I am a dreamer, believing that the mark of a champion is the ability to thrive in tough times. Gene Kranz, mission flight director, US Space Program
The quote above is part of the attitude that Gene Kranz tried to inspire in his young team of space flight controllers when they realized, confused, that the Apollo space program had came to an end.
Eugene “Gene” Kranz started in the Space Program with the early Mercury missions (first single manned capsules to reach orbit on a rocket), Gemini (earth orbital missions with crews and multiple modules) to the Apollo missions that reached the moon. He also took part in the Space Shuttle program.
For the general public, and maybe to youngest readers of this blog, he is most known for the portrayal by actor Ed Harris of his role during the Apollo 13 mission in the Hollywood blockbuster named after that mission. In fact, the celebrated quote “Failure is not an option”, that gives title to the book subject of this post, was never pronounced by Kranz himself, but just by his scripted character in the movie. An irony that he has always enjoyed.
Alone with these ingredients, a book telling his story would make an interesting reading for lovers of aerospace and history. My opinion after having finished his book is that it goes way beyond that.
With almost 400pages, the book was written in 1999, coinciding with the celebration of the 30 years of the first landing on the Moon.
In the narration, from his early years as a young small-town engineering student and later air force pilot, to his career in the Space Program, he tells a compelling story about reinventing himself, about inspiring leadership and being a mentor of young engineers under enormous pressures, speaking of technical excellence and teambuilding to dealing with the end of the glorious days of the space era. I found there many lessons, some of which I want to share here.
But before that, a remark on three of the passages of the book that, for me, really stand out.
First, of course, the narration of the first Moon landing during the Apollo 11 mission, which he led as Flight Director. In this passage, about 10 pages long in the chapter “We copy you down, Eagle”, he shifts from writing in past tense as in the rest of the book to present tense, thus creating a thrilling and vibrant account of the very last minutes of that historical feat. A master trick that had me stuck to the book.
Second, the account of the entire Apollo 13 crisis, with the explosion in the oxygen tanks during the transfer trajectory to the Moon. This was the stage of the mission where his outstanding people management skills resulted in setting the Tiger Team that made history recovering the crew alive, and which is so well protrayed in the blockbuster movie I mentioned before.
Third and final, the reaction to the fire in the Apollo 1 capsule, in which the astronauts perished. This accident deeply shocked Gene and many program employees, rising the stakes in his understanding of the meaning of preparation and excellence.
The book shares a technical account of the precedures, vehicles and problems solved along the program, but also a myriad of personal anecdotes and landmarks. Terms such as The Brotherhood, or The Trench, were forged out from the hard work of entire teams and marked a decade of engineering mastery.
Even if somewhat out of context not having read the book, the paragraphs reproduced below, spread throughout the narration, provide a path of good lessons to reflect on. I grouped them according to aspects that I thought relevant and to be common to them. I invite the reader of the book to select other quotes as well and maybe give another interpretation.
Preparation and Training
“They [the astronauts] would double- and triple-check what the controllers said and did. We had to earn their respect and trust. To do that we had to be smarter tan they were in each of our technical specialties, and we had to be utterly precise and timely in every action” On the preparation needed to become a controller, especially during the Mercury missions, at the beginning of the Apollo program.
“It isn´t the equipment that wins the battles, it is the quality and the determination of the people fighting for a cause in which they believe” On the factors of success in bringing John Glenn safe during Mercury-Liberty 7 mission, where some retro-thrusters of the capsule were thought inoperative.
“Flight Control rappidly became the systems engineering cadre in the U.S. Space program” On the success of the same mission.
“My greatest fear approaching launch day was that I would lose one or more of my books. To assure that they were easy to find, I used pictures of various striking young women from the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition for all my book covers and, if one were missing, this virtually guaranteed a prompt return” On the knowledge he wanted to have ready at hand, and the funny way to avoid it got lost.
“Aaron paused in the middle of an exchange with his support staff, stared at his displays, then made the decisive call, ‘Flight, have the crew take the SCE(*) to Aux'” Recalling John Aaron´s brilliant instruction, out from his technical experience, which practically saved the Apollo 12 mission.
“We had a blind crewman outside the spacecraft feeling his way with his hands back to the cockpit. I thought, ‘ God, those guys are like icemen, chock-full of guts”’ On the troubled Extra Vehicular Activity (EVA) of Gene Cernan during Gemini 9A mission.
“I advice the controllers to take five [minutes]. The rush for the rest rooms (…) is the first indication of the pressure the controllers are feeling. (…) I do not want to look at my face in the mirror for fear that I might let my own feelings show” The moments after separation of the lunar module during Apollo 11, initiating the descent to the moon surface.
“While the world waits, Neil Armstrong sends goose bumps around the globe with the words: ‘Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed’.(…) Frustrated at my lack of emotional control, I slam my forearm against the console.” Account of the extraordinary emotional state at the historical landing on the moon.
“My three leads will be Aldrich, Peter, and Aaron. Make sure everyone, and I mean everyone, knows the mandate I’m giving them. (…) John Aaron will develop the checklist strategy and has the spacecraft resources.(…) Whatever he says goes. He has absolute veto authority over any use of our consumables” Part of the address at Mission Control Center, announcing quickly a clear way to proceed in the face of the Apollo 13 crisis.
Apollo 1 Fire
“I wished there were some way to get in a judo match. I just wanted to feel some physical pain. The beer was not helping anything” Gene´s desolation feelings hours after losing the crew in the fire.
“I climbed the four steps to the stage, looking at all those faces of people I knew so well. I wanted them to get beyond shock, then say, as St. Peter did in on of his epistles, ‘ Let us get good and angry-and then let us make no mistakes”’ Kranz first address to his team of controllers after the loss of the crew.
“When you leave this meeting today you will go to your office and the first thing you will do there is to write ‘Tough and Competent’ on your blackboards. It will never be erased. Each day when you enter the room these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee. These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control” Final words of his address to the controllers after the fire, setting the Tough and Competent motto.
“We fought and won the race in space and listened to the cries of the Apollo 1 crew. With great resolve and personal anger, we picked up the pieces, pounded them together, and went on at the attack again. We were the ones in the trenches of space and with only the tools of leadership, trust, and teamwork, we contained the risks and made the conquest of space posible” His final words at the end of Apollo 17 mission, remembering the struggle after the fire of Apollo 1.
Comradeship and team building
“Carpenter´s words would often be remembered. At beer parties, or during debriefings, if we wanted to get John Llewellyn to tell the story of Aurora 7 and his first mission as RETRO, we would stand and say, ‘I didn´t know where I was and the didn´t, either'” Funny recall of the discussion between RETRO controller John Llewellyn and astronaut Scott Carpenter during a troubled Aurora 7 EVA.
“One of my primary responsibilities was team building. I remembered a key method we used in the Air Force to Weld rugged individualists into a cohesive working group. A squadron insignia is used to give a group of fighter pilots a unique identity […] I discussed my concerns about the White Team´s training with Marta one evening (…) she said ´Gene, white is your team color-why don´t I make you a white vest to wear (…) you can used it as your team insignia” On the origin of his famed “white vest”, aimed at uniting his group of controllers of the White Team.
“Sheeet, man, that´s Captain Refsmmat, the ideal flight controller! He´s the best we´ve ever had in the Trench” Quoting John Llewellyn on the invention of a character based on the vital Reference of Stabel Member Matrix, or RefSMMat, a tool for orbit calculation.
“The debriefing party at the Hofbraugarten was merciless, beginning with a parody of the mission. (…) The parody began and ended with the ‘inmortal words’ Liebergot and I exchanged early in the crisis. Kranz: ‘I don’t understand that, Sy’ Liebergot: ‘I think we may have had an instrumentation problem, Flight'” On the fun they had remembering the early discussion when many data sent from Apollo 13 did not make sense to the controllers. It was clearly not instrumentation.
“I knew how they felt. When I won my wings, I believed I would fly fighters forever. When my dream ended, my world folded. So I had to pick myself up and get on with life, and find a new vision.(…) I am a dreamer, believing that the mark of a champion is the ability to thrive in tough times. I was convinced that Mission Control would evolve, adapt, and exploit every opportunity” Giving direction to confused young controllers as the Apollo program came to an end.
Praise and recognition
“To this day, John remains the most respected engineer ever to work in Mission Control. He was a superb mentor for younger, less experienced engineers” On the controller John Aaron. Along the book, Kranz doesn´t spare praise and recognition to the skills and achievements, no matter how big or small, of many people.
“The highly talented and resourceful women of the computing unit, Mary Shep Burton, Cathy Osgood, and Shirley Hunt, started out in Mercury with mechanical calculators (…) They provided is with options that just months before we did not know existed. We had no choice but ot believe in the data and methodology they came up with, so our trust in their work was aboslute. (…) Their work had to be perfect, and it was…” On the “human computers”, teams composed of women. These days remembered through the book and movie “Hidden Figures”.
These excerpts are, of course, far from completely capturing the flair of the book, which is full of uncompromissed optimism, derived from the deep impact that President Kennedy´s challenge to put a man on the moon had on Gene Kranz. On it he shows true love and curiosity for the work of others, which was at the base of his teamwork skills. It is thus a gift for every engineer or person involved in a big endeavor with fellow ones.
Finally, I just can relate with this story. When I write these lines, it is almost eight years since I started working with Airbus, and in particular, some time later, in the A400M program. Not trying to compare it with the Space Program, of course, this endeavor shares some similarities in terms of big amounts of people involved through the years, the timescales and, to some extent, the kind of risk and complexity associated with flight operations. I saw many situations and personal anecdotes reflected in the text.
Moreover, it is also near two years ago that I changed my position to one as a technical manager almost in daily contact to the flight crews. The change happened to be just days before the fatal accident of one of our aircraft on May 9th 2015 that cost the lives of four crew members, our colleagues and friends, with two other surviving it. When I look back at those days, and I read the comments from Gene Kranz remembering his experience with the Apollo 1 fire, a shiver goes down my spine. Alone writing these lines is quite an emotional exercise that reminds me of the “Tough and Competent” motto mentioned above.
This post is thus the best way I could find to express how inspiring and personally resonating I found the values and experiences reflected in the narration of Gene Kranz. I invite every reader to let me know if I succeeded, but above all to be inspired by the narration of this dreamer.
(*) SCE refers to Signal Conditioning Equipment, a redundant power supply to the crew module. Switching it to its Auxiliary mode saved the mission from being aborted in the instants after the lift off.