On the Shoulders of Giants: A brief history of Mission Control and the early days of the U.S. Space Program

At NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, workers and visitors are constantly
surrounded by some of the most technologically advanced equipment in the world. JSC, as it’s called in typical NASA acronym-speak, is home to training jets, space shuttle mock-ups, giant vacuum chambers, and even a 40-feet-deep pool that simulates weightlessness.
Computers, flight simulators, and intricate communications equipment are everywhere you turn. As the world continues to develop and space exploration grows more and more advanced, it’s easy to forget that humans first left the planet not even fifty years ago.

But if you look around JSC, the reminders begin to attract your attention. Any visitor to JSC enters through the main gate, adjacent to a field known as “Rocket Park.” It’s impossible to miss the distinctive lawn ornaments displayed there – three rockets, growing progressively larger, and an assortment of engines. Even as they rust and decay in the hot and humid
Houston air, they remind you of the pioneers who rode them into orbit. The smallest of the three is also the rocket that had the largest impact. The Mercury-Redstone booster was used for manned spaceflight only twice, but one of the two launched Alan Shepard on a 15-
minute suborbital flight in 1961. Shepard became the first American to travel into space and kept the United States in step with the Soviet Union. Shepard’s flight came only one month after Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the Earth. Eight years and one famous Kennedy “we choose to go the moon” speech later, Neil Armstrong was able to take one giant step for man only because the Saturn V booster was able to put
him there. The difference between this rocket and the small Mercury of 1961 is immediately apparent in the sheer size of the booster. More than 36 stories tall when stacked upright (the display version at JSC lies on its side), the Saturn V’s first stage was
powered by five engines that burned liquid oxygen and kerosene to produce 1.5 million pounds of thrust – in each engine. Shepard’s Mercury rocket is puny by comparison, capable of generating only 78,000 pounds. The advancement in space science and technology from the beginning to the end of the 1960s was truly astonishing.

After leaving Rocket Park, anyone hoping for a glimpse of JSC’s inner workings need only turn towards Building 30 and the Mission Control Center, or MCC. One floor above the current control center is the Flight Control Room, or FCR, that was used from 1965 until its retirement in
1996 (in favor of the new control center seen these days on television during space shuttle flights). This room was the nerve center for the end of the Gemini program and the entire Apollo program including the first moon landing on Apollo 11 and the oxygen tank explosion on Apollo 13. It also was used during the first 15 years of the space shuttle program includingChallenger’s final mission in January 1986. Mission patches from the successful missions hang on the walls, while a small area near the doorway is reserved for memorial patches from Apollo 1 and Challenger. (Memorials to these missions, and the Columbia mission, adorn the walls of the new control center as well.)

Because of its role in the Apollo 11 mission, the entire room was designated as a US National Historic Landmark in 1985 and as such, will remain as it looked in the 1960s and 1970s for years to come.

In one corner, the moon landing is commemorated by a replica of the plaque left on the lunar surface in 1969 by Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins. Because NASA is a government organization, there has always been great interest in involving the public in each mission. The back wall of both the old and new Mission Control Center is made of thick glass that separates the control room from a reasonably comfortable viewing room. During the Apollo 13 mission, family members had just finished watching their fathers and
husbands film a short television spot from the orange, cushioned seats when an oxygen tank exploded, crippling the spacecraft as depicted with a great deal of accuracy in the 1995 Tom Hanks movie. The viewing room also saw its share of political figures,celebrities, and foreign dignitaries. That particular mission also resulted in one of the historic control room’s most unique items – a small framed mirror accompanied by the following words: “This mirror flown on Aquarius, LM-7, to the Moon April 11-17, 1970. Returned by a grateful Apollo 13 crew to ‘reflect the image’ of the people in Mission Control who got us back!” (The inscription is also a challenge to grammar aficionados – can you spot the error?) The plaque is signed by astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise; they were unable to land on the moon, but the men and women of Mission Control made sure they returned safely to Earth And yet sometimes the rockets don’t work, and even Mission Control comes up short. Three times, NASA and the country have been faced with the harsh reality that space exploration is and always will be a very dangerous business.

In January 1967, three astronauts perished during a dress rehearsal for their Apollo 1 mission, trapped in a fire in their capsule while on the launch pad. In January 1986,
on an unusually cold day in Florida, Challenger exploded 76 seconds after launch and killed seven astronauts.

Most recently, in February 2003, Columbia broke apart just when manyassumed they were safe, only a thousand miles from landing in Florida after traveling millions of miles since its launch two weeks earlier. Houston is home to the nation’s corps of
astronauts, and though they often project a larger-than-life aura, they are really no different from you or me. Theyhave homes, families, and children. They go to work every day, play softball in rec leagues, and sing at their churches. And yet every few years, they do what was once unthinkable: they sit atop thousands of pounds of explosives and
wait for someone to light the fuse. One corner of JSC’s land is occupied by a memorial garden to these astronauts as well as other space pioneers who have left us. In moving
forward, it is always important to remember the past. After remembering the glory days of space exploration while visiting Johnson Space Center, you leave with a sneaky suspicion that there are more great things ahead.`



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