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You can feel the pull of contemporary sensitivities in Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo, when director David Fairhead sets up his lionization of Mission Control’s buzz-cut, mostly white pioneers with an intro by two of the young women who do their jobs today. It isn’t Fairhead’s fault that the NASA experts with a direct line to Buzz Aldrin et al were all dudes. Now, while a surprise Hollywood hit exposes the role of African-American “hidden figures” in the quest for space, Fairhead’s straight-arrow documentary ensures that the better-known participants get more time in the spotlight while they can still tell their own tales. Space buffs will appreciate it on small screens, but the doc is much too specialized to reach the broader audience courted by, say, From the Earth to the Moon.
Really, seeing these likable oldsters talk at length is just about the entire point of this picture, which isn’t nearly as good at guiding us through history or explaining technical minutiae as it is at relating to their well-earned sense of pride. It enjoys musing on what might have happened to them had their jobs not been invented by the Space Race: Two of them had considered careers in baseball, and at least one had frittered away his undergrad years on beer and girls. But when the USSR’s Sputnik lit a fire under the U.S. government, it seemed that just about anybody with an engineering degree could get a good job with NASA — suddenly, these men had a purpose.
But it took a disaster to ensure that they never took their role for granted. We hear how they witnessed the Apollo 1 fire in horror from their desks and were deeply shamed by the belief they hadn’t done their jobs well. “I think that we killed those three men. It was almost murder,” one says. After a soul-searching analysis of what went wrong, flight director Gene Kranz (immortalized by Ed Harris in Apollo 13) declared, “From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: ‘Tough’ and ‘Competent.'”
That seriousness endured, and the doc heats up slightly as it recounts how Apollo got back on track. Jim Lovell is one of the few astronauts to appear here, a good-humored hero sharing the spotlight with those he relied on. But Kranz and Chris Kraft, director of flight operations, are the stars — the latter, a dispenser of plainspoken truths like “These things may not seem complicated, but they were complicated as Hell back then.”
Apollo 11 predictably gets the biggest chunk of screen time, with an enjoyably tense story about how engineers thought the lunar lander would run out of fuel. Technical difficulties on mission 12 are not as easy for Fairhead to explain to the non-geeks in the audience.
Back in the present, we meet flight director Courtenay McMillan, who clearly respects the seriousness of her predecessors while retaining the excitement of a kid who grew up knowing this was a job people got to do. Whether the U.S. will ever care as much about exploring space as it once did is, of course, another matter.
Production company: Haviland Digital
Distributor: Gravitas Ventures
Director-editor: David Fairhead
Screenwriters: David Fairhead, Keith Haviland
Producers: Keith Haviland, Gareth Dodds
Director of photography: Ian Salvage
Composer: Chris Roe
Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Documentary Feature)