We all know the first words spoken on the surface of the Moon. But the response from mission control is just as memorable: “Roger, Tranquility,” a relieved Charlie Duke transmits. “We copy you’re on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We're breathing again.”
As the Eagle lander descended towards the lunar surface, short of fuel and with multiple alarms sounding from an overloaded guidance computer, the mission was in jeopardy. Without the calm heads, latest technology and hundreds of backroom staff in Houston, Neil Armstrong might never have made that one small step.
The can-do attitude of mission control is epitomised by the phrase attributed to Nasa flight director Gene Kranz during the Apollo 13 mission: “Failure is not an option.” Today, control rooms around the world still fulfill the same functions – communicating with astronauts, satellites, space probes and rovers; directing operations and protecting people and technology from the hostile environment of space.
But, besides the practicalities, there is also an element of theatre. And some control centres take their appearance and performance more seriously than others. Having been lucky enough to visit several mission controls around the world, I’ve put together my top five of all time.
1. Apollo control room, Houston, Texas
“To us, it takes on the aura of a church,” retired Nasa flight director Glynn Lunney tells me as we sit at his former console, looking down on the tiered rows of empty desks, blank monitors, unlit buttons and dials. Across the front of the room, giant screens display images from the Apollo era – a silent black and white slide show playing out that remarkable moment in human history.
Like Kranz, Lunney served as one of the flight directors during Apollo 13 where mission control was instrumental in saving the three astronauts’ lives. He also oversaw Apollo-Soyuz, the first joint US-Soviet Union space flight. If astronauts have the right stuff, then this man surely does too.
Lunney headed a simple chain of command that embodied clear communication and informed decision-making. “The flight director is the quarterback, if you will,” he explains, “gathering up the intelligence that is in this room and applying it to the flight.” Only then would instructions be communicated by the Capsule Communicator (CapCom) – usually an astronaut – to the crew in space.
Now preserved as a national monument, the Apollo control room represents the cutting edge of late 1960s technology. “We got to use the best new equipment the country could produce,” says Lunney, “and it worked fine by the way, it worked fine.”
The technology and know-how pioneered in this church of Apollo laid the foundations for mission control centres around the world. From Nasa’s current mission control room in Houston, to one of the most impressive ever built and the second on our list.
2. International Space Station (ISS) mission control, Moscow
The Soviet Union knew how to put on a show. From the grand marble entrance hall to the stylised mural of the world’s first star man, Yuri Gagarin, on the canteen wall, the Moscow Mission Control Centre is built to impress. Curiously, the corridors of this vast building are lined with the same gold corrugated metal sheets as the Chernobyl nuclear power station.
Built in the 1970s, the centre houses several different mission control rooms, including one for the Soyuz spacecraft and another for the Mir space station, preserved for posterity. But the most impressive is the one for the ISS.