Monday 17 April 2017


Neil Armstrong may have been the first man on the Moon, but it goes without saying that he didn't get there by himself. Now in cinemas and on VOD, Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo looks at the efforts of the team that helped define the space program through the Apollo missions.

When Kennedy set the challenge of exploring space and putting a man on the Moon before the end of the 60s, the Apollo program was born. Based in Houston Texas, Mission Control consisted of 17 men with an average age of 30, charged with monitoring each flight and its diagnostics. These engineers and flight controllers were faced with achieving something that had never been done before; finding a way to safely get a man to the moon and back again, and perhaps politically most important; beating their opponents to it.

With Hidden Figures also hitting cinema screens this year, perhaps 50 years on it's a good time to reaffirm what an amazing feat the people of NASA were able to achieve. Unlike Hidden Figures, this documentary does not tell an important story of race or gender, but has more than its fair share of triumph over adversity, although in comparing the two as pieces of cinema this does come off the worst. Never mind In The Shadow of the Moon, try existing in the shadow of Hidden Figures. The tale of Katherine Johnson and the Project Mercury flights (the flights are briefly covered here) is a hard act to follow, and it's hard not to notice that the not as insidiously hidden figures here are predominantly white men in short sleeved white shirts with buzz cuts. They're all Kevin Costner's.

However, as crowd-pleasing a film Hidden Figures was, that should not diminish the inspiring story of the Apollo missions, the achievements they made and tragedies this team had to face. After a tragic fire on Apollo 1 took the lives of three astronauts, one member of the team looks back and says "I think we killed those three men. It's almost murder". For a team who are supposed to be scientists and mathematicians taking a bold step into the unknown, that's some heavy guilt to deal with.

By using modern day interviews with an encouragingly large number of the team involved, this documentary follows the risks and planning of each Apollo mission from 1 to 13 (the dramatic conclusion of Apollo 13 serving as this films best example of the team at work), using the large amount of archive footage available to tell the story. Maths and looking at monitors isn't the most cinematic of things, but this doc does a fine job of recreating the tension that came along with such events by using a wealth of footage from within mission control, as well as the exhilarating images of the launch pad. Less effective are the shots recreated with CGI, as having been thoroughly convinced of the scale of their achievements via the interviews, there is really no need to fake the moon landings.

Due to the number of contributors there's no one central figure to focus on, something that helped make the Gene Cernan (who is one of the talking heads here) documentary The Last Man on the Moon such a joy. But there are a great array of characters in Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo that speak of their passion for discovery and help make this an interesting and inspiring story.


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