Just finished off Gene Kranz’s Failure is Not An Option. This is the story of 1960 America’s push into space and beyond in the eyes of a NASA flight controller. He covers his tenure at NASA, from the botched “four-inch flight” of the first Mercury-Redstone rocket to Apollo 17, the last mission to the moon in 1972.
The world of the flight controller was not a glamourous one. Long hours, lengthy absences away from sleep or family, checklists and constant vigilance were the norm.
He lists all his missions unequivocally and chronologically, treating the good and band with an even hand. In other words, like a flight control mission log. You get the impression that space travel was both for the brave and the insane; astronauts were crammed into metal capsules with controls a mere three feet from their faces, strapped to thousands of gallons of rocket fuel, and governed by spotty radio communications with finicky, primitive computers at ground control. What they lacked in technology, however, they made up for in tenacity and perseverance.
This inside look shows a multitude of serious problems that were encountered and solved. The Apollo 11 lunar landing was almost a NoGo because the lunar module’s computer was overloading. Fortunately, the flight controllers had dealt with that very scenario on their very last day of simulation training. It wasn’t a matter of luck – it because of the extremely talented and meticulous folks at Mission Control.
When Apollo 1 caught fire on the launchpad, incinerating the innards of the capsule and its three astronauts in a matter of seconds, Kranz told his staff, “Let us get good and angry – and then let us make no more mistakes.” He attributes the ultimate success of Apollo to the perished astronauts Grissom, White and Chaffee, for setting their priorities straight:
“From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: ‘Tough and Competent’. Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities. Every time we walk into Mission Control we will know what we stand for.
“Competent means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills. Mission Control will be perfect.”
Of course, the astronauts themselves also displayed calm and focus under pressure. The Apollo 15 astronauts worked so hard running science experiments on the moon’s surface that their fingertips turned black from hemmorhaging as their fingernails scraped against the inside of their gloves.
Most of you will remember Gene Kranz as Ed Harris’s character in Apollo 13. Kranz has an amusing anecedote to that: “In the movies, the controllers always stand up and cheer each mission event, but if a controller ever did that before the mission was over and the crew was on the carrier, that would be the last time he sat at a console.”