Going boldly: Behind the scenes at NASA's hallowed Mission Control Center

Ars Technica » Scientific Method 2012-11-05

Enlarge / "The Trench" — the front row of the restored Apollo Mission Operations Control Room

HOUSTON, TEXAS—Astronauts have been saying "Houston" into their radios since 1965. The callsign refers in general to the Johnson Space Center in Texas, and the people who answer to it sit in the Mission Control Center, located in Building 30 near the south end of the The Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center (JSC) campus. "Mission Control" has been the subject of movies, television shows, and documentaries for decades. It's usually depicted as a bustling room filled with serious folks in short-sleeved white shirts and skinny black ties who shout dramatically about damaged spaceships while frantically pressing buttons on chunky 1960s control consoles. What is it really like, though, to sit at one of those consoles? What do all of those buttons do?

On a sunny morning in early October, I hopped in my car to find out. The Johnson Space Center is about a dozen miles from my home in League City, up the newly constructed NASA Bypass and down the historic NASA Road 1. After a short drive, my photographer and I were in line at JSC's main gate. We were meeting contacts from NASA's Public Affairs Office, and they were going to escort us further on-site to Building 30 for an Ars "Mission Control" tour. Our mission? Explain the technical details behind how the room operated—and what it was like to sit at a console and answer those calls from space.

Enlarge / The exterior of Building 30, which houses the rooms collectively known as "mission control." The flag on the roof flies whenever there is at least one American in space.

One small step

This wasn't my first time in Building 30. I visited JSC with some frequency during my time at Boeing, though not often enough for the feeling of wonder to wear off. Some people are awed when they go to St. Paul's Basilica, others by visiting Disney World. To me, neither place holds a candle to the Johnson Space Center—this is the place where, 50 years ago, men and women helped execute the greatest engineering achievement in all of human history.

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