Mission Control celebrates as Apollo 13 splashes down safely

One giant leap for mankind: the people behind the Apollo space programme

Image credit: Mission control

A new documentary on the people behind the Apollo space programme shows how learning from mistakes helped to achieve President Kennedy’s goal of sending man to the Moon.

On 20 July 1969, the world watched in anticipation for the outcome of the Apollo 11 space mission, crowded around televisions and radios, ready to see history in the making. Inside Nasa’s Mission Control Center in Houston, Texas, the controllers held their breath, fretting about every minor detail from lift-off through to descent. If anything went wrong, the buck would rest with them. Success however, would always lie with the astronauts.

“Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” These first words were spoken by Neil Armstrong as the lunar module successfully landed on the Moon. Armstrong and his crew mate, Buzz Aldrin, were set to go down in history. Releasing a breath of relief, Capsule Communicator Charles Duke acknowledged receipt: “Roger, Tranquility, we copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.”

In 1961 when President John F Kennedy promised that the American Space Programme would land the first humans on the Moon by the end of the decade, it seemed impossible. Now, almost 50 years after the first Moon landing, the lesser known story of how the support staff back on Earth helped make the mission a reality has come to light. ‘Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo’, directed by David Fairhead, will arrive on global video on-demand platforms and in select US theatres from 14 April.

“We wanted to look at the people behind the mask,” says producer Keith Haviland, “We wanted to make sure that we told the film in a way that respected the technical story, but also told the human story.

“There is so much technology behind the space programme that it is easy to get lost in it. We wanted to make it appealing to a wider audience by understanding the emotional experience that the people in Mission Control went through.”

As well as never before seen archive footage from moments throughout the Apollo programme, the documentary includes interviews with key figures from the support crew, including Nasa’s first flight director Chris Kraft, who was instrumental in founding Mission Control.

“Having the privilege to be able to sit with people who have done so much in terms of influencing history and technology was wonderful,” says Haviland.

The film focuses predominantly on five key missions, within which two particularly stand out: Apollo 1, the first manned mission which ended in disaster after the cockpit caught fire during a test launch, killing all three crew members; and Apollo 11, the world-famous Moon Landing.

The Apollo 1 disaster is remembered as the darkest hour of the Apollo programme, and the emotion plays heavily on Kraft’s face as he is interviewed during filming. “I think we killed those men, it’s almost murder,” he says. Devastating as the result was, though, it also stands as one of the most definitive aspects of the programme, an occasion that had the potential to make or break the whole scheme.

“It is my opinion and the opinion of many others, that had it not happened we would never have got to the Moon,” says Kraft.

On the Monday morning following the Apollo 1 disaster, flight director Gene Kranz called a meeting for the Mission Control crew, and gave a speech which would form the values of the programme from then on.

“From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: ‘tough’ and ‘competent’,” he said. “Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do…Competent means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills.”

Under instruction, the team proceeded to write the mantra on the whiteboard of each office in mission control, never to be erased. The words stood each day as a reminder of the price paid by astronauts on board the Apollo 1 test launch, and an inspiration to never make the same mistake again.

“Positive leadership is said to be how you manage through your dark times and your bad times,” says Haviland. “When those astronauts died in an accident that should have been predicted, it was a moment that could have broken the programme. But they took responsibility and they realised that they had made a mistake.

“They took 18 months to reengineer the space craft, and without that happening they probably would never have got to the Moon. They took a step back and worked out what was going right, but in particular, what was going wrong, and they fixed it. It is a key moment in the Space Programme; it is the thing that resonates with all of them.”

Haviland and the rest of the production team took inspiration from the Apollo Programme while producing the film. The result is an incredibly moving documentary produced in a surprisingly short amount of time.

“Filming and production was a lot of hard work, and most of it happened across an 18-month process, including shooting and the post-production,” says Haviland, highlighting the similar time frames. “We had to be inspired by the example of the people that we were interviewing who did things very quickly, so maybe that was part of it. They helped us to get things done in a logistically good way; there was a lot of support in making the film.”

The most difficult aspect of creating the film, Haviland says, was in trying to condense the information from all the interviews.

“We had to take a vast period of history, 10 years, many missions, many experiences, many people, and try to come out with a story that was compact enough for the film but that represented the whole programme,” he says. “There were so many good stories that we couldn’t tell.”

For the people behind Apollo Programme, the difficulty was in the very founding of Mission Control.

“To deal with the Mission Control approach from scratch was a huge task,” says Haviland. “They achieved the goal of getting a man to the Moon and back again in less than a decade, with a programme that reached 400,000 people at peak.

“From a leadership point of view that is remarkable and it is a lesson for everyone working within management or leadership within an enterprise or programme.” 

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