Cosmosphere Team Restoring Historic Apollo Mission Control Consoles

Jun 27, 2018

Employees from the Cosmosphere space museum in Hutchinson are helping to recreate one of the biggest moments in our nation’s space history: the mission control room used during the first moon landing.

Specifically, the team at SpaceWorks, a division of the Cosmosphere, are updating the famous control room consoles piece by piece.

The SpaceWorks facility west of downtown Hutchinson includes a restoration warehouse and workshops for metal fabrication, machining, woodworking and paint.

“For the most part, we try to be self-sustaining as possible,” says Jack Graber, project manager and Cosmosphere vice president of exhibits and technology. “I would say less than 10 percent of the parts are done outside of our shop.”

SpaceWorks manager Dale Capps is working on metal brackets that he created in the fabrication shop. They will hold the monitor in place on a console. Original replacements are not available.
Credit LaRissa Lawrie / KMUW

SpaceWorks manager Dale Capps is smoothing the edges inside a small rectangular metal bracket in the metal fabrication workshop. The part, a faceplate, will hold a monitor in a console that was used during the historic Apollo space missions nearly 50 years ago.

A replacement is not available, so Capps used one of the originals to create a mold to manufacture brackets in-house.

Graber says finding original equipment is the hardest part of doing historically accurate restoration work.

“The actual components that would have been around in the Apollo-era are obviously past their prime so we’ve had to replicate some things that we may not have anticipated just because they are not available anymore,” he says.

Flight controllers celebrate the successful conclusion of the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission on July 24, 1969, at NASA's Mission Control Center in Houston.
Credit NASA

Graber and his team are restoring and preserving nearly two dozen mission control consoles from the Johnson Space Center in Houston. NASA flight controllers used these consoles during missions that put astronauts on the moon and space shuttles into orbit.

The consoles were retired and shut down after the Discovery space shuttle flight in 1992.

“The tours would come into there and they would just see the consoles dead; just turned off. The room was very empty in a sense,” Graber says.

The SpaceWorks team is working to bring the consoles back to life.

“So they will not function or communicate with anything. They will just look like they would have in a snapshot in time with lights, data on the screens, information that way,” Graber says.

Two rows of the green metal consoles are currently in the SpaceWorks restoration facility. The team works on one console at a time. They clean and fix the wiring, identify which parts can stay, and which parts need to be replaced or replicated. The cabinets will be restored to their Apollo-era appearance with working displays and backlit push-button panels.

Work on this first set of consoles will be completed in September, and then they will be returned to Johnson Space Center.
Credit LaRissa Lawrie / KMUW

“We have a layout for each console, and we match that layout per console. Then we will research through pictures to try and match buttons as far as what was lit at a certain time,” Graber says.

The craftsmen are also relying on a manual for the configuration for the consoles. The team often uses reverse engineering and a bit of creativity when it comes to recreating these important pieces of space history. Photographs rarely show the mission control consoles head-on.

“You have a lot of pictures of the room from corners. Sometimes we might find a picture of a certain pattern that might have been on one console and try to replicate it on another. So it’s been a lot of research, been a lot of fun and we’re still digging into that part of it,” Graber says.

Technician Don Aich shows how an upgraded monitor plate looks identical to an original.
Credit LaRissa Lawrie / KMUW

Technician Don Aich is retrofitting the display mounting for one of the consoles by adding those metal brackets created in-house. He is replacing the old tube monitors with modern flat screen LEDs. He says no one will notice the upgrade because the front looks identical to the original console display.

“Other people think it looks good and they can’t tell the difference. And we’ve had astronauts who couldn’t tell the difference from some of the things we’ve created,” Aich says.

Because the mission operations control room was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1985, every piece of every console is considered an artifact and is documented. Graber says any parts that are not used in a refurbished console will be archived.

“All of the pieces that we take out that are not historically accurate or that are not going to used anymore, we catalogue, we preserve and then we store for future generations to be able to reference,” Graber says.

The console restoration is part of a bigger Johnson Space Center project to return the entire flight control room and visitor viewing room to their Apollo-era configurations. All of the furnishings in those rooms including carpet, wallpaper and chairs are being cleaned or replaced to match their 1969 appearance. That’s why Graber and his team are making sure every component in the consoles is accurate and functioning.

Jack Graber, vice president of exhibits and technology at the Cosmosphere, uses a color-coded tagging system on the consoles to identify historically accurate parts and parts that need to be replaced or replicated.
Credit LaRissa Lawrie / KMUW

“So when people come on tours and they walk in there, it looks like it did on that day with coats and jackets and cigarette ashtrays, and books and manuals and that’s why the consoles will be lighted as well,” he says.

The SpaceWorks team will finish renovating these consoles in September. Then they will take them back to Houston, and pick up the remaining consoles.

The restoration project is expected to be completed next summer in time for the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing.

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