On July 16, 1969, the Apollo 11 rocket launched into outer space, heading towards the moon. Four days later came the colossal moment: Neil Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface, the first human to ever do so.
As this giant leap for mankind was happening hundreds of thousands of miles above the Earth, NASA experts were hunkered down in the Apollo Mission Control Center in Houston, making sure the operation went smoothly. And now, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, the site has undergone a much-needed restoration that will transport viewers back to a seismic era in space history.
From the Apollo Mission Control Center, flight control crews “planned, trained and executed Gemini, Apollo, Apollo/Soyuz, Skylab and Space Shuttle program missions,” according to NASA. The facility, which is located in the Johnson Space Center, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1985 and decommissioned in 1992.
But in subsequent years, the control center was not well maintained. Anyone with access to the building could walk into the room and “take a seat, take a lunch break and take pictures,” writes David W. Brown of the New York Times. Those who were so inclined could also swipe buttons or dials from the console as mementos. The carpet wore down, and the screens at the front of the room broke.
“This place was not representative of historic mission control,” Gene Kranz, a revered former NASA flight director, tells Brown.
It was while working in the control center that Kranz achieved two major milestones of his storied career. According to NPR’s Shannon Van Sant, he directed the landing portion of the Apollo 11 mission, and famously helped guide the Apollo 13 mission safely back to Earth after its oxygen system failed.
Now 85 years old, Kranz was part of the $5 million, multi-year effort to restore the control center. Using old photographs and interviews with former employees as a reference, experts tracked down original paint for the consoles and hand stamped ceiling tiles to match the original pattern. They found early wallpaper preserved behind a fire extinguisher. They configured console screens to match their Apollo 15 locations, because that particular time represents “the apex of technological achievement of the Apollo missions,” according to the Space Center Houston. The team also scoured eBay for cups, ashtrays and coffee pots that were consistent with the period, positioning the objects around the room so it would seem like the Apollo-era team had never left.
The restored control center opened for public tours on July 1. It is an exciting moment for all space enthusiasts, but for Kranz, who can remember the thrilling atmosphere that once permeated the room, seeing the facility restored to its former glory was particularly powerful.
“[T]he emotional surge at that moment was incredible,” he tells Van Sant. “I walked down on the floor, and when we did the ribbon-cutting the last two days, believe it or not, I could hear the people talking in that room from 50 years ago. I could hear the controllers talking.”