Film Review: Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo

Documentary about NASA mission controllers of the 1960s and early ’70s is the '20 Feet from Stardom' of spaceflight, giving these mostly background players the prominence and applause they deserve.
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The formerly buzz-cut crew of NASA mission controllers who sent men into orbit and to the moon—weathering a flash-fire that killed three astronauts and an onboard malfunction that nearly killed three more—are American heroes, no doubt. And that so many of these 1960s stalwarts are still alive in the mid-2010s is every bit as gratifying as the fact they're being lauded in in this documentary based on the book Go Flight: The Unsung Heroes of Mission Control, written by, I kid you not, Rick Houston…as in "Houston, we have a problem."

The actual lines spoken by Apollo 13's Jack Swigert, of course, were "OK, Houston, we've had a problem here… Houston, we've had a problem," and while this isn't new information, it's just one of the many nostalgia-inducing bits of audio and film/video footage that makes it hard to criticize any sort of documentary about the glorious spaceflight era. Even the most hardened atheist—trust me, I know—can find himself choking back tears as Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders of Apollo 8 take turns reading from the Book of Genesis on Christmas Eve 1968.

Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo resurrects a heroic array of flight directors, power/life-support specialists, communications guys and others who did the near-impossible with computers barely more advanced than a calculator. There's Chris Kraft, NASA's first director of flight operations, whom astronaut Gene Cernan, who died in January, calls "the creator of mission control. His is the very first voice that we heard." There's flight director Gene Kranz, the "Failure is not an option" guy, who didn't really say that line but sure lived it. And there are so many more, including Sy Liebergot—who is as close to being Newman from "Seinfeld" as anyone who ever worked at NASA.

And they're candid. "I think we killed those three men. It's almost murder," Kraft recalls of the ill-fated Apollo 1, the mission in which astronauts Virgil Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee lost their lives when a pure-oxygen fire ignited in their command module during a preflight test. "We knew there was bad workmanship. We knew that the wires were exposed," he continues, adding, "I don’t think any of us recognized the seriousness of the danger we had put the crew in"—though, ironically, he says that without that tragedy and the self-searching and strive for perfection that came of it, we would never, he believes, have gotten to the Moon. Kranz, for his part, reflects here that "we could have gone to the program manager and said, 'Look, we're not ready,' but we didn't." He and the other ground controllers recall as if yesterday how he blamed himself and his men.

And men, indeed, are the only ones we meet, other than present-day flight directors Courtenay McMillan and Ginger Kerrick, the former of whom says admiringly of her pioneer predecessors, "They set the standard, they went through the fire for us"—perhaps not the best metaphor—"and we try to live up to the excellence that they demonstrated every day." Perhaps the book and movie Hidden Figures are too fresh for us to wonder otherwise, but were no women or African-Americans who worked at mission control available to speak? Granted, Mary Jackson died in 2005 and Dorothy Vaughan in 2008, and Katherine Johnson was 98 or so when this documentary was made, but were there really no others?

Among other shortcomings is an elongated opening that's three and a half minutes of spinning gravel—unidentified people talking, half-garbled electronic transmissions, some spacecraft CGI. And while sound editing isn't a make-or-break, the clumsily layered sounds added to old silent footage are often distracting and artificial, especially when we hear a space helmet's visor "click" into place or Apollo 8 goes "whooshing" by—in the silent vacuum of space. This isn't Star Wars. Don't pander to us.

That and the occasional descent into engineer-speak aside—the part about "SCE to Aux" is as confusing here as it apparently was to the Apollo 12 astronauts—Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo hits a piece of the spaceflight story that many other documentaries have only grazed. That the filmmakers gathered and spoke with these aging giants, most of whom did not write memoirs, while there was still time—well, I'm glad failure wasn't an option for those who made this.

Click here for cast and crew information.