Every time an Apollo astronaut said the word Houston, they were referring not just to a city, but a specific room in that city: Mission Control. In that room on July 20, 1969, NASA engineers answered radio calls from the surface of the moon. Sitting in front of rows of green consoles, cigarettes in hand, they guided humans safely back to earth, channeling the efforts of the thousands and thousands of people who worked on the program through one room.
But until recently, that room was kind of a mess. After hosting Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, and Shuttle missions through 1992, the room hosted retirement parties, movie screenings, and the crumbs that came with them.
Spurred by the deadline of the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 in 2019, the room was carefully restored with a new visitor experience. The restoration project focused on accurately portraying how the area looked at key moments during that mission, right down to the ashtrays and soda cans. In this episode, Sandra Tetley, Historic Preservation Officer at the Johnson Space Center, describes the process of restoring “one of the most significant places on earth.”
Topics and Links
- 00:00 Intro
- 00:14 Apollo Mission Control Center
- 00:49 Sandra Tetley
- 02:00 “History Keeps Going”
- 02:35 Becoming a National Historic Landmark
- 04:00 Starting the Restoration
- 04:40 Gene Kranz Steps In
- 05:15 Mission Control Visitor’s Galley
- 06:30 The Visitor Experience
- 08:10 The Drama of the Room
- 09:37 Independence Hall
- 10:10 Coffee Cups and Cigarettes
- 11:15 Apollo Flight Controllers Get to Celebrate
- 13:04 Archipelago At the Movies 🎟️: Lisa the Iconoclast
- 13:50 Outro/Join Club Archipelago
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TranscriptBelow is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 74. Museum Archipelago is produced for the ear, and only the audio of the episode is canonical. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, refer to the links above.
Every time an Apollo astronaut said the word Houston, they were referring not just to a city, but a specific room in that city -- mission control.
In that room, NASA engineers -- average age: 26 -- answered radio calls from the darkness of space. Sitting in front rows of green consoles, cigarettes and cigars in hand, they guided humans to the moon and back, channeling the efforts of the half a million people who worked on the program through one room.
Sandra Tetley: I realized the value of this room to American history and to the world history. It's one of the most significant sites on earth.
But up until a few years ago, that room was kind of a mess.
Sandra Tetley: It was open to anyone who could get into the building. You could actually go into that room, you could sit in the chairs, you could dial the phones, press the buttons. They would have the co-ops come in their first day and they could have coffee and breakfast at the consoles. The Department of Defense used to have their retirement celebrations in there. It was looking pretty ragged when we first started restoring it.
This is Sandra Tetley, historic preservation officer at the Johnson Space Center.
Sandra Tetley: Hi, my name is Sandra Tetley. I am the historic preservation officer and real property officer at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
Tetley and her team at the Johnson Space Center or JSC just compleated a restoration of the Apollo Mission Control Center, also known as MOCR-2 or -- because space programs are built on acronyms -- simply, “moker.”
Putting aside the room being used for retirement parties and breakfasts, the real challenge of the restoration was simply the fact that history keeps going. MOCR-2 served as mission control before and after the Apollo missions to the moon.
Sandra Tetley: So it started out with Gemini. It flew all the manned Apollo missions. Then it did the Apollo Soyuz test project, Skylab and then began into Shuttle. And we actually lost the Shuttle Challenger out of this same room.
So if the goal is to restore the room, how do you know which is the most significant mission? How do you know which era to restore it to?
Well, in this case, it’s clearly Apollo. Sometimes history is messy as its layers overlap, but here it’s pretty clear.
And this is a widely held-view. In 1985, the room became a National Historic Landmark or NHL, specifically because of its role in Apollo.
Sandra Tetley: The building is a National Historic Landmark based on the man in space survey, which was a survey done of all the NASA centers. When the building was designated that they have a series of performance, which was from Apollo 11 and then through Apollo 17, which is when man landed on the moon. Of course except for 13. But that was the period of significance of the room, meaning that in this designation of an NHL, this is what the big focus would have been about.
By 1992, the room was no longer being used for any missions and this gave way to the era of retirement parties and breakfasts.
Sandra Tetley: That's where the Texas historic commission stepped in. And they really fought to keep that room from being completely gutted and modernized. You know, we were in the throws of Shuttle and Space Station and so we did not have the budget or you know, really the interest to do an actual restoration of that room.
And because it was a National Historic Landmark, and what happened is the Texas state historic commission made an agreement with NASA and with JSC to leave that room alone. To basically preserve it or restore it for posterity because that is where we landed men on the moon.
The restoration really got underway around 2014 when Tetley started applying for grants with the national park service. The interest was there, but it wasn’t obvious what the next steps were.
Sandra Tetley: We began to try to get buy-in and support to do the restoration. And there was a lot of consternation because that room is so visible and it is so important. Various organizations on site wanted to control it and they wanted to control the restoration. So there was a big battle on who would do that and how it would work and how it would go.
Tetley pushed for a restoration rather than a simple renovation. Gene Kranz, who served as chief Flight Director of the Apollo missions, decided to leverage the upcoming 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 to get it done right.
Sandra Tetley: Only after Mr Kranz wrote what I call his nuclear letter and got the, an article in the newspaper, Houston Chronicle, and he wrote the Park Service, the advisory council, both our senators, the NASA Administrator. I mean, everyone got a letter saying it is time to restore this room. You're running out of time. It needs to be ready for the 50th anniversary. And that finally got everybody kind of on, you know, off dead center to get going.
That’s when the restoration really started to take shape. During the missions, the room featured a visitors gallery behind it. The idea was that media and family could watch what was going on without disturbing the engineers on the floor. Since they were making life-and-death decisions, the engineers couldn’t be interrupted. Today, that same visitors gallery serves the same purpose -- to keep visitors off the floor.
Sandra Tetley: One of our biggest battles that we had, was to begin to lock it down and prevent people who go into the consoles and going into the room. And that continues to be our biggest battle is to keep a limited number of people off the floor of the MOCR.
This is not a unique problem to human heritage on earth. And once we create a museum at the Apollo 11 landing site on the moon, it won't be a unique problem to human heritage off of the earth either. There’s only so many people can visit the cave before the cave paintings are ruined.
Sandra Tetley: Now that it's restored, the best vantage point is from the viewing room because all the consoles are lit up and there's furnishings and documents and so forth all over the console. That’s the best view because noone goes into the console room at all except for the retired flight controllers.
The restored room looks exactly like it did in 1969. As visitors enter the gallery above, t he room comes alive in a 14 minute experience that portrays five different parts of of the Apollo 11 mission with historical accuracy: the descent and landing, the first step, the reading of the plaque on the lunar module, President Nixon calling the astronauts, and finally, the recovery after splashdown. The lights on the consoles, the projected graphs and maps, the buttons, and even the clocks change to display how they would have at those moments.
Sandra Tetley: Space Center Houston, who's our visitor experience, wanted more of a Disney-esque type experience. Where you heard the, the chatter about the main landing, but that you saw it at a computer generated imagery on the screen of the moon, of the, the LM landing on the moon. What a restoration is that you try to make it be historically accurate. And that wasn't historical accurate. They never had any film or any imagery of them landing on the moon until they returned. So the only thing that was showing on the screen was data, whatever was showing from a console, they would project up there. They showed the map where they were expected to land. The lunar map and information like that, that they were making these decisions. So we have to go through all of the film that was ever filmed in mission control. We had to go through all that and then we had to recreate every single thing that was on all five of the summery display screens and all the clocks and then sync it all up to the actual audio.
What I like about this approach is that it lets the drama of the historical events play out because there is a lot of drama in the room itself. Having all the real-time information come through maps and numbers and the astronauts own voices -- particularly as a decision-maker -- is an incredibly intense experience on its own.
Sandra Tetley: We wanted people to really understand what the flight controllers were doing and what decisions they were having to make. You hear backroom loops of people saying, we've got, you know, another 1201 alarm. No, keep going, keep going. You know, and you've got the, you're hearing these decisions and you can feel the stress, and what they're having to do. And then even when they land, you continue to hear, okay, we've got a stay and no stay, you know, and then they begin to make that. And so it's very intense.
And that is what we want to portray to people. We want them to understand that these men whose average age was 26 years old, we're having to make these, these real time decisions based on these numbers. And if you look at the screens on the consoles are crazy. I don't know how anyone can make heads or tails out of them and they're having to sit there and make these decisions for these men's lives. And you know, what will happen and what do I do and how do I do this? And, and they, you know, they did it. And that's what we really want people to, to get in there and just go, Oh my gosh, this is so cool. This is great. And I think it really comes across very well.
When you visit Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where the U.S. Declaration of Independence was signed, you see that the desks in the Assembly Room are staged with quill pens and spare parchment as if the signers just had to step out for a moment. The restorers did the same thing here, but instead of quill pens, the studied the binders, cigarettes, ashtrays, bottles of coke, the engineers Han in hand from old film and video.
Sandra Tetley: When you go into to and view the MOCR, everything there is place for a reason, based on films and still photography. And we placed them all there during the mission for the flight controllers. And it is a little bit of a blend of flight controllers. For example, one may drink coffee and we'd have this coffee cup that we may have the RC Cola can there as well. So we didn't try to just isolate it to one particular, there were different shifts during that time. And there was also lots of people in the room. It wasn't just the one flight control. I mean there was four or five people around each flight controller. So there was stuff everywhere. We have briefcases, we have sports coats that were their jackets and, and sack lunches that they brought in and ashtrays. We realized that we didn’t quite get it without ashtrays. Our cigarettes are ashtrays or are full of cigarettes and, and if anything about the ashtray we have, they have those big amber ashtrays because they're cigar ashtray. And the reason why they got the big cigar ass tradings cause they smoke so much that they would fill up the smaller ashtrays too fast.
The restoration opened on July 20th, 2019, exactly 50 years after the room guided humans to the lunar surface for the first time. In attendance were Gene Kranz and other flight controllers and engineers. This time, though, they didn’t have life-or-death decisions to make. They could simply enjoy the room.
Sandra Tetley: So on the 50th anniversary, the flight controller said, we really want to have that list to ourselves. We don't want a big crowd. We'd like to take our wives in there too because I very rarely I will to the family and their wives on the floor during missions. And that never happened during missions. One of the things the flight controllers said is that when they landed man on the moon, we did not set to celebrate. So the 50th anniversary came around, stay really celebrated. And we had them all come in and we showed them all the visceral experience because a lot of them, that was the first time they've seen it. And then we brought them on the floor and all of them could just go and look at all the consoles and you know, they told us, they told us so much, no it didn't look like this, you know, is this look like this? And Oh my gosh, how did you find my coffee cup? That's just wild, you know, a lot of comradery and then we took their pictures. So we took each flight team pictures at their console. So we have these really great photographs. A lot of them were very emotional and, and, uh, you know, just sort of were able to really relive it and realize what they've done at this point. And so that was very special. That kind of topped it all off.
This has been Museum Archipelago.
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