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NASA’s restored Apollo Mission Control is a slice of ’60s life, frozen in amber


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NASA’s restored Apollo Mission Control is a slice of ’60s life, frozen in amber

It took two years and cost $5 million—but the results are absolutely spectacular.



HOUSTON—Following the completion of a multi-year, multi-million-dollar restoration, NASA's historic Apollo Mission Operations Control Room 2 ("MOCR 2") is set to reopen to the public next week. The $5 million in funding for the restoration was partially provided by Space Center Houston, but the majority of the money was donated by the city of Webster, the Houston suburb where the Johnson Space Center is located. Another half-million in funding came from the general public via a Kickstarter campaign (disclosure: your humble author was a backer).


For the past two years, historians and engineers from the Kansas Cosmosphere's Spaceworks team have been lovingly restoring and detailing the 1,200-pound (544kg) historic sage green Ford-Philco consoles that populated the control room—repairing damage from decades of casual neglect and also adding in the correct control panels so that each console now correctly mirrors how it would have been configured for an Apollo flight.


Ars was invited to view the restored MOCR 2 last week as the final finishing restoration touches were still being applied. We conducted some interviews and shot some photos while technicians and construction workers bustled around us, hammering and screwing the last bits and bobs into place. The room's lighting system was in the process of being worked on, and the room flickered several times between fully illuminated daytime lighting and dim twilight—providing an even more accurate glimpse of what it might have looked like during an actual mission.




How we got to now

Do you want to know more?

If you'd like to dig in deep on exactly how Mission Control worked during the Apollo era and learn a bit more about how the consoles worked, head on over to our detailed 2012 write-up of the MOCR.


Today, the Mission Control Center in JSC's Building 30 (renamed a few years ago to the "Chris Kraft Mission Control Center" to honor Christopher Columbus Kraft Jr., the person most directly responsible for defining how NASA's Mission Control would come to function) includes multiple Flight Control Rooms, referred to in NASA shorthand as FCRs ("fickers"). But during the Apollo era, there were two control rooms in the building—Mission Operations Control Room 1, on the second floor, and Mission Operations Control Room 2, on the third floor (referred to as MOCR 1 and MOCR 2, it's pronounced "mo'-ker"). MOCR 1 was only used for a few flights prior to the shuttle era and was primarily used for simulations and as a backup. MOCR 2, on the other hand, was where controllers sat and ran every Apollo flight except for Apollo 7. "The Eagle has landed" and "Houston, we've had a problem" both happened in MOCR 2.


After Apollo, the room served as a shuttle FCR until 1992, when it was converted back to something resembling its early Apollo configuration and transformed into a tour stop. It was also used for other NASA events—personnel could book the room for meetings or show movies there. It was a frequent stop for VIP visitors and media who wanted to do something Apollo-related (Ars included, more than once!), and over the decades, the room slowly deteriorated. The carpet was stained and bare. The paint faded. And the consoles themselves, the objects of so much studious attention from generations of flight controllers, sat dark and silent. Random visitors could even run hands over the artifacts, casually pressing buttons and toggling switches that once perhaps were used for life-and-death purposes.


But with the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing fast approaching in 2019, NASA finally had the ammunition it needed to push for the restoration—and now MOCR 2 shines like new.




A thousand points of light

Standing in the front area of the MOCR between the first row of consoles ("the Trench") and the large bank of theater-sized up-front displays, we talked about the restoration effort with Sandra Tetley, JSC's historic preservation officer. Tetley has been involved with the process for years, and she was able to emphasize exactly how much effort had been spent ensuring that MOCR 2 didn't just look kinda-sorta correct—NASA wanted it to be exact.


To start with, each console has been rebuilt to resemble its Apollo 15 configuration, down to, in many cases, even having period-correct labels on individual panels and buttons. The MOCR changed a bit in between flights, and NASA chose to go with an Apollo 15 configuration rather than an Apollo 11 configuration for a couple of reasons—the first and most important is that there's a large amount of Apollo 15 documentation readily available, including a complete MCC configuration guide that details all the panels and button layouts (documentation for earlier mission configurations is more difficult to come by).


Further, Apollos 15, 16, and 17 were "J" missions, which were the most complex of all the Apollo flights. Configuring the room Apollo 15-style meant having the most stuff on display and provided the best showcase of MOCR 2's capabilities and design.




The consoles are beautifully done, rigged up for the first time in decades with functioning lighting and screens. Tetley explained that rather than reconnecting the buttons' built-in lighting, technicians had painstakingly wired new LEDs inside each individual button so that their lighting could be managed by a central Crestron automation controller. The screens themselves are LCDs dressed with a new fascia, though the original tube displays have been saved and preserved elsewhere. While we were taking pictures, the screens mostly showed off the same handful of Apollo-era displays (which were all dead-on accurate, even down to the typeface). Tetley explained that during an actual tour, the console screens will run through preprogrammed sequences of static images and video.

It's the little things

But that doesn't really tell the whole story of just how committed Tetley and NASA have been to historical fidelity—there has been a lot of effort spent getting things exactly right.


How right? Tetley reeled off a few examples, starting with finding swatches of the room's original 1960s carpet under the consoles. "It's a woven method, which they don't do any more. They do a tufted method," she explained. "So, we took that to Shaw Carpet, and they analyzed how to do it, and using the tufted method, they added an additional yarn and so they were able to recreate this carpet. So, over here was like a patch of original carpet that we saved as a time capsule, and then they were able to recreate this carpet."




It didn't stop with the room's carpet. "We found a piece of [original] wallpaper behind a fire extinguisher somebody had removed," Tetley explained. The original wallpaper manufacturer was located, but the company had long ago been acquired by another manufacturer. "But they went to that company," she continued, "and they found the roller in their warehouse." With a bit of retooling, the company was able to churn out a custom order of new vintage wallpaper for the room. "This is an exact copy of the wallpaper that we have," she pointed out. Tetley confided that they also saved the original bit they'd found behind the fire extinguisher—it's still in the MOCR, just behind the coat rack in the front.


Perhaps the most bonkers bit of restoration has to do with the ashtrays that decorate the consoles, exactly as they did in the '60s. They were empty when we did our photo shoot, but the restoration team has plans for those, as well. "We're going to have cigarettes, cigarette butts," she said, laughing. "All the cigarette butts that were found when they cleaned the consoles and when they cleaned under the floor, we saved all those. I have people smoking cigars and they have to lay them out so they don't stink. So those'll be put back in."




That commitment to authenticity extended even to the dressings applied to the consoles, which are each festooned with three-ring binders (empty when we took our pictures but set to be stuffed full of correct and accurate mission logs and procedures before the room reopens), ashtrays, mugs, thermoses, empty cigarette cartons, and soda cans. Tetley and team even located the correct brands of tobacco products for each of the controllers—Ars reached out in email to former EECOM controller Sy Liebergot about the can of tobacco on the EECOM console and whether it belonged to him or his counterpart John Aaron, and we got a fast response: "The can of Mac Baren's burley is pipe tobacco," he replied. "So it was probably mine since John smoked cigarettes."


The overall effect is of a functional MOCR frozen in amber—as if the room's complement of flight controllers had all merely slipped off their headsets and stepped out to the hallway for just a moment. The binders, the mugs, the pens and pencils and notebooks and pipes—it's easy to imagine them in the hands of men with famous names like Kranz and Lunney, Llewellyn and Deitreich, Lowe and Greene. If you stand there and squint a little... you can almost see them.

Stop reading, go and see it

I wish I had more than just images to show you all—the room is simply beautiful, and it now functions as a living tribute to the men and women who worked countless hours and sacrificed their personal lives to shepherd humans from the Earth to the Moon. If you find yourself in the Houston area, it's absolutely worth a trip down to Clear Lake to do the tour.




"I've been working on this for over six years. It's been a battle. It still is a battle. Every day something comes up. But to me it's a great honor, really, and it's a privilege for me to be able to work on this," Tetley said. "We have worked and fought very, very hard to make it completely historically accurate. From the paint colors to the channel numbers, to where things were put, it's a great honor to leave this kind of a legacy for the Apollo controllers. There's so much focus on the astronauts and all that, and it's neat to be here making this come back to life."


The restored Apollo MOCR 2 will reopen for public viewing (from the visitor's gallery, via tram tours departing from Space Center Houston) starting July 1, 2019.




Source: NASA’s restored Apollo Mission Control is a slice of ’60s life, frozen in amber (Ars Technica)


(To view the article's many extensive image galleries, please visit the above link)


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