You know that phrase, “The eagle has landed”? It’s part and parcel of our cultural consciousness just like, “Houston, we have a problem.” Well, in watching the new documentary film released this week on Amazon video, “Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo” I finally discovered where that phrase came from. The Apollo 11 mission’s lunar module was named “Eagle.” When it made history by being the first man-made craft to land on the moon, Neil Armstrong simply said, “The Eagle has landed.”
“Mission Control” tells the story of those who worked behind the scenes to make President Kennedy’s wish to reach the moon a reality. The people on the ground in Houston were the heart and soul of the Apollo program, which ran in the 60’s and 70’s. Its goal: to land a man on the moon.
This documentary, by director David Fairhead, celebrates the men of mission control, the heart of NASA. And yes, back then they were all white men. Fairhead compensates for the gender bias by bookending the film with interviews with two present day flight directors, both women. But despite the gender inequality (that’s how it was) the memories these men share tell of a time in history that rings with American patriotism. When the United States won the space race, America held its head high. And it was the people who worked mission control, in large part, who made it all possible.
Stories about NASA are popular at the moment with the success of Hidden Figures, but the 1995 film by Ron Howard, Apollo 13, is still a favorite of mine. In “Mission Control,” the real Gene Kranz, Jim Lovell, and others tell the story, not only of Apollo 13, but the experience of the tragedy of Apollo 1, when three astronauts lost their lives in a launch pad test fire. Chris Kraft, the one who created the concept of mission control, plays a big part in the storytelling. So do other lesser-known members of the Apollo program.
There is a moving scene when one person tells the story of Apollo 8. As the first mission to orbit the moon, the three astronauts were the first to experience a lunar sunrise. As they did, they sent a message out to everyone on Earth. They read the first ten verses of the Book of Genesis from the Bible. In mission control, everyone was listening quietly, some quite moved at the enormity of what they were seeing and hearing, paired with the story of creation and God saying, “Let there be light” and seeing that it was good.
The movie really made me think of all those who work behind the scenes in many and varied ways. We live in a culture where celebrity and fame is celebrated. We know names like Tom Hanks and Jennifer Lawrence. As actors, they are just one small piece of what goes into movie making. But filmmaking is a group effort. Next time you go to the movies, stay for the credits and pay honor to the hundreds of people it takes to make a movie. The next time you read a story about someone in government, be it the president, a senator, or a local mayor, think about all the people who surround them, giving advice or implementing programs. Think for a moment about people who become famous for medical or scientific breakthroughs. One person might be the public face of a project, but there are lots of people who make the fulfillment of the project possible. Mostly, they do their work without a desire for glory or to be in the spotlight
So it was, and still is, with NASA. Neil Armstrong became famous as the first to set foot on the moon but he could not have done so without the people who did the math, made the vehicle, and kept in constant communication with him along the way. Whether you are an ‘in the spotlight’ person or a ‘behind the scenes’ person, always remember to be humble. To God be the glory.