Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes Of Apollo, review

When you think of NASA, the images that come to mind include hurtling into outer space, the moon landing and countless launches from Houston. Images of several men in a large room full of computers and a lot of data isn’t quite what you’d think of as an American hero. It’s this perception that director David Fairhead is looking to change, he knows that it’s those you don’t see behind the scenes who deserve to reap the benefits of these extraordinary achievements. Fairhead is telling the story of the men who stay on the ground, all having a huge part to play before, during and after each Apollo mission.

The film goes through, in chronological order, the events of several Apollo missions, culminating with Apollo 13, the infamous mission which was later made into a film by Ron Howard. What is shown are clips from what can be called “behind the scenes” which is within the control room. The men who were in constant contact with the astronauts to ensure their safety was never compromised and that they could solve all problems by keeping in touch. During a certain section, we see how the errors during a mission helped those on the ground to create even safer protocols and procedures for the future. It shows the pressure that they were under to ensure these astronauts made it home safe.

The movie also explores the space race between America and the Russian’s Sputnik. The two countries were trying to be the first to get into space, which ultimately ends with the Russians winning. It’s a factor which plays into the film’s narrative in a way that almost makes you sympathise for the Americans who clearly made a valiant attempt at being first. It’s this which spurs them on to land on the moon, an achievement which has defined the Apollo missions.

Fairhead has created a documentary which shows the way things were and how those are still relevant today. The level of detail he has gone into from the old footage, to the interviews and the actually Apollo missions is astounding and fascinating. The handling of it’s complicated details isn’t dumbed down, however it’s presented in a way that makes you understand the enormity of each mission and all that needs to be achieved before they’ve even launched. He has shown that you can be a hero whether you’re up in the air or down on the ground.

You can see what David Fairhead had to say in my interview with him here.

4 out of 5.

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Industry Interview: David Fairhead

David Fairhead has created an incredible film about the unsung heroes of the Apollo missions. Those behind the scenes whose stories have never been told before are featured in Fairhead’s documentary, Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo. Here’s what he had to say about directing his first ever feature length documentary.

Where did you come up with the idea to cover such a fascinating subject?

It came originally from Rick Houston, the author of ‘Go Flight – The Unsung Heroes of Mission Control’. He was in contact with Keith Haviland and Gareth Dodds (who I had worked with on Last Man on the Moon) and that’s how the project came about.

Were you interested in NASA and space flight from an early age?

Yes I was! I was aged 6 when Neil and Buzz walked on the Moon, and I remember vividly watching it on TV in Hong Kong, where we lived at the time.

Was it a difficult process to obtain the old NASA recordings including both video and audio?

Yes and no! As Film Editor I have worked on a lot of films and TV programmes about the Apollo missions, and have access to a lot of this material through those productions. I also have good contacts with the people who run the Apollo Flight Journal, and was able to get hold of a lot of the audio through them (although it’s also on Archive.org). However, budget cuts at NASA have meant that the film material not as easy to get hold of as it once was.

Did you ever want to expand on just one of the missions instead of using several missions for the film?

No, because to get a real sense of the way the team operated we needed to show how they dealt with a number of different scenarios. However, when we were editing the film, the first cut of just the Apollo 13 sequence was well over an hour, so it was tempting to think the film could just have been about that!

Whilst this is a story of unsung heroes, did you ever want to include an interview with Buzz Aldrin? I noticed he was mentioned at one point

In the nicest possible way, I think it’s impossible to describe Buzz as an unsung hero! No, he was never on our list of people we wanted to talk to, and in fact we hadn’t originally intended to speak to any astronauts, as we wanted the flight controllers to take centre stage. However, we had the opportunity to talk to Gene Cernan, and his comments about mission control were so good we decided that perhaps we should include a couple more (Jim Lovell and Charlie Duke) whose recollections would help flesh out the story.

This is a story of American bravery however footage from the Russian Sputnik was used, do you feel this added weight to the story you were telling?

The rivalry with the Soviet Union is what ultimately led to the Moon landings, and their part in the story can’t be ignored. When Sputnik was launched it really shocked the Western world – the US in particular – and acted as the catalyst for the space programme. So we included it in the film not to add weight, but instead to show what prompted JFK to issue the challenge to America ‘to land a man on the Moon and return him safely to Earth’.

Did you ever feel you needed to interview those from Russia in addition to those at NASA?

It would have been fascinating to go to Russia and talk to their controllers, and at one stage we did consider having a much bigger role for the Apollo-Soyuz mission. However, there’s only so much that can be included in a film, and the costs of taking a film crew out to Russia would have been too great! Next time perhaps!

Were there any other stories you found whilst working on this documentary?

There were many, many stories that the controllers shared with us – about what inspired them, about the early days at NASA, about the training etc etc. It was all fascinating, but once again the constraints on length and time meant that not all of it could end up in the film – it would have been about 12 hours long!

This being your first feature length documentary, did you learn anything about the process?

It’s my first ‘feature doc’ as Director, but not the first I’ve worked on. I’ve been a Film Editor for over 30 years, and I’ve cut numerous films – many of them about the Space Programme. It’s always a challenge to tell a story without using commentary, and so when we were filming the interviews, I knew I had to get enough material to help construct the narrative. So what was really great about being director was that I actually got to meet all the contributors and ask them the questions we needed. So that was something I’d never previously been able to do – and I really enjoyed the process.

Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo is available on demand from the 14th April from iTunes.

Check out my review of Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo here.

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