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Mission Control is back to its former glory: Apollo facility is restored 50 years after moon landing

Gone is the haze of cigarette, cigar and pipe smoke. Gone are the coffee, soda and pizza stains. With only a few exceptions, NASA’s Apollo-era Mission Control has been restored to the way it looked 50 years ago when two men landed on the moon.

It gets the stamp of approval from retired flight director Gene Kranz, a man for whom failure – or even a minor oversight – is never an option.

Seated at the console where he ruled over Apollo 11, Apollo 13 and so many other astronaut missions, Kranz pointed out that a phone was missing behind him. 

And he said the air vents used to be black from all the smoke, not sparkly clean like they are now.

Those couple of details aside, Kranz could close, then open his eyes, and transport himself back to July 20, 1969, and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s momentous moon landing.

 

Gene Kranz, aerospace engineer, fighter pilot, an Apollo-era flight director and later director of NASA flight operations, sits at the console where he worked during the Gemini and Apollo missions at the NASA Johnson Space Center Monday, June 17, 2019, in Houston

‘When I sit down here and I’m in the chair at the console … I hear these words, ‘Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed,” Kranz said during a sneak preview at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

With all the empty seats, the room reminds him of a shift change when flight controllers would hit the restroom.

‘It’s just nice to see the thing come alive again,’ said Kranz, who titled his autobiography, ‘Failure is Not an Option.’

Friday’s grand opening – just three weeks shy of the 50th anniversary of humanity’s first otherworldly footsteps – culminates years of work and millions in donations. It opens to the public Monday.

Meticulously recreated down to the tan carpeting, gray-green wallpaper, white ceiling panels, woven-cushioned seats, amber glass ashtrays and retro coffee cups, Project Apollo’s Mission Operations Control Room never looked – or smelled – so good.

The goal was ‘to capture the look and feel of July of ’69,’ said NASA’s restoration project manager Jim Thornton.

The console for Booster Systems Engineer, the first position on the first row known as 'The Trench,' has an overview of the Display and Projection screens as workers continue restoring the Apollo mission control room

The console for Booster Systems Engineer, the first position on the first row known as ‘The Trench,’ has an overview of the Display and Projection screens as workers continue restoring the Apollo mission control room 

This July 20, 1969 photo made available by NASA shows the Mission Operations Control Room (MOCR) in the Mission Control Center (MCC), Building 30, during the Apollo 11 lunar extravehicular activity (EVA)

This July 20, 1969 photo made available by NASA shows the Mission Operations Control Room (MOCR) in the Mission Control Center (MCC), Building 30, during the Apollo 11 lunar extravehicular activity (EVA)

‘The place is designated a National Historic Landmark,’ he said. ‘It’s not for the brick and mortar of the building, it’s for the amazing feats that happened inside of the building.’

Johnson’s historic preservation officer, Sandra Tetley, strove for accuracy. Her quest began in 2013, after the room had fallen into neglect. It was last used for space shuttle flights in the 1990s, then abandoned and opened to tourists.

The restoration effort finally got traction in 2017. The room was closed, and construction began. More than $5 million was raised, most of it donations. The city of Webster across the street kicked in $3.5 million.

Tetley and her team interviewed flight controllers and directors now in their 70s and 80s. 

They pored through old pictures and brought in specialists in paint, wallpaper, carpeting, electricity and upholstery. 

Original swatches of carpet and wallpaper and an original ceiling tile turned up.

A wall screen shows a lunar map and the simulated position of the Command Module, in red, as it would orbit the moon inside the mission control room

A wall screen shows a lunar map and the simulated position of the Command Module, in red, as it would orbit the moon inside the mission control room

A rotary dial and other controls are shown on the console for the Instrumentation and Communications Officer, the 11th position on the third row

A rotary dial and other controls are shown on the console for the Instrumentation and Communications Officer, the 11th position on the third row

A screen displays simulated telemetry data on the the console for the Booster Systems Engineer, the first position on the first row known as 'The Trench'

A screen displays simulated telemetry data on the the console for the Booster Systems Engineer, the first position on the first row known as ‘The Trench’

Intent on authenticity, they scoured eBay and vintage shops for ashtrays and cups and turned to 3D-laser printing to recreate lids for the back-of-the-seat ashtrays in the glassed-in visitors’ section overlooking the control room. 

Old binders for reams of paper were collected. Seat cushions were handwoven. Ceiling tiles were hand stamped.

Carpeting was custom ordered with special tufting and extra yarn, then cut into 28-inch squares. The restoration team wanted a lived-in look for the carpet and chose a shade reflecting years of nicotine discoloring.

And yes, Kranz got his missing rotary-dial wall phone.

‘I fought for everything,’ Tetley said. ‘But we’re getting everything we want to make it just completely historically accurate.’

The green consoles were trucked to the Cosmosphere museum in Hutchinson, Kansas, for months of rehab. Cigarette butts were dug out of the consoles, along with gum wrappers and papers.

In this July 24, 1969 photo made available by NASA, flight controllers at the Mission Operations Control Room in the Mission Control Center at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, celebrate the successful conclusion of the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission

In this July 24, 1969 photo made available by NASA, flight controllers at the Mission Operations Control Room in the Mission Control Center at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, celebrate the successful conclusion of the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission

WHAT WAS THE APOLLO PROGRAM?

NASA photo taken on July 16, 1969 shows the huge, 363-foot tall Apollo 11 Spacecraft 107/Lunar Module S/Saturn 506) space vehicle launched from Pad A, Launch Complex 39. Kennedy Space Center (KSC), at 9:32 a.m. (EDT).

NASA photo taken on July 16, 1969 shows the huge, 363-foot tall Apollo 11 Spacecraft 107/Lunar Module S/Saturn 506) space vehicle launched from Pad A, Launch Complex 39. Kennedy Space Center (KSC), at 9:32 a.m. (EDT).

Apollo was the NASA programme that launched in 1961 and got man on the moon.

The first four flights tested the equipment for the Apollo Program and six of the other seven flights managed to land on the moon.

The first manned mission to the moon was Apollo 8 which circled around it on Christmas Eve in 1968 but did not land.

The crew of Apollo 9 spent ten days orbiting Earth and completed the first manned flight of the lunar module – the section of the Apollo rocket that would later land Neil Armstrong on the Moon.  

The Apollo 11 mission was the first on to land on the moon on 20 July 1969.

The capsule landed on the Sea of Tranquillity, carrying mission commander Neil Armstrong and pilot Buzz Aldrin.

Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the lunar surface while Michael Collins remained in orbit around the moon. 

When Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon, he said, ‘That’s one small step for (a) man; one giant leap for mankind.’

Apollo 12 landed later that year on 19 November on the Ocean of Storms, writes NASA.  

Apollo 13 was to be the third mission to land on the moon, but just under 56 hours into flight, an oxygen tank explosion forced the crew to cancel the lunar landing and move into the Aquarius lunar module to return back to Earth.  

Apollo 15 was the ninth manned lunar mission in the Apollo space program, and considered at the time the most successful manned space flight up to that moment because of its long duration and greater emphasis on scientific exploration than had been possible on previous missions. 

The last Apollo moon landing happened in 1972 after a total of 12 astronauts had touched down on the lunar surface.

Astronaut Edwin 'Buzz' Aldrin unpacking experiments from the Lunar Module on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission. Photographed by Neil Armstrong, 20 July 1969

Astronaut Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin unpacking experiments from the Lunar Module on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission. Photographed by Neil Armstrong, 20 July 1969

Modern LED lights and flat screens were installed to bring the consoles alive with images and flashing buttons; big screens up front will show key footage from the Apollo 11 mission.

Buttons are lit on a console for the Booster Systems Engineer, the first position on the first row known as 'The Trench'

Buttons are lit on a console for the Booster Systems Engineer, the first position on the first row known as ‘The Trench’

‘We’re using technology to make it look old, basically,’ Tetley explained. LEDs also replaced the original overhead fluorescent lights that had faded the mission medallions on the walls.

With the International Space Station’s Mission Control running 24/7 one floor down and work for future moonshots going on all around, Thornton said it was challenging to create a museum. 

But the painstaking work paid off. Some Apollo flight controllers were so moved at seeing the restored room that they teared up.

‘Then we know that we’ve done it right,’ Tetley said.

There’s one artifact, though, that doesn’t fit July 1969. Following their 1970 aborted moon-landing mission, Apollo 13’s Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert presented a mirror from their spacecraft to Kranz and the rest of the control team. 

Ever since, the mirror had hung on a plaque above the room’s water fountain ‘to ‘reflect the image’ of the people in Mission Control who got us back!’ Removed during the restoration, it’s now back in its original spot.

Kranz, 85, still looms large in the hot seat, where he oversaw the Eagle’s landing.

‘It was just absolutely our day, our time, our place,’ he said.

The flight controllers meet every year to celebrate the day, although their numbers are dwindling.

They’re proud to have helped resuscitate their Mission Control: ‘Part of our legacy we’re going to leave for the next generation.’

Historic Preservation Officer Sandra Tetley, left, talks with Delaney Harris-Finch, center, with Stern and Bucek Architects and Sonya Yungeberg, right, president of Ayuda Companies, as they discuss details inside the mission control room being restored

Historic Preservation Officer Sandra Tetley, left, talks with Delaney Harris-Finch, center, with Stern and Bucek Architects and Sonya Yungeberg, right, president of Ayuda Companies, as they discuss details inside the mission control room being restored

Work continues inside the mission control room being restored to replicate the Apollo mission era for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing at the NASA Johnson Space Center Monday, June 17, 2019, in Houston

Work continues inside the mission control room being restored to replicate the Apollo mission era for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing at the NASA Johnson Space Center Monday, June 17, 2019, in Houston

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