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Race to the Moon | Article

The Trench: The People at Mission Control


"We call the first row in the control center 'the trench.' There's a debate about how it really got its name but it's the lowest row of consoles in the control center and we called it 'the first line of defense in manned space flight.' We were the guys in the trench: the retro fire officer, the flight dynamics officer and the guidance officer. We were the ground pilots, if you will, who tracked the spacecraft, calculated the maneuvers and told the astronauts what time to burn, what maneuvers to do and where to go. So, we were a proud bunch."
— Jerry Bostick, Flight Dynamics Branch, 1965-1973

"The team that we had at NASA at that time in my estimation was as fine a team as has ever been assembled in America -- that technical team."
— astronaut Frank Borman

While the three astronauts of Apollo 8 rocketed their way to the moon, hundreds of workers made sure they arrived at their destination properly, completed their mission, and returned safely. These were the men of mission control, and during missions they all reported to the man known as "Flight."

The Person in Charge
The flight director, whose call sign on the communications loop was "Flight," was ultimately responsible for a mission and for making the key decisions along the way. Chris Kraft was sole flight director for the Mercury missions and the lead flight director on several of the Gemini flights. He describes the position this way: "There's only one flight director. From the moment the mission starts until the moment the crew is safe on board a recovery ship, I'm in charge. ... No one can overrule me. Not my immediate boss in the ... National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the mission director. ... Not his boss, a man I respect and revere, the guiding light of America's manned space program, Bob Gilruth. Not even ... the president of the United States. ... They can fire me after it's over. But while the mission is under way, I'm Flight. And Flight is God."

Problem Solvers
Astronaut Jim Lovell, who experienced nearly catastrophic problems on Apollo 13, put it another way: "the pilots ... were at the center of [any] problem. ... Next in line were the individual console controllers in Houston. ... Ultimately responsible for [getting problems] solved was the flight director."

Retro, Fido and Guido
Flight did not work alone, of course, and among the experts making up his team were the group of controllers in the first row of the control room, known as the trench. As trench veteran Jerry Bostick describes, "They were the ones who helped keep the astronauts on the proper flight path, aided by banks of computers." Bostick explains their roles: "The guys in the trench are first of all, left to right, [Retro,] the retro fire officer, then Fido, the flight dynamics officer and then the third one is Guido, or the guidance officer. And these three guys work together as a team and they're kind of the ground pilots, if you will. We track the spacecraft from the ground, to determine where it is. We use the onboard state vectors from the onboard computers as a second vote to determine where they are. And we calculate the maneuvers, to get to where the spacecraft wants to go -- that's the primary function of the Fido. And also, the maneuvers that would be required to bring the spacecraft home in any kind of contingency situation. And that's primarily the function of the retro. And the guidance officer is the navigator, if you will. He makes sure that we are using the right state vector to do those jobs."

Doctor on Call
Another voice in mission control belonged to the Surgeon, the flight doctor monitoring the health of the astronauts.

One Voice
To avoid confusion, only one voice spoke to the astronauts during their mission and that was the capsule communicator or Capcom. Capcom was always manned by astronauts so that the men in the capsule always had a familiar person who understood the position they were in and could deliver the information they needed.

Discipline, Expertise and Compassion
The banality of their titles belies the fierce personalities of the men who worked in mission control. Chris Kraft, the subject of a Time magazine cover story in 1965, was one of the three dozen Americans who first established the Space Task Force that would later become the Manned Spacecraft Center. The astronauts had absolute faith in his abilities to accomplish the tasks at hand. Bill Anders: "Chris Kraft is seemingly a hard-bitten, almost heartless guy. But he's got a heart as big as a boulder. But he is very disciplined, very competent, and an extremely good manager. We couldn't have had a better guy running the flight control, because he ran it with discipline, with expertise, but he also ran it with compassion."

A Good Commander
During the Apollo missions, Kraft had been promoted to director of flight operations. He had fewer hands-on duties during flights but was a major force in shaping the program. Historian Andrew Chaikin: "He was like a cherished battlefield commander, you know, the guy you'd want to lead you into battle. And the thing about Kraft that was so amazing to people was that he gave them responsibility, awesome responsibility to run these missions. You know, most of these flight controllers were in their twenties or their thirties and here was Kraft saying, 'Well, young man, what do you think we should do?'"

A Coach
Journalist Water Cronkite on Kraft: "He's a football coach. He's absolutely the coach. He was on the sidelines when they would get out there playing on the field. But he was with every one of them, living what they were doing, thinking what they were doing. I think he went through in his mind every toggle switch of every button they had to push, rooting them along all the way of course because he was rooting on his own program as every football coach would be. He was that kind of affable fellow who with a slap on the back could do wonders for a fellow's morale."

Relaxation Orders
Jerry Bostick, who asked to work as Retro for Apollo 8, remembers Flight on that mission issuing an unthinkable order as the spacecraft lost contact when it went around the back side of the moon for the first time. "All of our navigation looked good; the tracking looked good; everything was going according to plan. And then we had loss of signal as they went around behind the moon. And it was rather depressing all of a sudden. It was a let-down, like what's going on? We don't know, we can't talk to them. And the first thing that I heard was from Glynn Lunney [Flight] who said, 'This is probably a good time for everyone to take a break.' And I thought, 'That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard.' How can we take a break when the spacecraft and the guys are around on the dark side of the moon? And you say, 'Well, there's not much we can do to help them now.' And we have a few minutes here so it's a good time to take a break. Glynn had a way of doing things like that to relax people." A similar situation occurred when Frank Borman ordered Jim Lovell and Bill Anders, during their time in lunar orbit, to take a nap to relieve the exhaustion that was taking its toll on the crew.

The Liaison
Besides the trained engineers, there were NASA administrators who helped cut through the congressional and military red tape. During Mercury, Gemini, and the first manned Apollo flight, the NASA administrator was Jim Webb. Jim Lovell described him this way: "He didn't know one end of the rocket from the other. But that wasn't his job. He interfaced with Congress and knew the government. That's the kind of person you need to have there at the time."

The Entire NASA Team
Astronaut Bill Anders summed up the importance of the entire NASA team. "The Apollo 8 crew gets 99% of the laurels and the pat-on-the-backs and the interviews... and headlines, but we have said with real feeling that we were just the tip of the iceberg. There were hundreds of people in mission control and in launch control, each one of whom could have caused the failure of the mission. There were thousands of people in the contractor network, who if they didn't do their job could have compromised the mission. When we look back over Apollo and see essentially how perfectly it happened -- yes we had a fire, yes we had a short circuit on Apollo 13 -- but we were doing extremely hazardous things with extremely dynamic equipment, and yet basically nobody was hurt during the missions themselves. That's amazing and that's a testimonial to everybody in spacecraft and particularly on the ground."

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