Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo
US theatrical: 14 Apr 2016
In his 1962 speech, President John F. Kennedy said: “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”
The Last Man on the Moon told the story of Apollo 17 astronaut Eugene Cernan who, in 1972, ten years on from Kennedy’s infamous 1962 speech, was the final man to leave humanity’s footprint upon that which a nation had dared to walk. While the documentary was crafted with a personal focus on Cernan himself, Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo adjusts the perspective to tell the behind the scenes story of the men of Mission Control.
In light of executive producer Keith Haviland’s words, there’s an irony in the delay in telling this story. “One of the great things about this particular moment is that NASA employed, I think it was four photographers and allowed a film camera into the Mission Control room at peak moments,” explains Haviland. “The record they left behind is based on an absolute commitment to transparency.” Regardless, the Mission Control story has finally been told, with the editor of 2014’s The Last Man on the Moon, David Fairhead, expanding his role to director on this latest project of producer Havilands.
Ahead of the World Premiere at SXSW, editor-director David Fairhead and executive producer Haviland discussed with PopMatters the personal and professional resonance of the project. They also reflected on how this chapter offers a portrait of society then to now, the religious and transformative experiences for those involved in the Apollo Space Programme, as well as retaining the humanity in this remarkable chapter of modern history.
From editing The Last Man on the Moon, what propelled you to take on the expanded role of editor-director and to go behind the scenes of the Mission Control story?
David Fairhead (DF): Well, as a film editor I’ve worked on a number of Apollo projects: In the Shadow of the Moon, Moon Machines and Neil Armstrong: First Man on the Moon for the BBC. So it’s very familiar territory to me. I worked on Last Man on the Moon with producer Gareth Dodds and executive producer Keith Haviland, and they were the ones that had the idea of making the Mission Control film. They invited me to direct it, and going from editing to directing is of course always a big step, but I said yes because it’s a step I wanted to take. So that was the propulsion really, and I just loved the Apollo story, and having a new way to tell the story from a different viewpoint was, of course, a wonderful opportunity.
Picking up on David’s reference to the project being yours and Gareth’s idea, what was the underlying motivation that compelled you to tell this story?
Keith Haviland (KH): I’ve always had a passion for space flight. I was a small kid when Apollo 11 landed and so that’s a very distinct and powerful part of my childhood, and for my generation, it was an extraordinary time to live through. I had a number of jobs in big technology companies before I got into filmmaking, and I think one of the things that’s very interesting about this story is that it’s a parable for anybody who works around space flight, business, or whatever, because this is really the tale of a big team doing remarkable things.
Some of the people in the Mission Control movie came from quite ordinary backgrounds—rural communities and not the biggest universities. But they came together in the ‘60s and did this absolutely extraordinary thing, and so it’s something that resonates with my history in terms of business, but also my passion for space flight.
For the younger generations, the Apollo missions are a part of history, the impressions of Apollo 13, for instance, are guided by Ron Howard’s 1995 film. Mission Control provides a more accurate depiction or a better sense of what this story was like for those involved. Would you agree that it serves the important purpose of countering the distortion that occurs through the prism of entertainment?
KH: It’s a good question and I think there are multiple parts to it. We are telling a history that is to some extent familiar, or it’s telling a history from a very different perspective, the perspective of the people on the ground who supported astronauts on their immensely dangerous missions. So that’s one aspect.
But by the nature of documentary, we had archives available and one of the great things about this particular moment is that NASA employed, I think it was four photographers and allowed a film camera into the Mission Control room at peak moments. The record they left behind is based on an absolute commitment to transparency and there are many moments that David crafted where one of our main characters is talking about an incident, and then the event comes up onscreen.
There’s one very moving moment for me, where Steve Bales, who dealt with the computer problems on the Apollo 11 descent, bear-hugged Chris Kraft. So he’s telling the story of the bear-hug and then it’s shown onscreen. The final thing I’ll add before handing over to David is this is a film of a generation past. There is, however, a lot of interest in science, technology and space flight from internet billionaires as well as governments, and I think the time is right to think about space and science in a new way for the new generation.
DF: Bearing in mind what you said, I also feel that for a younger generation this does fall within the realm of history. But history can inform us and especially something as inspirational as this idea of going to the Moon. When Kennedy said we’d send Man to the Moon and return him safely to earth, and we’d do it in a decade, that was an incredible mission statement. I think it is something that has very much been missing ever since from public life.
There are huge obstacles to be overcome for future generations, not just spaceflight, but climate change. If we could only have the resolve that they had to solve that problem. I know there was the military conflict of the Cold War and the space race was a spin off from that, but there’s plenty of other motivators as well for future generations, and the current generations. So I hope the film acts as a sort of primer for younger people to think: Wow, look at what they did back then with those laughable computing resources. Look at what they achieved. What can we achieve? That’s what I hope the film does for the younger generation.
Early in the film John Aaron, who was in Mission Control for the Apollo 12 and 13 missions, says: “I’d sit outside at night and I’d gaze at the moon. It never occurred to me that we could land people there. Now I still go out and I like gazing at the moon, but I don’t look at it the same way I did when I was growing up. It’s a different moon to me now.” This is a powerful moment and one of the many human moments that strike a chord, Aaron’s words reminding us that life is to be experienced—our present world different to the one of memory.
DF: Well, this was the joy of interviewing these guys. None of them claim, of course, to be anything special, they are very modest. As Keith said earlier, they don’t want to take credit for stuff. They revel in the fact that they were a part of this extraordinary team and look up at the moon and realise that it has changed because there are footprints on it. It’s the most extraordinarily profound moment, and for John Aaron to be part of it was something that I think he derived great satisfaction from. But he would never shout out from the rooftops, because he’s very modest like that, and that’s something they all share.
To be part of something as incredible and as significant to mankind must have been a wonderful thing. There’s a funny thing that has been going on for close on 30 years now, this whole denial that we landed on the moon—did it really happen? Well, I think those people are missing out on something extraordinarily fundamental about mankind, about this desire that we have to explore. It’s the most documented event in all of mankind’s history, and for the rest of us who know that it happened, we can only take pride in it.
KH: I can add something about the astronauts. We interviewed three astronauts as part of the film, as well as many people from Mission Control. I’m thinking of people like Jim Lovell and Gene Cernan, both of whom are interviewed in the film and were the first people to have the privilege to look at the whole Earth hanging in space. For the images we used, it’s about the planet as a whole, of the quality of the planet and the environmental impacts, and those images come from Apollo, they were photographed by some of the men in the film.
Jim Lovell has recently spoken about the fact that Earth is a kind of heaven and we should understand that and treat it with respect. Gene Cernan spoke about being on God’s front porch for three days looking back at the Earth, and so there was a religious dimension, especially for them. But I think that for all of us those images of the whole planet make us think of Earth as fragile and completely integrated, not as a collection of political borders. I think that’s part of the message that comes out of the Apollo era and through the people we spoke to in the film, a few had that experience.
The documentary frames the missions as a mix of success and failure that brings with it both joy and tragedy. Therein you capture the pulse of what it is to be human through the emotional responses of happiness and suffering. However, you don’t exploit this; rather you seemingly allow it to exist organically, using music to accompany the words and images.
KH: That’s good. We did really think about the balance between the technical story of the programme and the human story of the men and women who made that happen. So getting the balance right in a way that was subtle and implicit was part of our process. I think you’re right to view it as a human saga. It’s an epic tale of a group of people, at a peak of 400,000 humans involved with this space programme, expressing together a human aspiration, a national act of will to do this remarkable thing. So it’s very striking and we wanted to capture that humanity alongside the longer story.
DF: Yes it was, and you are always aware when you are editing and directing a film that you want it to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. It would have been very easy to have gone down a very technical route on this, because what the guys in Mission Control did was about the technical side. As Glynn Lunney said in the film, they were engineers; they weren’t good at that poetry stuff. There was a poetry, however, in their way of explaining the science, it had a lovely lyrical quality to it.
Part of piecing the story together is to take those different layers of the technical and the more thoughtful, the emotional, the lyrical, all of that stuff and then blend it all together into what is hopefully a satisfying storyline. Of course, that’s all part of the challenge of filmmaking: How do you that? How do you satisfy different audiences so that everyone comes away from the film thinking they could take something from it. That’s all part of the battle really; it’s part of the business and you have to be a part of it.
Filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process?
DF: You’re a lot more tired but yeah, every job, every film project changes you in a way. It’s not the equivalent of going to the Louvre, but you learn a technique and you learn about how people react to things. Basically, you hopefully refine your skills. Every job is a challenge and I go into every one, no matter how big or small, and ask myself the question: Can I do this? I think it’s quite an important thing to consider, because the day you stop asking yourself that question is the day you trip up.
You have to have a humility whenever you approach a new project and especially one like this, which you are working on for at least nine months, if not longer. You know there’s a mountain in front of you to climb, and of course, you hope that you’re going to get up to the top of that mountain and I guess come back down again [laughs]. That’s the trickiest bit actually, getting back down. I suppose the coming back down when you are making a film is how do you deal with the distribution. You can make the film, but it’s difficult getting it out there to an audience.
KH: This film was about meeting some wonderful people who had a big role in a very interesting period of history. I think that was an experience, a consummation through learning and talking with those people you’d admired from a distance for a long time. So for this particular project, for me personally, that was it, and connecting with a moment in history.