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If everything goes smoothly, nobody remembers your work.

But on April 13, 1970, an oxygen tank explosion aboard the Apollo 13 spacecraft set a harrowing mission into motion—and its success would turn a team of heartland boys into national heroes. A little more than two days into the mission’s voyage to the moon, the command module began to lose its supply of electricity and water. That’s when astronaut John Swigert uttered the phrase that would implant mission control in the public’s consciousness: “Houston, we’ve had a problem here.”

Houston—those working behind the scenes at NASA—is the focus of a new documentary that explores the history of the Apollo space program.

“Most of the attention around Apollo has focused on the astronauts,” says Keith Haviland, a producer of Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo, released last week. “But the film is about those people in the back room at NASA who really made the missions happen through planning, through monitoring the flights, through dealing with emergencies.”

The most famous of these is Apollo 13, the story of which was turned into the Tom Hanks-led blockbuster. But the documentary tells a different side of the story: that of the mission controllers who crammed months of planning and troubleshooting into mere days to bring the astronauts safely back to Earth.

Shortly after the explosion, the crew realized oxygen was rapidly leaking from the spacecraft. Mission control made the call to move the astronauts into the lunar module—a situation that had been studied but had to be improvised as the clock ran down. As carbon dioxide began to build up in the lunar module, mission control devised a makeshift air purifier and delivered detailed instructions to the crew on how to build it with materials available in the spacecraft. Throughout, controllers debated benefits and drawbacks of various reentry scenarios.

“One of the remarkable things about them is they came from very ordinary backgrounds,” Haviland says. “From smokestack towns, from the Navy, from the Army, not normally officer class, but from the ranks.”

Besides Apollo 13, the film recounts the tragedy of the first mission in 1967, when three astronauts were killed in a preflight test, and the success of the moon landings—all from the perspective of those key individuals back on Earth. Usually, nobody remembers these engineers who took men to the moon, and brought them back. They were just that good.

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