HOUSTON — After Gene Kranz retired in the 1990s, he started to give occasional tours to VIPs at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
It was there in the Apollo Mission Control Center that Kranz had a view like few others during the highest highs and lowest lows of the moon race. As a flight director, he helped lead the complex human and technical operation that managed the triumph of the Apollo 11 moon landing 50 years ago. He also rallied and refocused NASA mission flight controllers after the tragedy of Apollo 1 in 1967, when Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger B. Chafee died in a fire during a launch pad simulation.
But mission control was a mess.Kranz would have to show up early before each tour to police the place. He had to pick up trash left on computer consoles. Water bottles, Coke cans. He would empty wastebaskets.
“This place was not representative of historic mission control,” Kranz said. It was likewise a technical mess. “The configuration of the consoles in no way represented where we were and what we did.”
On Friday, Kranz and Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator, cut a ribbon marking the official reopening of the restored Apollo Mission Control Center. It was a three-year, $5 million project, and every inch of the famed heart of America’s lunar aspirations was repaired and refurbished. Its reopening comes three weeks before the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind, and helps to kick off Apollo festivities across the country.
Apollo mission control had been abandoned in 1992, with all operations moved to a modernized mission control center elsewhere in the building. Center employees, friends, family — and anyone, really, who had access to Building 30 — could walk in, take a seat, take a lunch break, and take pictures.
While they were there, they might take a button from one of the computer consoles. Or a switch or dial, anything small — a personal memento from an ancient American achievement. The furniture fabric and carpet underfoot grew threadbare. The room was dark; none of the equipment had power. Wires hung where rotary phones once sat. The giant overhead screens in front of the room were damaged, and the room smelled of mildew. Yellow duct tape held carpet together in places.
“You knew it wasn’t right — you just knew,” said Sandra Tetley, the historic preservation officer at the Johnson Space Center. “But it was not a priority. We are an organization that’s moving toward the future, so there is not a budget to do things like this.”
The project began in earnest six years ago. The anniversary loomed, and that was the catalyst to fix up mission control.
The National Park Service established the Apollo Mission Control Center as a National Historic Landmark in 1985. But once they had resolved to restore the facility in 2013, Kranz, Tetley, restoration project manager Jim Thornton, and others were stymied at every turn. There were funding issues and internal turf wars.
Eventually, however, Space Center Houston, a nonprofit educational complex and space museum, took the lead on fund-raising efforts. The city of Webster, Texas, donated $3.5 million of the $5 million necessary to complete the project. A Kickstarter campaign and independent donations filled in the rest.
Like the Oval Office, or the Assembly Room of Independence Hall, mission control is a distinctly American room — one so ingrained in the culture that to say its name is to conjure it crisply in the mind. And the restoration was completed in a way that’s true to its place in the historical imagination.
Four long rows of pale green consoles fill the room. There are white panels overhead and beige new carpet below. Lights dance purposefully on the consoles, with each one playing Apollo-accurate video broadcasts as would have been seen at the time of the moon landings, or displaying grids of numbers and prehistoric computer code. On four giant displays in the room’s front are maps, matrices, and astronaut positional plots.
On the consoles are the objects seen in photos from the Apollo era. Ashtrays and coffee cups, staplers and stopwatches, pens and pencils, headsets and rotary dial phones. There are mission control manuals 3 inches thick and canisters for pneumatic tubes. Binders and eyeglasses and cigar boxes sit next to cans of RC Cola and packs of Winston cigarettes. Every item is authentic, painstakingly researched from grainy photographs.
“It was a herculean effort by the team to really pull off what we pulled off in that room today,” said Jennifer Keys, restoration team project manager.