Film Review – Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo, Inside the Race to the Moon

Photograph courtesy of Gravitas Ventures Directed and edited by veteran British documentary editor David Fairhead, this exceedingly thorough, educational, and often quite nerve wracking documentary about NASA’s Houston-based Mission Control goes into a great deal of detail concerning the earliest days of the group that put the first men on the moon and became popularized in such feature films as Apollo 13. Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo traces the creation of the U.S. space program, which was kicked into overdrive when the USSR launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957, and a few years later, President Kennedy promised American would have a man on the moon before the end of the 1960s. Through interviews with former Mission Control engineers and a few astronauts from the Apollo missions (including Jim Lovell and the late Gene Cernan), the film does a great job reminding us that there was no blueprint for putting together a group of people in change of these space missions that began with Mercury and Gemini, before the Apollo landings. So the Houston team had to work to piece together a team, and the stories of NASA hiring pretty much any engineer that walked through the doors are quite funny. Mission Control also uses archival audio recordings made during the missions to great effect, especially during the disastrous Apollo 1 fire that resulted in the three-man crew dying on the launch pad, and the near-disaster that was Apollo 13. Director Fairhead also uses a few key special effects to give a sense of what was going on at certain points in many of the individual missions. Inspired a great deal by the book “Go, Flight!: The Unsung Heroes of Mission Control, 1965–1992” by Rick Houston (one of the film’s producers), Mission Control is far from a warts-free account of the NASA’s history. There’s a fair amount of discussion of the struggles of the program getting off the ground and recovering from the Apollo 1 incident. There are five or six former mission control personnel interviewed for the film, and it’s clear just how dedicated they were to their work but also susceptible to the grind of the job, although never to the detriment of a mission. Each one becomes a unique and distinct character in this story, and keeps the material from getting too technical or dry. Ultimately, these stories serve as an inspiration to current members of Mission Control (a few of whom are also interviewed), which went on to oversee Space Shuttle missions, Skylab's launch, and so much more. If nothing else, Mission Control reminds us of a time when space travel wasn’t taken for granted, and those in the air and on the ground were considered not just heroes, but miracle workers. The film opens today for a weeklong engagement at Facets Cinémathèque. You can also rent it digitally on Amazon and several major streaming platforms.
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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.