David Fairhead’s Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo shifts its focus from astronauts, and directs it to scientists, engineers, and technicians who played an essential role behind-the-scenes in the success of the Apollo era space program. These are the men that made the moon landing happen from back on earth, but their efforts are rarely as celebrated or glamorized as those of astronauts such as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
As one former astronaut describes during an interview in the film: “if the astronauts themselves were the tip of the arrow of NASA, then those working in mission control were the feathers – they directed the course of everything.”
Early in the film, the audience is introduced to the so called “founding fathers” of mission control. These are the men who built the system and chain of command from the ground up, and developed the communication and navigation infrastructure to support some of the most famous space missions in history. Mission Control secures our investment in these characters’ stories by including information about who they were outside of their demanding careers. Interviews with the founding fathers about their childhoods and life before NASA serve to humanize these men.
Mission Control excels in its pacing and execution. Even if you already know how the missions end, the filmmaker successfully builds suspension and tension. The Apollo program spanned approximately a decade, and hundreds of people worked in mission control during that period, but by focusing on a few key people who were present for all (or nearly all) of that time, the documentary gives the audience characters to connect to and root for.
Rather than getting bogged down in jargon and the specifics of the math and science behind mission control and the challenges that were faced, Fairhead’s film keeps to focusing on the people in the control room: on their long hours, emotions, and dedication to the success of the mission. Audiences looking for a detailed analysis of Apollo era hardware and computer systems may be left disappointed, but most viewers will find that the decision to focus on individuals prevents the film from feeling like a science textbook.
Though there was a lot to like about this film, the only thing that didn’t strike the right chord with me was the thematic emphasis that Mission Control placed on patriotism and the patriotic motivation many of the founding fathers had for their work with NASA. The darker moments of the Apollo era narrative, such as the Apollo 1 fire, were framed as necessary sacrifices for the greater good of the country. Similarly, the impact that long hours and a stressful work environment had on the families of NASA employees is also only briefly mentioned. It was difficult not to be reminded of last year’s The Last Man on the Moon, which was co-edited by Fairhead and focused on the same era of the space program but with a much more sobering angle.
Still, Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo features an effective soundtrack that combines instrumental elements with era appropriate pop-songs from the 1950s and 60s. The effect is subtle, but contributes to the polished, deliberate feel of the film. Similarly, Fairhead combines straightforward interviews, original news broadcasts, archival photographs and footage, with gorgeous shots of the NASA center in Houston as it appears today. The documentary opens and closes on interviews with women who currently work in mission control, a detail that shows the contrast between where the principals were set during the first mission and how much things have changed.
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