Apollo 13: Failure is not an option

Gene Kranz didn’t tell attorneys about shedding an ego, being ethical or practicing professional conduct.
Rather, he illustrated them — and their importance.
For nearly 50 minutes, Kranz held the audience of approximately 400 attorneys, Governor Brad Henry and guests spellbound as he recounted those tense days following Apollo Astronaut Jim Lovell’s message from space, ‘‘Houston, we’ve got a problem.’’
Kranz, Apollo 13 flight director, was keynote speaker at the Oklahoma Bar Association luncheon during the 105th annual meeting, said the talk was not about himself, but the men and women in flight Mission Control providing information that brought the crippled spacecraft and its three-man crew safely back to earth.
‘‘Failure is not an option,’’ he said, following the theme of speech. For those in the space program, failure is never an option.
Kranz told about the pain and sorrow experienced during that journey that began in the early 1960s when America clearly was behind the Soviet Union in space exploration, even getting a man into orbit, let alone on the moon.
It was a time when IBM officials wouldn’t let the new computer of its day go to Cape Canaveral ‘‘because they didn’t trust the men and women who would be using it.’’
It was a decade when college students would take to the campuses and streets to protest the Vietnam war.
And it was a time when a brash and articulate young leader, President John F. Kennedy would issue a challenge and give the nation a dream, he said. Kennedy said the U.S. would choose to go to the moon, not because the task getting there would be easy, but that it would be hard.
Even as Kennedy issued that challenge the U.S. was struggling to put a spacecraft into orbit. One month prior to the speech, the second Atlas rocket in the program had been blown up. Just nine days prior to the speech, the U.S. had launched Alan Shepherd into space for a total of 20 minutes of space flight experience. Despite the directive at that time, the U.S. had never been into orbit.
Reliable vacuum tube computers were put on the island of Bermuda and with a small team of controllers, all eyes were focused eastward just in case communications was lost with the crew while in flight. If that happened, that team would tell the astronauts what to do when the engine shut down.
Communications at that time consisted of a 60 words per minute teletype network that dated back to the days of the Pony Express, Kranz said. All had to become proficient in Morse code which served as the backup form of communication between the ground-tracking network, the ground team and the space crew.
Early leaders in the space program underscored the drive for excellence as an individual, a team member and a leader, he said. Everyone had to be part of the team and when their time came, they had to move forward, assume the leadership role and make their contribution. When that role ended, they had to be able to step back into the ranks and become part of the team.
‘‘Work develops chemistry and chemistry in any organization is a force amplifier. It amplifies the individual talent as well as the team’s talent,’’ Kranz said. ‘‘That same chemistry leads to a line of communication and in our line of work it is vitally important to know when the person next to us needs help or needs a few more seconds to come up with an answer.’’
There is no such thing as a first team in Mission Control, he said. Once the launch has been completed, every team must be capable of accomplishing their part of the mission.
For a time, there were 13 tracking stations around the world, Kranz said. They went into the heart of Africa, to Zanzibar, to Australia and a ship set in the islands of the Pacific.
Risks were high and controllers in Africa twice were rescued by the Nigerian Army. A team worked under the protection of the Queen’s Royal Rifles in Zanzibar. Things became so violent that the state department ordered these stations shut down after about three years.
Each time there was a Mercury launch it was a chapter in the history book of space flight, Kranz said. Mistakes were loud, visible and brutal.
The engine shut down when the first Redstone rocket was launched. Through some miracle, the rocket settled back down on the launch pad without exploding. The escape tower fire went up to about 4,000 feet, came plummeting down and senators and congressmen in the viewing stands ran for cover.
Engineers in flight control were speaking in German and no one understood what they were saying. No one literally knew what to do.
Yet, when Project Mercury was finished, the nation understood and learned that man could live in space.
Another lesson was about leaders and leadership, Kranz said. Leaders have integrity. They are teachers, great listeners and team builders. When there is trouble, they find they also have learned a lot about themselves as individuals.
‘‘When we first came into the program, our egos were bigger than this room,’’ he said, referring to the large banquet room. ‘‘It was tough to get people to work together. But we knew success would come only as a team so we learned to check our egos at the door.’’
A very large group of women was attached to the Mercury project, Kranz said. ‘‘These women — about 100 — were mathematicians and we called them computers.
Computers were people in the early days, not machines. These women would travel from headquarters in Langley Field in Virginia to the Cape to watch launches. They would bring calculators along, punch away at the keyboard all day, write answers on a piece of paper daily just to do a single mercury trajectory. But that approach was not going to get anyone to the moon.
Finally, the space center did get computers, ‘‘each as big as a house,’’ Kranz said. Five units filled the entire first floor of the new Mission Control center. Even a small 4,000-word computer was on the spacecraft.
Since no one at the space center knew how to use computers, sergeants and corporals being discharged from the Army at Ft. Bliss, Texas were recruited and merged into the Mercury veterans.
At first, the Soviet Union had about a 2 1/2 year lead, Kranz said. But when Ed White stepped outside the spacecraft in the Gemini 4 mission, that lead had been narrowed to a mere three months.
People never understood how close the missions came to failure, he said. When Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon on July 20, 1969, there was less than 17 seconds of fuel remaining for the touchdown. But that mission fulfilled the late President Kennedy’s charge to go to the moon.
But it was Apollo 13 that tested the entire crew, required split second and often gut wrenching decisions.
No one realized the damage to the space craft when the Lovell’s message was first received, Kranz said. In fact, everything looked good when the second shift took over.
Once the seriousness of the situation was understood, it fell to Kranz to get everyone focused on what needed to be done.
‘‘Many of us had been fighter pilots,’’ he said. When there was an emergency, it was necessary to settle down to get control of the situation. It took that kind of discipline in Mission Control.
There was a debate about which route would be best to bring Apollo 13 home. There were discussions about the three fuel cells and what should be done to conserve fuel and keep the spacecraft under control.
It fell to Kranz, who using a gut decision, opted to send the space craft around the moon to get it on track for a safe return.
‘‘Failure is not an option and through a miracle we were going to get those people home,’’ he said. That was when another quality was realized. Trust existed among the ground crew and team to make it possible.
Kranz relied on every person’s expertise, especially when a ground crew member said it looked like the space ship would not hit the earth’s atmosphere correctly and literally would bounce off into space. Each time an adjustment was made.
There was a time when one side of the craft was being blistered by the sun while the opposite side was frozen solid. The ground crew determined a way to stand the craft on an axis and start it spinning so the sun would warm the side that was frozen. There also was the danger from carbon monoxide poisoning within the craft that had to be solved.
As Kranz described the drama that unfolded in the final hours of the Apollo 13 descent — and the time that communication was lost — his audience was totally silent.
That tension was broken only after communication was re-established, touchdown occurred and the space crew was safely aboard an aircraft carrier.
Then Mission Control crew lit cigars to celebrate the successful recovery.
Kranz said the cigars were a tradition and he had the cigars cut in half so everyone who was involved could celebrate by lighting up — if they wanted to.
Everyone also received and signed the staff of a small American flag they would keep to remember the project. Veterans already had a large number of these flags.
Mission Control has but one mind-set, he said. ‘‘Failure is not an option.”

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