The Meticulous Restoration of NASA's Mission Control at Houston's Johnson Space Center
When the Apollo 11 spaceflight landed the first humans on the moon on July 20, 1969, the entire process was overseen from Apollo Mission Control Center at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston. Mission Control also served as a center of operations for the Gemini and Apollo missions, as well as the Space Shuttle and other programs.
The room was named a National Historic Landmark in 1985, but by that time, NASA had already renovated it for the shuttle program, removing many of its original furnishings. It deteriorated after ceasing operations in 1992, and by early 2017, the space center’s historic preservation officer, Sandra Tetley, had gotten official approval to embark on a full restoration.
Stern and Bucek Architects went through documents, blueprints, film and television recordings, and photographs from the period to identify original fabrics, materials, and objects. They also interviewed more than 20 retired Apollo flight controllers. “We tried to salvage what we could, and then we had to find or re-create everything we couldn’t,” says preservation architect David Bucek.
For example, pieces of the original wallpaper were still intact behind a fire-extinguisher bracket. Project manager Jordan Shelton found that the company that acquired the wallpaper’s manufacturer still had its old rollers, so the paper could be reprinted. “The texture today is more of a contrast than it was originally, a bit thicker, but still from the original roll,” Bucek says.
The preservation of Mission Control at NASA Johnson Space Center, with consoles restored by the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, Kansas, received a President’s Award for National Leadership from the National Trust in October 2019.
The carpeting, ceiling tile pattern, light fixtures, and smoke detectors were all re-created. Even the fabric on the swivel chairs at the consoles, found in the archives of the Steelcase furniture company, was custom-matched. The retired controllers and other Space Center employees also donated vintage items they had saved, including ashtrays, clipboards, and pens.
The $5 million-plus restoration project was funded by the city of Webster, Texas; NASA Johnson Space Center; and a Kickstarter campaign managed by nonprofit Space Center Houston.
Mission Control reopened in July, in time for the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, but work continues on smaller details following visits from the flight controllers. “The flight controllers felt so at home—that was a key approval point. We’re going to be able to tweak a lot of the last details with their help,” Tetley says.
“The room is alive again. What’s most touching for me is that it’s important to people from around the world,” says Bucek. “Everyone knows what happened in this room. It’s really inspiring.”
Correction: The original version of this post stated that Mission Control was used for Gemini missions after Apollo 11. The Gemini program took place before Apollo.