Last month, the Johnson Space Center in Houston unveiled a fully restored historic Apollo Mission Control Room, returned to its original 1969 condition and open to the public just in time for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
Five years ago, I had the extraordinary privilege to write the historic furnishings plan for the restoration through a contract with the Public Lands History Center at Colorado State University. After I finished my report, I had little contact with the ongoing progress, so when my family and I were invited to attend the ribbon-cutting celebration June 27 and we witnessed the new “visitor experience” for the first time, the transformation felt magical.
Most people know this room well from television coverage, photographs, Hollywood films and documentaries. Those images show the young flight controllers hunched over their consoles wearing headsets and furrowed brows, cigarettes and coffee always at hand, or standing in groups with exultant, relieved faces, waving flags and patting each other on the back as the astronauts return safely to Earth. It’s such a well-documented place, some might even wonder why it was necessary to preserve and restore the real thing.
After all, as Johnson Space Center Director Mark Geyer noted at the ribbon-cutting, this particular historic site is nothing like an out-of-the-way birthplace of an obscure president at the end of a state highway. The Apollo Mission Control Room sits in the middle of an active NASA control center where flight controllers are busy with the International Space Station and the new Orion spacecraft. As always, NASA is laser-focused on the future, which now includes the goal of getting back to the moon by 2024.
With many competing priorities, the Apollo control room was considered endangered just a few years ago. Its restoration involved significant fundraising, heroic perseverance from the former flight controllers and the Center’s Historic Preservation Officer, Sandra Tetley, and the expertise of many specialists, led by Ayuda Companies of Denver.
Before the restoration, the control room area was poorly maintained and unprotected. On one visit during a research sojourn, a group of us watched in shock from the viewing room as a group of NASA interns wandered in, plopped down in the swivel chairs, and ate their lunch at the consoles. Former Flight Director Gene Kranz, who served on Apollo 11, Apollo 13, and many other NASA missions, recalls how he would arrive early for his VIP tours to clean up the room before taking people in. Casual passersby scavenged console buttons and other souvenirs. Kranz felt this simply was not right, and his resulting passion created critical momentum.
A very small number of people other than Kranz can claim such a personal relationship to the control room, although for each controller there were many support people working behind the scenes in other rooms and other cities. At a restoration planning workshop in 2014, I listened to another flight controller, Ed Fendell, explain how they consider the room to be their personal memorial.
Fendell and the other workshop participants helped me understand something I hadn’t before — the room would need to be correct enough to please a detail-oriented taskmaster like Kranz, but it would also need personal objects and a certain amount of disarray to convey the human presence of the flight controllers, the emotional toll the project had on them and their young families, and the feeling of the locked-down, high-pressure environment in which they operated.
Until then, I had been focused on nailing down the details about the console technology and configurations, projection screens, pneumatic tubes, wall covering, floor covering, and lighting. I pored over dusty technical manuals and diagrams and looked at every available historic photo to get things right.
Before I started working on the project, I possessed only minimal knowledge about the inner workings of the control room and its mysteries. I was only 11 months old when we landed on the moon. But I did know well the familiar, personal objects and the power they had to carry visitors back in time. The amber glass ashtrays, cigarette packs and Zippo lighters, ceramic coffee mugs and wide-lapel blazers are the artifacts of my parents’ generation, and it’s those things scattered throughout the restored control room that provide the grace notes and bring it back to life.
While we milled about celebrating the achievement of the restoration, I got the sense that the folks who turned the furnishings plan into reality considered it the greatest challenge of their careers. I have such respect for their skills and their commitment to getting it right. I know I’ll never get another chance to contribute to the preservation of something so historically significant and I’ll forever remember the day I shook Kranz’s hand. A few minutes later he said just what I hoped to hear as he prepared the audience to enter the control room for the ribbon-cutting: “This room that you’re going to walk into is OUR mission control.”
Historic preservationists often find ourselves trying to explain why this kind of authenticity matters. Why save the real thing when we can just look at the photos, read the history books, and visit the museum exhibits? But the feeling of being in a well-preserved historic place sets off the imagination. I’m not ashamed to say that tears flowed when we stood in the restored viewing room, looking down into the control room as the consoles screens lit up again and the sounds of the flight controllers and astronauts talking to each other over their primitive communication loops carried us all back in time. I felt I understood what it was like to be there in those significant moments in July 1969.
There is a lot of patriotic nostalgia flowing as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, but the truth is that the people of our country never had consensus about the Apollo program, despite the moment of collective awe around the globe on July 20, 1969. No matter what you thought about the space program then or now, if you visit this National Historic Landmark I promise you will learn something you can’t from looking at a photo, and understand what happened there in a new way. Preserved historic places connect us viscerally to the lessons of our past — particularly to those turning-point moments like the moon landing, when our view of our place in the universe was never the same again.
Maren Thompson Bzdek is the senior historic preservation planner for the city of Fort Collins.