Mission Control and the Moon Landings
A tribute to Mission Control and its contribution to the Moon landings.
The Apollo programme was a bit like an iceberg. No, really it was. Bear with me.
The bit of the iceberg that can be seen is only part of the story. The vast majority of the iceberg is actually hidden beneath the surface. During the Apollo Moon landings, the astronauts were the public face of NASA, plastered all over newspapers and magazines – the tip of the iceberg. But there was a lot more going on ‘beneath the surface’.
It took more than 400,000 people to put astronauts on the Moon. A whole host of mathematicians, scientists, seamstresses, engineers, contractors and more, played their part in one of the truly great ‘team-efforts’. Some of the most significant people worked in Mission Control. They might not have been as famous as the astronauts, but they were every bit as important to the success of landing on the Moon.
But what exactly is Mission Control?
Shortly after NASA was founded in 1958, a working group was set-up to manage ‘America’s manned spaceflight program’. Known as the Space Task Group, the team was challenged to work out exactly how crewed spaceflight was going to work. It was clear that there was a need to be able to communicate with the spacecraft, track exactly where it was, and monitor onboard systems.
In short, astronauts could not travel into space without a team of people back on Earth to help them.
Work went into how to track, monitor, and communicate with spacecraft using a worldwide network of tracking stations. Right from the start, the need for a central ‘control’ site was obvious. Somewhere for all of the data to be sent back to and a way of making sure that a single location had the power to control missions and make life and death calls. Spaceflight was, and still is, dangerous. Missions needed clear rules, with everybody knowing who was responsible for what. And ultimately, who was in charge!
During the Mercury missions, the first American venture into human spaceflight, the Mercury Control Center was based in Florida. Known as the MCC, its design and layout went on to shape the concept of what an ideal control centre for space missions should be.
Chris Kraft and a New Mission Control
Although the general idea behind Mission Control cannot be attributed to a single person, one of the most significant people to shape the way it would work was Chris Kraft.
Kraft became a legend within Mission Control, taking on the role of NASA’s first Flight Director. Inside Mission Control the Flight Director was in charge. Even if the NASA Administrator was in attendance, it was the Flight Director that had the final say – and therefore, the person who could cut a mission short and demand the astronauts return to Earth early. In an emergency situation, the buck stopped with the Flight Director.
Kraft, along with other senior NASA staff, developed the general idea of the Mission Control layout, whilst others were tasked with making it into a reality.
Brits such as John Hodge, Tec Roberts, Dennis Fielder, John Hughes, and George Harris were amongst those involved, as plans were made for a new Mission Control building capable of handling Moon landings. Unlike the MCC, this control centre would be based in Houston, Texas.
Mission Control Houston and Acronyms
On 19 September 1961, NASA administrator James Webb announced that a new Manned Spacecraft Center (now the Johnson Space Center) would be built south of Houston near Clear Lake. In what was formerly a thousand acres of farmland, a new hi-tech facility sprang up – capable of meeting the demands of longer missions, which would eventually travel to the Moon.
Mission Control Center-Houston was set up to be full of state-of-the-art technology to meet the challenge. The Mission Operations Control Room, or MOCR, was the hub of activity – the room which immediately springs to mind when picturing a team monitoring astronauts in space. There was of course much more going on, with people also working in support rooms away from the mission controllers in the MOCR. There was a room for Spacecraft Analysis (the SPAN), as well as the Mission Evaluation Room (MER). If you were sat in the MOCR in the role of FDO, there was a whole support network in contact to help you.
Hang on, hang on, I hear you say, what’s FDO? … Well, spaceflight is a complicated thing, and so was Mission Control. And they absolutely loved an acronym. FDO (pronounced Fido), stood for Flight Dynamics Officer – the person responsible for monitoring the trajectory of the spacecraft, i.e. where is it and what path is it on.
In the picture, you can see all of the different consoles and their acronyms. Each person was responsible for a different thing, all ultimately reporting to the Flight Director. To understand what each role did, a good explanation can be found here.
One console worth noting is CAPCOM – or Capsule Communicator. This was the person allowed to communicate with the astronauts. There were lots of clever, technical minds working on problems in Mission Control, but it was important that information and solutions could be presented to the astronauts in the clearest possible way. Therefore, the CAPCOM (usually an astronaut) acted as a sort of translator – passing messages to the crew.
Mission Control's Finest Hour
Throughout the Apollo missions, there were many critical moments where Mission Control made big decisions and key contributions. Its finest hour though came during Apollo 13.
If you ask the average person to picture Mission Control, they might well think of a man dressed in a waistcoat with a buzzcut hairdo. Gene Kranz – played by Ed Harris in the 1995 film Apollo 13 – has become synonymous with Mission Control. Perhaps Mission Control’s most famous Flight Director, Kranz is even attributed with a catchphrase, ‘Failure is not an option’ – even though he never actually uttered those words!
By the time of the Apollo missions, staff in Mission Control worked in shifts so they could cover spaceflights that lasted for more than a week. Flight Directors took charge in turn, each with their own dedicated team. Kranz and his team were on duty at the moment during Apollo 13 when everything started to go wrong.
A routine command to the crew had just been passed on by Capcom Jack Lousma, asking for the stirring fans to mix the contents of the spacecraft’s hydrogen and oxygen tanks to be turned on. Shortly afterward, the astronauts reported a large bang and told Mission Control:
“Okay, Houston, we’ve had a problem here”.
The team in Mission Control found themselves presented with a nightmare scenario. Three astronauts were on course for the Moon, inside a spacecraft that had just suffered a catastrophic failure. Landing on the Moon was no longer a possibility, all that mattered was getting the crew home safely.
The team back in Mission Control had to work through multiple problems, trying to find a way of keeping the crew alive. Lack of electrical power, dropping temperatures, and too much carbon dioxide, were just some of the problems that needed to be worked around. For several days people barely slept, as Mission Control worked around the clock. With the world watching on, Mission Control’s team ethic and carefully thought out procedures solved the problems one-by-one.
Whilst Apollo 13 highlighted to the wider world Mission Control’s importance, those at NASA already knew how critical it was to success. All of the work that had gone into perfecting the system for controlling human spaceflight missions had paid off. Years of simulated missions, back-up plans, and testing, had helped Mission Control become a finely tuned, well-oiled machine.
The biggest legacy of the Apollo Moon landings is often debated. For some it is the spirit of adventure, exploration, and achievement. Others might celebrate the scientific legacy and discovery that followed humanity’s close-up inspection of the Moon. But, for me, the mammoth team-effort, organisation, management, and attention to detail that went into Apollo Mission Control, has had the biggest impact on spaceflight. Its ethos and design has shaped all other human spaceflight control centres around the world.
In recent years, work has been done to restore Mission Control Center-Houston to its former glory, recognising its status as a National Historic Landmark in the USA.
What a fitting tribute to those that worked at Mission Control – a truly most talented bunch.
About the author: Dan Kendall is the Curator at the National Space Centre.