Gene Kranz was one of my heroes long before I ever really knew who he was. And earlier this evening, I finally got to hear him speak.
Kranz, the longtime flight director at NASA’s Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, was the featured speaker at Rice University’s “Space Frontiers Lecture Series.” The event coincided with the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s famous speech at the university’s stadium on September 12, 1962, when he made the case for a manned mission to the moon before the end of that decade.
While Kranz was with American’s manned space program nearly from its inception until his retirement in 1994, he will of course forever be most linked to the third planned lunar landing mission, Apollo 13 — the one that went terribly wrong when an explosion ripped through the spacecraft while en route.
While Kranz, who as lead flight director during that mission led the team that ultimately brought the three-man crew safely back to Earth, was known among most space enthusiasts, it wasn’t until he was indelibly portrayed by Ed Harris in the 1995 film Apollo 13 that his became a household name.
While less chiseled-looking than Harris or the photos of himself as a younger man that he sometimes showed throughout his talk, Kranz was still nattily attired in his trademark vest (as well as his trademark crewcut) and displayed much of the same outwardly gruff but still warm demeanor that came across so vividly in the film.
And with his well-rehearsed talk, called “Failure Is Not an Option,” Kranz, working without a script or notes, elicited just as much drama from the well-known story of what could have been the American space program’s worst disasters, but turned into one of its “finest hours.”
Kranz said that story is, most of all, one about teamwork, about a group of disciplined people who came together during a time of great duress to solve a problem and obtain a goal: ensuring that the Apollo 13 crew members — Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise — survived the hellish ordeal of circling the moon in a crippled, freezing spacecraft in order to use its gravity to make it back to Earth, then make it through reentry into the atmosphere and splash down safely in the Pacific Ocean.
Kranz said that ethic of discipline, focus and attention to detail among the flight controllers (average age: 26)
that was brought to bear began to be developed during the early days of the manned space program, when nearly half of U.S. test rockets exploded on the launch pad or shortly after lift-off.
But when a launch pad test run of Apollo 1 ended tragically with a fire that killed three astronauts (“We listened to our crew screaming as they died”), the entire Mission Control team felt the brunt of the failure, and redoubled their efforts toward competence and accountability, Kranz said. “We will never stop learning” was Mission Control’s new mantra.
As flight director, Kranz’s mandate was to do everything possible “to ensure crew safety and mission success,” and there was “no higher authority” than his when it came to achieving those goals, he said.
Kranz said the early Apollo missions were often fraught with peril — Apollo 11’s The Eagle lunar module set down on the surface with just 17 seconds of fuel remaining (earlier in the evening, Mike Massimino, a former NASA astronaut and current executive director of the Rice Space Institute, paid tribute to his “boyhood hero,” the recently deceased Neil Armstrong), and the Apollo 12 rocket was struck by lightning as it lifted off, causing huge problems with its electronics systems.
After those near-misses, Kranz said, NASA and the crew of Mission Control hoped Apollo 13 would be a more routine affair. But such was not the case.
Kranz — with the aid of some remarkable photos of the actual events — detailed the now-familiar tale with great precision, while painting a picture of the many personalities involved, particularly the young flight controllers tasked with solving seemingly insurmountable problems, on the fly, again and again.
“We were really doing a physics experiment in space,” Kranz said of one particular exercise in trying to position the spacecraft’s trajectory.
And he described how, as the rescue mission wound down to its final, critical hours, he had to ponder how decisions he’d made days before, with little information, were based largely on the “gut instinct” he’d developed in his earlier career as a Navy fighter pilot.
It all culminated during the “blackout” period, as the command module reentered the atmosphere and radio communications were cut off. Again, Kranz showed photos of some of th members of Mission Control, the incredible tension evident in their expressions. And, finally, a photo of the spacecraft, its parachutes deployed, drifting down to the sea with an aircraft carrier stationed nearby.
“They are home, and they are safe,” Kranz narrated, to the applause of the capacity crowd in the Rice auditorium. Later photos showed the crew disembarking from the module, being honored by President Richard Nixon. But the photo that got the biggest reaction was of Kranz and his colleagues at Mission Control lighting the 900 or so “best cigars in the world” that had been “pre-deployed” for the celebration.
Kranz said the “real heroes” of the Apollo 13 saga were the “back room” people at Mission Control — the people who did all the painstaking calculations that enabled him and the other flight controllers to make the right decisions. They were aided by thousands of others across the globe, including in the Soviet Union, the U.S.’s great competitor in the Cold War and the Space Race, which offered its help.
During a question-and-answer session following his talk, a Rice student asked Kranz what it would take for America to have the same kind of space program that it had during its glory days of the Apollo program.
“That’s a difficult question,” Kranz conceded. But, he said, it would not take just “political will,” but a set of economic imperatives to convince the American people and the political leadership that a renewed manned space exploration program was in the nation’s foremost interest.
A video of the full “Space Frontiers” event can be found here.
Copyright © 2012 Ken Fountain. All rights reserved.