To the Moon and Back: Preserving Mission Control in Houston, Texas

By Forum Online posted 04-28-2020 17:05


In July of 2019, NASA’s Johnson Space Center completed a $5 million restoration that returned the Apollo Mission Control Center in Houston, Texas, to its former midcentury glory—just in time for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. The mission control room is where NASA’s flight control team made history planning, training, and executing numerous internationally significant space missions.

Last year at PastForward 2019 in Denver, Colorado, the team behind the preservation of Mission Control were awarded the President’s Award for National Leadership in Historic Preservation. To learn more about the project, Preservation Leadership Forum interviewed Sandra J. Tetley, Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center (JSC) Historic Preservation Officer and Realty Officer; and Dr. Adam Graves, Owner at GRAVitate, LLC, about the work.

What is so important about preserving mission control?

Tetley: The Apollo Mission Control Center (MCC) is the most famous area of JSC and is one of the most historic places on earth. What happened in that room changed the world! It had not ever been restored, was not protected in any way, and had fallen into complete disrepair. It was completely open and accessible to anyone who could get in the building, including sitting at the consoles, pushing buttons and dialing phones. It was actually disgraceful. Even in its state of decay, people flocked to see it, including heads of state of other countries, movie and music stars, and elected officials. Space Center Houston had regular tram tours through it every day. It not only needed to be restored, but the story of its importance needed to be told. I started out working with the National Parks Service Heritage Partnership Program seven years ago and from that partnership, the full restoration started.

Historic photo of the Apollo Mission Control Center. | Credit: NASA Johnson Space Center, Photo S69-36953

Graves: Restoring the MCC was an opportunity to save one of the most iconic historic American places where the world was changed forever. There are only a handful of places on earth where humanity truly took that next step in technological evolution. I think of the places where we first learned to farm or domesticate animals, or where we organized societies and created great structures like the pyramids, or where we learned to fly. Well, here in Houston, Texas, humans figured out how to send a man to another planetary body and return him safely back to earth. The place where that happened still exists and it’s important that it stay that way.

What were the different options for restoration?

Graves: In 2013, the National Park Service Heritage Partnerships Program began to work on a Historic Furnishings Report to document the state of the MCC which included the Mission Operations Control Room (MOCR)-2, the Visitors Viewing Room, the Summary Display Room known as the "Bat Cave," Simulation Control Room and the Recovery Operations Control Room. This report identified the need for, and purpose of a full restoration of the threatened National Historic Landmark. This approach allowed permanent retention of the existing Apollo-era materials and features while also providing latitude to replace missing features and items. Repair of damaged original furnishings and materials were prioritized, unless the damage was severe enough to warrant replacement. Decisions about furnishings used in the room required documented evidence to support their validity. The restoration approach required removal of some items that were not used during the mission activities of Apollo 11 through Apollo 17.

Apollo Mission Control Center during restoration. | Credit: NASA Johnson Space Center

Tetley: JSC’s Visitor Center, Space Center Houston (SCH), lobbied JSC management to "restore" the MCC themselves, arguing they could do it in less time and at a lower cost than the Government. In fact, this lobbying continued throughout much of the project. They planned for new rolled commercial carpet in the MOCR; blinking lights to the existing Apollo-Shuttle hybrid consoles; contradictory lunar computer animations and future mission promotions on the display screens; flat screen TVs in and electronically frosting glass to the Viewing Room; removal of the original seating in the Viewing Room to be replaced with aluminum benches; access to every restored room; and random furnishings on the consoles. Being a learning center, SCH wasn’t equipped with historians, preservationists, or restoration experts to research the MCC and ensure historic accuracy. Due to federal real property laws, there was no mechanism to allow SCH to work on a federal facility so fortunately several misguided efforts failed. The struggle for an accurate restoration was constant, but we were able to direct the project in the right way regardless of the many opinions given us.

What were some of the challenges you faced in starting the preservation process?

Tetley: There were two big issues facing the restoration of the MCC: who would do it and who would pay for it. While funding was one of the most visible issues facing this project and exactly what "restoration" meant continued to be debated, identifying and securing experts who would accurately restore the MCC was one of the biggest battles.

When it became clear that Space Center Houston could not accurately restore the MCC, the Apollo MCC Restoration Project Manager finally allowed us to form a team of restoration experts that could work with us on decisions regarding how and what to restore, preservation versus replacement of materials, and an aggressive plan to meet the 50th Anniversary the Apollo 11 Moon Landing. We also knew there were specific areas that needed attention–the consoles which were the focal point of the MOCR, the architectural features of the room, the furnishings of the MCC, and then the audio-visual component.

Apollo Mission Control Center after restoration. | Credit: Credit: NASA Johnson Space Center 

Graves: First and foremost, the most challenging thing was finding interest and money. Surprisingly, not many folks where interested or supportive of this restoration. As for funding, I had this idea that the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) is authorized to administer donations through 1976 amendments to the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). The NHPA along with the Executive Order signed in 2003 by President George W. Bush directs the ACHP to use its donation authority to assist other federal agencies. I knew and advised that if restoration donations were ever available, we had a route to funnel it to NASA for the restoration.

Kicking this project off with the right people was very challenging. After all, how many people or contracting firms on earth really knew anything about the Apollo Program, or anything about restoring one-of-a-kind 1960s computer consoles as well as furnishings, furniture, finishes, flags, carpets, and wallpaper?

I had this idea one day that I’d go through the Apollo 13 movie credits and see who was the production designer for the Mission Control set they developed for that movie. I came up with a name, Michael Corenblith, and after finding him and messaging him through Facebook he quickly responded and told me he used the Cosmosphere to create the consoles. We then reached out to the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, Kansas who has the console inventory of MOCR-1 after it was changed to newer technology. I then contacted a historic society in Houston since I knew they’d have some good contacts for firms that restore some of Texas’s historic courthouses, and they led me to Stern & Bucek Architects. Together we worked the specific areas in each room and found experts in each area to restore the MCC.

The next challenge, and this was probably the biggest challenge from start to finish, was maintaining historical accuracy. I was charged with making this restoration correct. I studied, and researched, and corrected, and fixed, and researched again to keep the entire team in check and focused on the very high goal of making everything perfectly accurate. I wasn’t everyone’s favorite person at times, and I’m pretty sure I heard the word "grouchy" directed my way many days. The nit-picking of details never stopped, and in some ways I still do it today when I go in.

Tetley: As the planning of the project began, there were no funds allocated for the project. After we developed an estimate of $4.7 million, the City of Webster, Texas, voted to donate Hotel-Motel tax money to the project. They donated $3.5 million dollars with a matching $500,000 for a Kickstarter Campaign run by Space Center Houston. The Kickstarter Campaign raised just over $500,000. However, NASA has no authority to accept donations for a specific project. After extensive legal scrutiny, we exercised the provision of the NHPA with the ACHP that Adam suggested. NASA is the first federal agency to use this provision in the NHPA! To complete the project, JSC provided another $1.2 million.

What were some of the surprises of the project?

Tetley: As we began the forensic analysis of the MCC, we found the original wallpaper behind a fire extinguisher. Using the original building plans, we identified the company who had made the wallpaper, but they had been purchased by another company. We then went to that company who found the exact roller in their warehouse! Using that roller, there were able to replicate the original and we re-wallpapered the entire MCC.

We found original woven carpet under a pneumatic tube station and were able to work with the manufacturer who added an additional yarn to their tufted method and recreated the MOCR carpet. The new carpet had to be hand cut to match the 28”x28” computer floor tile on the floor and placed in a crisscross pattern. We determined what paint was original and what was not and preserved not only the original paint but also uncovered and restored the original column numbers which had long been painted over. We found original ceiling tile in an old phone booth in the building lobby and using a computer-generated model of the hole pattern, hand stamped over 200 tiles for the ceiling. Unable to find matching material for the seating of the Flight Controllers’ chairs, we turned to a member of the Houston Weaver’s Guild who hand-wove all of the material for every chair.

Great care was spent on ensuring every detail of the restoration reflected the original historic fabric. In this image we see the two versions of wallpaper. | Credit: Stern & Bucek Architects, Houston, Texas

One day before the 50th anniversary when we had lots of media coverage, Mr. Kranz, the Apollo flight director famous for saying “Failure is not an option,” was going to be interviewed in the MOCR. It had been rainy in Houston and Mr. Kranz walked in the MOCR, walked up the steps toward the interview area and hung his coat on the coat rack with the staged artifacts! We got such a laugh that he felt so at home in the restored MOCR that he just hung up his coat business as usual.

Graves: Reactions to the restored MCC were surprising as well. As retired flight controllers came into the room, they were so excited, so appreciative and very moved seeing the “old” MCC look just as it did in the day. Many were moved to tears. Many of them were so excited to show their wives, many of whom had never even seen where their husbands had worked. And as they reminisced and shared stories and comments, we knew we had succeeded in our goal. Their approval was the most important thing to all of us working on the project.

The Viewing Room was referred to back in the day as the “VIP” room. Except for the wallpaper, it had not changed in 50 years and showed its age and degradation. After the seats were cleaned and restored and the new wallpaper installed and carpet cleaned, it took on a new aura of “VIP.” And with the bright, alternating rows of orange and red seating now distinctly visible, it became clear from where the seating in the Houston Astrodome was copied.

What was one of the big lessons learned now that the project is over?

Tetley: For me it was ensuring that true historic preservationists experienced in restoration worked on the project. There were lots of people with lots of opinions, most of which were not historically accurate and not based on documentation or film during the period of significance. The push to make the MCC “entertaining” for younger audiences or to “enhance the experience” was relentless. If not for experts willing to put in the time and effort of hours or research and to dig into what and how things really were in the MCC and our constant diligence to verify everything, it would not have been as fully restored as it is.

The landing team for Apollo 11 in the restored Mission Control Center, fifty years later. | Credit: 

NASA Johnson Space Center

Graves: Doing the right thing in the face of very large odds is possible. We really were in a nearly impossible situation with very powerful people throughout the course of the restoration. Initially, people at the top were not supportive of restoring the place and finding financial support was an even bigger challenge. Once the project was under way, alliances changed and restoring the MCC accurately and creating an environment where areas would be protected and preserved was only in the interest of no more than about five very un-influential people like Sandra and myself. Ultimately, enough real miracles happened and our hard work, diligence, ability to put blinders on and go to work, and obsession with accuracy every day resulted in something for everyone to be proud of.

What was your favorite part of the restoration?

Tetley: My favorite part, outside of working with Adam, was working with the retired Apollo flight controllers. They were so passionate about the restoration yet so humble about what they accomplished. They are American heroes and I felt honored to be leading this project for this room that they called their “cathedral.” They are all very opinionated and very vocal and so supportive and appreciative about what we were trying to accomplish. They, more than anyone at the Center, supported us to make it completely historically accurate. Mr. Kranz at one point actually told me, “Sandra, failure is not an option!”

They had such serious work to do, but the stories they told of the fun they had were hilarious. They were like kids in a candy store when they saw the restored MCC and their console and many of them teared up. They told us that after Apollo landed on the moon, they didn’t get time to celebrate – they had to ensure the safety of the crew. At the 50th anniversary when they were in the room at their consoles listening to the final minutes of landing, they were able to then celebrate their accomplishment. It was such a rewarding experience and I’m honored to have been a part of it.

Graves: Willing this restoration to fruition with Sandra, and the payoff on the 50-year anniversary. Standing in the fully restored room and getting to observe the flight controllers relive the experience of the first moon landing in the most appropriate way possible is something I’ll never forget. I feel like I got to do some very kind things for some of America’s most important heroes.

Editor's Note: Want more about documenting and preserving places related to space exploration? Check out "Interior Space: Preserving the International Space Station Through Photography."