It has been estimated more than 500 million people across the world watched as Apollo 11 landed on the moon July 20, 1969. As Neil Armstrong climbed down Apollo 11’s ladder onto what he described as a fine powder on the moon’s surface, he famously said, “It’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Helping direct Armstrong and his co-astronauts (Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr. and Michael Collins) to the moon were the flight controllers of the Apollo Mission Control Center in Building 30 of NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston. At an average age of just 28, these young men—and a few women who worked on Apollo and were in the center to help—didn’t have time to celebrate their great feat of successfully landing astronauts on the moon. Instead, they feverishly worked to ensure the moon landing was safe and they could return Apollo 11 and its crew home. (In fact, then President Richard Nixon had prepared a speech in the event Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins could not be brought back to Earth.)
In September 2001, in an interview for JSC’s Oral History Project, Armstrong praised the “culmination of the work of 300,000 or 400,000 people over a decade” that made Apollo 11’s mission successful. He also noted, “We had great respect [for] the guys down there, the guys and gals in mission control.”
In an ultimate show of that respect for Apollo 11’s flight controllers, the Apollo Mission Control Center recently was accurately restored to the way it looked on July 20, 1969, from the ceiling tiles to the carpet, the controllers’ consoles, and even coffee cups and ashtrays. An extremely dedicated team of unique collaborators spent years researching and restoring the control center, making it historically accurate to the day of the first lunar landing, so visitors can experience the magnitude of that important day in history. You could say the restoration team took its mission as seriously as the flight controllers considered their mission to the moon.
FLIGHT CONTROLLERS TO THE RESCUE
Deemed a historic district, JSC has 81 buildings eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Building 30, which houses the Apollo Mission Control Center, is a National Historic Landmark. The room also served as the Flight Control Room for the Shuttle Program from 1981-92 until a new control room was built. At that time, JSC had an agreement with the Texas Historic Commission to leave the Apollo Mission Control Center in a state that it eventually could be restored for tours.
“Ours is actually the third attempt to restore it and, by that time, it was in real disrepair. It was dirty; it was just bad,” explains Sandra J. Tetley, JSC’s historic preservation officer. “Space Center Houston, which is our visitor center, had some random things on the screens, but it was basically dead. I wanted to at least have some sort of experience for visitors when they came in.”
In 2013, Tetley applied for a $5,000 grant with the National Park Service (NPS) via its Heritage Partnership Program to put together a moon landing experience for visitors. The NPS district director visited the site and was so shocked by the control center’s state of disrepair, he offered $20,000 to do a historic furnishings report, which is a very detailed report of minute details of what it would take to bring the room back to Apollo-era conditions.
Once the historic furnishings report was completed, NPS hosted a workshop about next steps. There were a lot of stakeholders in that meeting, including the JSC public affairs team; the JSC history office; mission operations sup- port; the flight operations office; and Ed Fendell, a flight controller from the Apollo 11 mission who was responsible for all data, voice and video communications. Each stakeholder had different ideas about what the restored control center should look like and who should be in charge of its restoration.
“I think a lot of people had in mind what
is at Kennedy Space Center,” explains Adam Graves, historic preservation lead for the Apollo Mission Control Center restoration via his company, GRAVitate LLC. “At Kennedy, you can sit in chairs that vibrate, so I think people wanted to create something more interactive with holograms and a big show, talking about the future.”
Meanwhile Tetley and Graves had a vision to restore the control center exactly as it was in the 1960s when it had its greatest historical significance and already was a VIP experience for the family members and guests who were allowed to watch the moon landing with the controllers from the adjacent viewing area.
PHOTOS: NASA Johnson Space Center