Several dozen of us journeyed back to 1970 Thursday evening and helped bring Apollo 13 safely back to Earth after one of its oxygen tanks exploded en route to the Moon. Our time machine was the set of Apollo 13: Mission Control, an interactive theater event running at the Tacoma Dome Exhibition Hall through Dec. 30.
Producers of the show have created a believable replica of Mission Control in the hall, and audience members sit at consoles and become members of the NASA “White Team” led by flight director Gene Kranz (played by actor Jason Whyte.) The retro realism of the control center, complete with video monitors, communication devices, and myriad warning lights, gives the audience role-playing a certain unexpected urgency. The plight of the flight is especially urgent for one audience member, pressed into service as the third astronaut on the mission–a nod to a late crew change made before the real Apollo 13 mission.
We mission controllers were not in the same room as the astronauts. Instead, the crew was off in a back room, on sets depicting the command and lunar modules of the mission, and we watched them on video from space and communicated by radio. Similarly, mission control often tapped in to Walter Cronkite (played by Gareth Williams) and his news reports about the mission and efforts to bring the astronauts home.
The audience participation was real; we solved math problems to determine the proper engine “burn time” for an accurate course correction for the return to Earth, combed through flight procedures trying to find a way to scrub excess carbon dioxide from the spacecraft, and had various other tasks and puzzles throughout the evening. And the rumbling of the Saturn V engines as the mission blasted off from Florida was felt all the way in Houston!
A cast of six professional actors portrayed the key figures of the mission, and also helped give us rookie controllers the tools we needed to play our parts. There was no real pressure to this audience participation; though shy participants had the option to sit in the press section and just observe. Nobody took them up on that option on preview night Thursday.
Kids at the performance seemed to especially enjoy playing mission control, but the adults I was with had a marvelous time as well, and many folks stayed after splashdown to have their photos taken with the astronauts.
Apollo 13: Mission Control was created and is directed by Kip Chapman and Brad Knewstubb; it was first produced for the BATS Theatre in New Zealand, and has enjoyed critical success there and in Australia. The show runs in Tacoma through Dec. 30, then plays at the Spokane Convention Center from Jan. 9-20. If you’re a space nut, or enjoyed the Tom Hanks/Ron Howard film about the mission, you should check it out; it makes for a fun evening. Ticket info is available through the mission website, and tickets also are available on Ticketmaster.