Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo

Movie review by
Sandie Angulo Chen, Common Sense Media
Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo Movie Poster Image
Riveting documentary about NASA pioneers in '60s and '70s.
  • NR
  • 2017
  • 101 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

The mission control team works tirelessly to find a way to solve the astronauts' problems, save them from certain death, and return from dangerous situations. Their discipline and focus exemplify how bright minds can come together to solve various problems. They also show the value of staying calm and looking for answers rather than succumbing to panic. Themes also include teamwork, perseverance, and courage.

Positive Role Models & Representations

All of the men interviewed had to be calm in the face of danger and willing to work tirelessly for the sake of the astronauts in space. They were committed to the idea of "tough and competent." They were not a diverse bunch, which reflects the time in which they worked/were hired; families can talk about how things have changed.

Violence

One mission preparation ends in the death of three astronauts; Apollo 13 is a very tense experience.

Sex
Language

Infrequent use of "damn," "hell," and "s--t" (as in, "deep s--t")

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

The mission control specialists all chain-smoked cigarettes and occasionally cigars (for celebrating). The interviewees talk about how the entire room smelled "ripe" with smoke and body odor during the Apollo 13 situation because no one left or changed their clothes.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo is a documentary about the team of flight control directors, aeronautical engineers, communication, and other specialists who worked for NASA during the 1960s and early '70s (the height of the United States' manned space missions). Specifically, the film highlights the crew depicted in Apollo 13, like Gene Kranz, who was memorably played by Ed Harris in that movie. Because of the dangers and the science discussed in the movie (as well as frequent smoking and occasional strong language, including "s--t"), it's a better fit for tweens than younger kids, but all who watch will learn plenty about the history of the space missions -- as well as the value of teamwork, perseverance, and courage. Aside from one Korean-American astronaut, the entire team of veterans consists of white men, so families may want to discuss how far NASA has come in terms of diversity.

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What's the story?

MISSION CONTROL: THE UNSUNG HEROES OF APOLLO explores the history of the men (and, yes, they were all men...) who ran NASA's mission control during the agency's early manned space missions in the '60s and early '70s. The documentary focuses on about 10 different men -- all from different backgrounds -- who ended up working in mission control during both NASA's early triumphs and its failures. They recount getting men to the moon in the Apollo missions and, of course, the Herculean effort required to save the crew of Apollo 13. Several of the men featured here were actually portrayed in Apollo 13 -- most notably lead flight director Gene Kranz, who was played by Ed Harris.

Is it any good?

This film offers a compelling lesson in the history of NASA, manned space missions, and the "tough and competent" motto of the men in mission control responsible for keeping astronauts safe. Anyone who's seen Apollo 13 will remember the bravery and dedication of the men who answered the distress call of "Houston, we have a problem" with a sense of duty that wouldn't allow for failure. Mission Control tells the story of those men, who chain-smoked their way through crisis after crisis, staying overnight and ignoring all responsibilities other than those to the men in space. Despite early tragedies and the tension involved in every Apollo mission, the men also shared moments of levity and jubilation, like the celebratory cigars they lit after every successful mission.

As is historically accurate, no women and only one man of color (Asian-American Bill Moon) are shown in the film's historical portions, but the current flight directors interviewed by the filmmakers include two women. The past's lack of diversity isn't ignored; one of the octogenarian mission control veterans states that saying "manned space missions" is exactly right, because the early days of NASA mission control only involved men. (For an alternative view of how women contributed to NASA, see the excellent Hidden Figures). The interviews with the men are compelling, and it's clear they're all rightfully proud of what they accomplished together to get astronauts to space, to the moon -- and back -- safely.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about what historical lessons they learned about U.S. space missions from watching Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo. How does this film differ from dramatic= movies based on the same events?

  • How does the mission control team demonstrate teamwork, perseverance, and courage? Why are those important character strengths?

  • Does watching this movie make you want to see (or re-watch) Apollo 13? If you've seen that movie, do you think it did a good/accurate job portraying the mission control team?

  • All of the members of the historical mission control team were white men. Discuss the historical context and reasons why that's the case.

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