A Look Behind The “Big Boards” At Mission Control In The Golden Age Of NASA

Certified space-nerd and all-around retro-tech guru [Fran Blanche] has just outdone herself with a comprehensive look at how NASA ran the Mission Control “Big Boards” that provided flight data for controllers for Apollo and for the next 20 years of manned spaceflight.

We’ve got to admit, [Fran] surprised us with this one. We had always assumed that the graphs and plots displayed in front of the rows of mint-green consoles and their skinny-tie wearing engineers were video projections using eidophor projectors. And to be sure, an eidophor, the tech of which [Jenny] profiled a while back, was used on one of the screens to feed video into Mission Control, either live from the Moon or from coverage of the launch and recovery operations. But even a cursory glance at the other screens in front of “The Pit” shows projections of a crispness and clarity that was far beyond what 1960s video could achieve.

Instead, plots and diagrams were projected into the rear of the massive screens using a completely electromechanical system. Glass and metal stencils were used to project the icons, maps, and grids, building up images layer by layer. Colors for each layer were obtained by the use of dichroic filters, and icons were physically moved to achieve animations. Graphs and plots were created Etch-a-Sketch style, with a servo-controlled stylus cutting through slides made opaque with a thin layer of metal. The whole thing is wonderfully complex, completely hacky, and a great example of engineering around the limits of technology.

Hats off to [Fran] for digging into this forgotten bit of Space Race tech. Seeing something like this makes the Mission Control centers of today look downright boring by comparison.

17 thoughts on “A Look Behind The “Big Boards” At Mission Control In The Golden Age Of NASA

    1. IBM System/360. The 370 was announced in the middle of 1970.
      Although Fran mentions the 360/75, the machine shown at 10:58 is an earlier production 360 Model 40, and the one at 11:04 is (I am quite certain) a pre-production wooden concept mockup of the Model 40 for marketing purposes. There is a hires version of that picture showing a wood chip (no pun intended) out of the backing panel directly underneath the blue LOAD button at lower right.

  1. Very, ummm, illuminating video! At first I thought it required too much planning to display the desired data, but then I remembered EVERYTHING related to space missions required a ton of planning. This was just another piece of the planning pie.

  2. I sincerely apologize in advance, but that was another Frantastic video. I always wondered how NASA came up with a control room that looked better than anything Hollywood could have imagined, but actually worked in real time.

  3. Very interesting! I always liked the footage of old control rooms with real CRT terminals and robust technology! :D
    Whenever I see a recent video of their current equippment, I can’t help but have to shake my head.
    How comes that they replaced all the professional stuff with cheap Dell (?) computers and flatscreens from the super market ?
    That always make me feel sad. The display and the other gear shown in Fran’s video are so much more fascinating, IMHO.
    To me, it’s as if someone compares the real cutting edge technology (Tektronix 4050 etc) in the original BattleStar Galactica series with the fake stuff from the 2000s series.

    1. Cost. Everything has to be justified. Occasionally you can get away with ‘best value’ rather than lowest cost. Not so much these days. Depends a lot on the skill of the procurement and tech people who write the solicitation. Pretty much every contract these days gets a protest and may delay the task considerably while it percolates through the process and court. Try specifying anything other than cheap laptops and Microsoft Office these days. It was not like that in the early days of spaceflight. Different world entirely.

  4. I cannot help but think at how noisy that control room must have been, with all those old computers running hot. And now it turns out that the screens were mechanical and must have added their fair share of noise as well. :)

    1. The computers and noise-generating equipment were all in a rooms separated from control. The terminals in the control room weren’t much more than closed-circuit TV displays and didn’t have any real computing power themselves. The images they showed were just video feeds from smaller versions of projectors used for the big displays; literally, a video camera pointed at mechanically scribed panel or pointed at a CRT displaying the data optically mixed with a slide projecting fixed elements like headers and labels. The only real noise nearby would be fans in the terminals and the compressors for cooling the projectors in the “bat cave” behind the screens where they could easily control the noise.

  5. Very, very interesting video. Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined such a clever, flexible display system. Philco Ford really did a great job on this…as did Fran with her research and presentation.

    1. i could easily imagine it. high school film-based driving instruction systems with sensors/analytics/reporting were in place for over 20 years. the related projection and measurement equipment scales and applies somehow to the years of NASA’s deal.

  6. Excellent video of a subject that I have never seen explained in all of the space related stuff out there. It exposes yet another aspect of how complex an undertaking it was to go to the moon. It saddens me how little we have progressed in space exploration, given all of the technical advances we have had since then. Imagine what could be accomplished today if given the same amount of effort.

  7. And, as she points out in the video, an adequate replacement for this clever and impressive tech wasn’t put in place until 1989. For those not aware of the details of the GARGANTUAN effort that was the Apollo program and the huge technological leaps and vast infrastructure required for its success, see the various quarterly progress reports from that era on YouTube, especially the Saturn V related ones:

    https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=apollo+quarterly+status+progress+report

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