
This is a story that focuses on the good, the bad and the ugly. It’s one that doesn’t gloss over the failures of Apollo 1, which resulted in the deaths of Gus Grissom, Edward H. White II and Roger B. Chaffee during testing. Instead the documentary talks about how this was a major turning point for the team. In the aftermath of this tragedy the group at mission control bandied together and adopted the mantra of “tough” and “competent”. It was one that would see these ordinary men of different social backgrounds (with an average age of 27) including many who were either fresh graduates or soldiers setting out to achieve something that most had figured was mission impossible.
In 2017 people like talking about things like “digital disruption” and “working out loud” and yet it’s amazing to think that from the 1950s to the early 1970s when computers were dumber than today’s average mobile phone that people could achieve feats like those that were accomplished. Consider: Apollo 8 was the first mission to leave Earth’s orbit and to subsequently reach and orbit the moon before returning safely to earth as well as Apollo 11 where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made the small step that turned out to be a giant leap for mankind when they walked on the moon. The story is jubilant at these successes and it’s interesting to hear the proud and passionate engineers and scientists talking about the nail-biting moments where things went wrong and how they overcame some setbacks with quick-thinking, teamwork and good decision-making.
Mission Control includes archive footage that has never been shown before as well as old newsreels and powerful animations simulating the journeys into space. These latter moments in particular help to cut through some of the drier, more technical parts.
Our fascination with space continues to this day with an enthusiasm that remains unfettered. It is also a spiritual experience to witness scenes like the lunar sunrise where the perfect accompaniment comes from some recitations from the bible’s book of Genesis. Even those who aren’t religious could enjoy this moment and perhaps think of David Bowie singing, “Planet earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do.”
David Fairhead’s directorial debut is living proof that people can achieve big things by putting their heads together. To put man on the moon was a huge, staggering challenge that is still spoken about today (even if it’s just when comedians like Jerry Seinfeld joke about it). These scientists and technical specialists are an inspiration, as they had the vision, expertise, ability and quick-thinking to achieve one hell of a magnificent feat. This means that films like Mission Control should be mandatory viewing for anyone working in a team because it is like watching a love letter to NASA’s rocket men.
Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo premiered this week at SXSW. It is also available via video on demand through Gravitas Ventures.