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ARTICLE BY: JAMES DEAN
You’ve heard of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, but how about Steve Bales?
As the NASA astronauts descended to the lunar surface on July 20, 1969, the young mission controller made critical calls that ensured the historic landing attempt was not aborted.
"We’re go on that, Flight," Bales called after a "1202" alarm rang out in the Eagle lunar module, befuddling the flight crew and almost everyone else manning Mission Control consoles in Houston.
A guidance officer or "GUIDO," Bales and a supporting team of engineers recognized the issue from a simulation and were confident that the 1202 alarm, and a 1201 that followed, would not jeopardize the mission.
Those and other triumphs are the focus of “Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo,” a documentary opening Friday in 13 markets across the country, including a week-long run at the Oaks Stadium 10 in Melbourne. The movie will also be available on demand from cable providers and streaming devices.
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"The Apollo program was probably the epitome of a team effort," said Jay Honeycutt, a former flight operations engineer at Johnson Space Center and former director of Kennedy Space Center.
Honeycutt, of Cocoa Beach, will participate in a question-and-answer session following the film’s 6:30 p.m. Friday showing at the Oaks.
He does not appear in the movie, but his work does. Honeycutt led simulations of lunar landing attempts that introduced problems like the 1202 alarms.
"Our job was to introduce failures into the simulations in order to make the crew and the people on ground work together to solve them," he said.
Based on Rick Houston’s book, "Go, Flight!: The Unsung Heroes of Mission Control, 1965-1992," the film features legendary Mission Control leaders like Chris Kraft, after whom NASA’s modern Mission Control Center is named, and Gene Kranz, known for his buzz cut and iconic white vest.
It also highlights, in their own voices, team members who are not household names like Bales, who did receive recognition from President Nixon.
Another dramatic scene recounts Apollo 12’s launch into a storm, triggering lightning strikes on the Saturn V rocket that wiped out telemetry and appeared certain to force a launch abort.
After tense seconds diagnosing the situation, John Aaron, an engineer monitoring power and life support systems from a console labeled EECOM, suggested, "Flight, EECOM, try SCE to Aux."
Few knew what the SCE switch was or where it was located. Fortunately, astronaut Alan Bean did. He switched it to the auxiliary position, the flow of data was restored and the mission went on to achieve the second moon landing in 1969.
Honeycutt said the movie shows how young people without decades of experience and working on missions never tried before were empowered to make nearly life-or-death decisions.
It also shows how people from humble backgrounds who were not elite military test pilots came together to achieve something special.
"These are people just like me," Honeycutt hopes young viewers might think. "And if I study hard and make good grades, I could be doing this kind of thing."
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Strange to a younger generation will be the cigarette, cigar and pipe smoke that clouds Mission Control, and the absence of women from the primary room.
The film features women flight directors leading current International Space Station operations. They express appreciation for the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo program pioneers who established procedures and principles — including Kranz’s "tough and competent" mantra — that endure today.
"The fundamental concepts are not that much different than they were back in those days," said Honeycutt.
Moving scenes show the retired Mission Control team members return to their old consoles, nearly a half-century after the great Apollo missions.
Space Center Houston, the visitor center at JSC, has partnered with the film to help raise $5 million needed to restore the old Mission Operations Control Room. The public can contribute to the cause that aims to honor and preserve Mission Control's legacy.
"They never let the country down," says Kraft. "If you’re looking for patriots, they are they. Every one of them."