Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo

Thanks to the movie Apollo 13, NASA flight director Gene Krantz and his vest are probably more famous than ninety per cent of astronauts who made it into space, but not one of them would begrudge him the recognition. However, it was not so during the height of the space race, when the Mercury and Apollo astronauts were the focus of an intense media spotlight. The men on the ground who made the space walks possible continue to get their somewhat belated ovation in David Fairhead’s documentary, Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

They are men who made the dramatic “go/no go” calls. Yes, they were guys as the demographically obsessed will no doubt point out, but they were not all white. Bill Moon was the son of Chinese immigrants, who grew up in Jim Crow era Mississippi. Frankly, they all probably could have worked profitably in the private sector, but in the 1960s, NASA was where the action was.

Essentially, Unsung Heroes chronicles the history of the Apollo missions from the perspective of the flight directors and flight controllers. Naturally, the triumph of Apollo 11 is the centerpiece of the film, but nearly as much time is dedicated to the tragedy of Apollo 1. Clearly, Dr. Chris Craft is still haunted by the deaths of the crew, yet he also credits the hard lessons learned that day for making it possible for the Apollo program to eventually accomplish its remarkable goal. However, casual space exploration enthusiasts might be most surprised by the rocky start for Apollo 12, which was nearly aborted, but went on to become one of the most successful NASA missions ever.

Unsung Heroes was produced by Keith Haviland and Gareth Dodds, who also produced Mark Craig’s The Last Man on the Moon, featuring astronaut Gene Cernan (the eleventh of the twelve men to set foot on the moon, but the last to leave). Fittingly, Cernan is also one of several flight crew members paying tribute to the men who got them there and back safely, along with Charlie Duke and Jim Lovell (the commander of Apollo 13).

It is always refreshing to revisit the patriotic can-do spirit of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, but it is also rather depressing to realize the extent to which we as a nation have retreated from space exploration. That is why a quality space doc like Unsung Heroes is always welcome. Haviland, Dodds, and company make excellent films. Clearly, they have the connections and the credibility with NASA veterans, but they also know how to craft a snappy and informative package. Highly recommended for everyone interested in space exploration, Mission Control: Unsung Heroes of Apollo opens this Friday (4/14) in New York, at the Village East and in Denver at the Sie Film Center.