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Space Chat

Gene Kranz, former flight director for NASA

A chat to discuss the 30th anniversary of Apollo 13 and Kranz's novel, "Failure is Not an Option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond"

April 11, 2000
Web posted at: 2:00 p.m. EDT

(CNN) – Gene Kranz joined the NASA Space Task Group in 1960. He was NASA’s flight director for both Apollo 11, when Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the Moon, and the Apollo 13 lunar landing. When Apollo 13 ran into trouble, Kranz head the Mission Control team that determined how to bring the three astronauts safely back to Earth. He is a co-recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his work leading the Apollo 13 teams.

In his first book, "Failure is Not an Option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond," Kranz gives a firsthand account of these great moments in the history of space technology. Kranz joined the Space/Book chat by telephone from New York. CNN provided a typist for Mr. Kranz. The following is an edited transcript of the chat.

Chat Moderator: Welcome, Gene Kranz.

Gene Kranz: Good afternoon! I am speaking from a radio station in New York. It’s good to be online today.

Chat Moderator: Can you tell us a bit about your background and work?

Gene Kranz: I was born in Toledo, Ohio in 1933. I went to a small aviation college in St Louis. I joined NASA in 1960 as a member of the Space Task Group. I became a flight controller for Project Mercury and flight director for Gemini and Apollo. I remained in NASA for 34 years, retiring in 1994.

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  • Question from tj-taylor: Mr. Kranz, comparing the Gemini, Mercury and Apollo missions (early days) to the space shuttle, Mars missions and the ISS now, what differences do you see in the American people's views of human space exploration now as opposed to the '60's?

    Gene Kranz: I speak to about 100,000 people each year. I believe the American public is still very interested in space. However, they do not have the focus of a grand vision like that provided us by President John F. Kennedy. I believe we need national leadership that recognizes space is essential to our very survival and economic well-being.

    Question from MurrayH: Mr. Kranz, after the Apollo missions, what changes did you see in NASA as the budgets shrank?

    Gene Kranz: The initial problem the budget shrinkage caused was the loss of young people coming in to our ranks. This made it difficult to maintain the vigor of the space program and assure that we always had a generation capable of running the missions of the future. Our average age during Gemini and Apollo was 27 years old. Now it is almost 40. I believe this has caused us to become very conservative in many of our actions.

    We also do not have good top-level leadership capable of articulating a level direction for the space program.

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    Question from Kurt: Mr. Kranz, for you personally, what was the most exciting part of the space flight in any one of the programs -- Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo -- launch, staging, orbit, flight, re-entry, landing or recovery?

    Gene Kranz: The launch is always the most exciting. During launch, the flight director and team must make seconds-critical decisions. During Apollo, the decision time averaged about 20 seconds. During this period, we had to assess problems and make a risk judgment on whether we should continue or abort. Every decision we made was irreversible. Training for this phase of the mission was very intense.

    Question from Spaceman: How did you come to your unique management style?

    Gene Kranz: I was fortunate to grow under many great leaders starting from my high school days through the period in the Air Force and then into the Space Task Group. I studied each of my leaders and tried to copy those characteristics that I believe allowed them to succeed.

    Question from Alejo: Mr. Kranz, I have always admired the respect that you commanded amongst the flight controllers. What do you think was the most difficult part of coordinating the work of so many bright people?

    Gene Kranz: That is a tough question. I believe the real key was to allow each individual to develop and maximize his individuality such that every ounce of their individual skills would be developed. At the same time, you would have to convince them to sacrifice their ego and become a team player.

    The Mission Controllers, when you read my book, you will find were very colorful characters. At the same time, they were also great team players. That, I believe, is the key to our success in the early years.

    Question from tj-taylor: Mr. Kranz, your wife made you a new, unique vest to wear in MCC during each flight. Wearing your new vest became almost as important as anything else that needed to take place before a launch. Where are these vests now? Do you have them or are they on display somewhere?

    Gene Kranz: My wife made almost 60 vests during the space program. Many were raffled off for charitable purposes. I have retained 16 vests from the most memorable missions. Several of the vests are on display in Houston at Space Center Houston.

    Chat Moderator: Was there ever any doubt that you might not be able to bring the Apollo 13 crew back home?

    Gene Kranz: No. The theme "Failure is Not an Option" is the mantra for Mission Control. When Jim Lovell called from the spacecraft, I knew we had the tools to bring the crew home. These tools are the skills of my flight controllers. And in Mission Control, leadership, trust, values and teamwork will always assure we control the risks and achieve our objectives.

    Question from dchesler: Is the Apollo 13 service module still in space?

    Gene Kranz: The Apollo 13 service module was jettisoned on a trajectory that will impact it in the Pacific Ocean. This is also true of the lunar module that we used as a lifeboat. Most of the parts would have burned up during reentry.

    Chat Moderator: What were some of the thoughts that went through your mind as you were dealing with the crisis?

    Gene Kranz: This is a good question. Throughout the entire crisis, it was essential for me to not pass on any worries to my controllers. Many times during meetings I would remind them that whenever they were working with their people, they had to convey the message that this crew was coming home.

    Chat Moderator: Was the film an accurate portrayal of the event?

    Gene Kranz: I believe the movie did a very good job in portraying the technical problems we faced during the mission. The short duration, however, precluded including all of the problems.

    The most difficult was not the electrical problem that was portrayed but water. We used water to cool the spacecraft systems. When we landed, we had less than six hours of water remaining. It was very close. We even had a battery fail after the parachutes came out.

    Question from Philo: Does it bug you any when you hear the famous misquote of "Houston, we've had a problem"? And does the changed version say something about a basic misunderstanding of what it means to face challenges?

    Gene Kranz: No. I believe that Jim Lovell's and Jack Swigert's call from the spacecraft triggered a series of events that brought the Mission Controllers to an immediate awareness of the potential problems we had onboard the spacecraft. I often listen to the crew’s call on tape recordings. I am amazed at how calmly and almost casually this call was made.

    Question from Jack: I often use the experiences of Apollo 13 as an example of teamwork and problem solving. Have you ever lectured on those subjects considering all that your team achieved during those successful years?

    Gene Kranz: Yes. I lecture between 50 and 70 times each year. About two-thirds of the sessions are to professional audiences. About one-third of the sessions are to schools.

    Question from jeffnwilliams: In your book, you said that Charlie Duke was an astronaut that could have been a flight director. What qualities made you believe he would be a good flight director? Also, do you keep in touch with any of the Apollo astronauts?

    Gene Kranz: I believe Charlie Duke's principal commitment to the team was that he was a great listener and was very capable of assimilating complex problems rapidly and then issuing clear direction. I stay in touch with many of the astronauts. Just this past week, I was in a seminar with Gene Cernan from Apollo 17 and yesterday I had a speech with Apollo 13 Astronaut Fred Haise.

    Chat Moderator: Do you have any final thoughts to share with us?

    Gene Kranz: The hallmark of Mission Control is a great leadership laboratory. In it, young Americans are taught of leadership, trust, values and teamwork. These are the qualities for excellence in our work.

    Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us, Gene Kranz.

    Gene Kranz: I'd love to say goodbye to the audience and have a great day! Remember, "failure is not an option!"

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