On an overcast day at Ellington Airport outside of Houston, a glistening metallic opened up to reveal relics of the past freshly restored for the future. As their beige surfaces, pastel-colored buttons, rounded displays, and rotary dials gleamed, more than a dozen Apollo alumni—the men who guided humanity to the moon and back—stood on the tarmac in eager anticipation.
These Surgeon and consoles are not space icons like astronauts Neil Armstrong, Gus Grissom, or Jim Lovell. But at , they were an essential part of the nerve center that sent Apollo 8 into lunar orbit, put Armstrong on the moon, and returned Apollo 13 safely home. Now these flight consoles, along with the rest of , are being brought back to life after decades of disuse—just in time for Apollo 11’s 50th anniversary next summer.
And, for one November day, those who worked behind these consoles for years will get to stand behind them one more time.
“I wish we could freeze this bit of history,” says Milton Windler says, a flight director who worked in Mission Control. “It’s hard to appreciate until you see them all in front of you again.”
We Have Liftoff
In 1965, the primary flight control for human space missions with the opening of NASA’s new 245,000-square-foot Mission Control Center at the new Manned Spacecraft Center (later renamed Johnson Space Center). At the time, it was .
It consisted of two identical rooms (MOCR 1 and MOCR 2), which monitored nearly every Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, and Space Shuttle mission up until 1998. Additionally, there were three other support rooms that helped feed, decipher, and organize information and data for those in the main control room, as well as a viewing room where dignitaries and family members could watch Mission Control in action.
Together, those rooms had 1,100 feet of cabinet of electronic equipment, 140 feet of command consoles, 136 television cameras, 384 television receivers, 10,000 miles of wiring, and more than two million wire connectors linking it all up. According to a , the facility had enough communications equipment to provide telephone service for a bustling city of 10,000. Giant screens that measured ten feet tall by 60 feet wide adorned the back wall of both MOCR 1 and MOCR 2.
In an era without email, a 53-station, two-mile-long pneumatic tube system with electrical switches and values gave everyone the ability to send messages without ever leaving their seat in front of their console. As a press release noted at a time, the best way to describe the new Mission Control was that it was a “multitude of superlatives.”
The first mission that Houston took the lead on was in June 1965, when Ed White became the first American astronaut to spacewalk. Three years later, Houston monitored as it whipped around the moon. It was the crew in Mission Control that helped Armstrong and Aldrin in 1969 and it was the tireless courage of everyone in Mission Control that got our boys on Apollo 13 home safely.
This was also the place that saw and heard tragedy. On January 27, 1967, operators in Houston heard due to a flash fire that resulted in the death of the three Apollo 1 astronauts. It was also in MORC 2 (then known as Flight Control Room 1) where many watched in horror when .
After the Apollo program, Mission Control remained the nerve and communications center for the and the Space Shuttle missions. In 1992, after nearly three decades of service, MORC 2 was officially decommissioned and a new modernized flight control room was built on the south side of the building. Today, FCR-1 (which was formerly MOCR 1) is the current operational mission control for the International Space Station.
In the two and half decades since, MORC 2 has fallen prey to disuse and neglect. Despite it being named a that the room was in a “shocking state of disrepair.” Lights flickered, carpet was patched together by tape, and the once state-of-the-art flight consoles were missing buttons.
Legendary flight director Eugene Kranz, who spent his career in the room helping astronauts, told the news organization he was frustrated “that NASA allowed this room to deteriorate to the condition it was in. They did not have the feeling that comes from having worked and lived…in this room.”
In 2017, Mission Control got a new mission.
With guidance from several notable Apollo alumni, , a nonprofit science and space exploration learning center and the Official Visitors Center for the Johnson Space Center, launched to restore the old room to its former glory.
“This room is not just historically significant to Houston or the United States, but to the world,” says Space Center Houston’s CEO William Harris, “it enabled humanity to send people to the moon and get them home safely.”
Harris says, beyond the historical relevance, the practices that were put in place by folks like Kranz are still being used today to monitor, assist, and guide other space missions including the International Space Station. The campaign is nearing its five million dollar goal with a huge chunk of that coming from the city of Webster, the Houston suburb nearby Johnson Space Center. Harris anticipates that the goal will be reached by the end of the year.
The hope is to restore Mission Control to July 20, 1969, the exact day that Apollo 11 made its lunar descent. “This is going to be so authentic that it will literally feel like you are walking back in time,” says Johnson Space Center’s Chief Historic Preservation Officer Sandra Tetley, “as if you came in right when everyone left.”
Of course, Mission Control operated well beyond the Apollo years. Over that time, various components, machinery, and displays were changed out as technology evolved. But thanks to tons of photos, documentation, and archival footage, even the tiniest details can be brought back. That means authentic wallpaper, displays, ashtrays, coffee mugs, paperwork, wall hangings, and carpet.
“We found pieces of the original carpet under one of the [pneumatic] stations,” says Tetley, “So, we went back to the [original carpet manufacturer] and they were able to meticulously recreate it.”
This also included the consoles.
One Small Step
Restoration work started on ten of them earlier this year, including the Surgeon and Capcom consoles when they were sent off to , the Cosmosphere’s restoration, conservation, and fabrication division in Hutchinson, Kansas.
The first order of business was identifying which parts were historically accurate to 1969. One example of components that were not original were the monitors. When first built in 1965, the consoles had era-appropriate cathode-ray tube monitors. But, by the time Spaceworks got them, those monitors no longer really worked.
“We were not able to use the original TV displays because of the age of the electronic equipment in them," says project manager and Cosomosphere’s VP of exhibits and technology Jack Garber. “They could probably be powered up, but not be reliable over any span of time.”
So, instead, they replicated them with newer LCD screens to ensure that they would actually work. Projected on screens, they’ll have the exact reproduction of data and images that were being shown during the lunar descent. Garber and Spaceworks also noticed a few other rarely seen tech quirks in the consoles, like how they projected smoothly displayed numbers by running backlit numbers through a series of lens.
In general, Garber said the consoles were dirty and well-used, but since they had been operated all the way up to the nineties, they were relatively well-maintained. Some components even still had their yearly inspection stickers on them.
“Each console has their own story to tell,” says Garber, “just like the controllers who sat behind them.”
The Eagle Has Landed
Back at Ellington Airport, men in their 70s and 80s, who had sat (or stood) at these consoles making sure their space-bound colleagues were safe despite being 250,000 miles from home, are reliving their Apollo days.
Engineer Bob Grilli is explaining how, in 1965, he was the one who had to climb underneath to wire all the consoles together. Retired flight director is spinning a rotary dial on the refurbished Surgeon console (despite everyone being told not to touch them). Spencer Gardner, Flight Activities Officer and who helped plan Apollo 11’s timeline, is peeking inside the cabinet of one of the consoles.
“It’s a lot of nostalgia,” says , who worked on Apollo 14 through 17 and, later, on the Space Shuttle Program, “I’m thinking about all the things that happened in [Mission Control] and what a great achievement it was for the U.S.”
was a flight director during Apollo 11’s lunar descent and Apollo 13’s most critical hours. “I’m impressed about how the consoles look. They’re beautiful,” Lunney told Seniorhelpline. “All the memories are coming back and I wasn’t prepared to feel that way.”
Lunney, who says he did a good deal of “prowling” behind his flight controller’s console, is credited by during the Apollo 13 crisis. He remembers the triumphs and the tense moments inside of Mission Control, but it’s the crew that really gets to him.
“Everything we did in [Mission Control], we did as a team,” says Lunney, “Everything.”
Former flight director Milton Windler says that the memory that really sticks with him is when at lunar sunrise on Christmas Eve 1968. He was standing at the flight director’s console and wasn’t expecting the dramatic reading. He said no one froze (after all, they had a space capsule to monitor), but all of Mission Control just sort of slowed down.
“It was like God was talking to us,” says Windler, “And he was.”
For those in Apollo 8—or all of those other brave souls who were floating in space hundreds of thousands of miles from planet Earth—it may have felt like it was actually those down below in Houston’s Mission Control who were playing the part of cosmic being. Their mission, as always, was to guide the astronauts safely home.