If you've studied your history, watched the Discovery Channel and seen movies like 1983's "The Right Stuff", 1995's "Apollo 13" or even "Space Camp" (1986), "Armageddon" (1998) or "Gravity" (2013), you may think you know about the U.S. space program. Those films are all excellent (as are many other similar movies), but they only tell part of the story. If you haven't seen a well-made documentary on the subject? you don't know NASA. 2017's "Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo" (NR, 1:41) fills in some of the gaps in our knowledge and increases our appreciation for the accomplishments of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (especially regarding the missions to the moon) and the men who got us there. What the terrific 2016 Best Picture Oscar nominee "Hidden Figures" did for black female NASA employees, this doc does for the pasty guys with crew cuts whom those ladies supported.
"Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo" starts by establishing its story's historical context. In 1957, the Soviet Union shocked the world by putting Sputnik, the first man-made satellite in human history, into orbit around the earth. The following year, President Eisenhower created NASA and both he and his successors, Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, refocused our attention on the space race, but it took about a decade for the U.S. to pass the U.S.S.R. Besides launching the earth's first artificial satellite, the Russians also put a man into space and then into orbit before their American Cold War rivals accomplished those feats. But by 1962, the U.S. had caught up with the Soviets and, encouraged by JFK's famous 1961 message to Congress, had set its sights on getting to the moon before the 60s had ended.
After the Project Mercury missions got American astronauts into space and Project Gemini increased the complexity and capabilities of American spacecraft, Project Apollo was created to fulfill President Kennedy's stated goal of "landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth". Only, it wouldn't be a "him"; it would be "them", several groups of "them", groups of three men who would risk their lives to get to the moon. And it would only happen after much blood, sweat and tears. NASA was creating a space program from scratch and inventing the necessary processes and procedures as they went along. But they still had doubts as to whether they could even achieve the President's objective.
The dangers inherent in a robust space program (and just how much work Apollo had to do) became painfully clear in 1967 when the three astronauts of Apollo 1 were killed in a cabin fire during a prelaunch test. After taking 20 months to re-evaluate every aspect of the Apollo program, progress resumed. As this documentary works its way through the Apollo missions, it pays special and increasing attention to those which made the most history, especially Apollo 8, Apollo 11 and Apollo 13. The Apollo story is told through a combination of interviews with several surviving members of NASA mission control during the Apollo years, a significant amount of archival footage and some modern animation.
"Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo" is a fascinating, well-balanced and entertaining documentary. It's always fun to learn something new and learning about the Apollo story through this film is about as much fun as such a thing gets. The interviews personalize the Apollo mission control experience and director David Fairhead and his team keep the clips short and the editing crisp. It's surprising how much archival footage exists to illustrate the history the film tells us and it's all well-placed throughout the movie. All this is supplemented by terrific computer animation which shows us some of the most important moments in Project Apollo like they've never before appeared in a single feature film. This documentary is so good, I was wishing it were longer than it is. "A-"