A legendary tale, well-told

NASA flight director Gene Kranz inspires at Rice with story of Apollo 13

The crew of Apollo 13 came home because Gene Kranz listened to his gut.

Soon after an explosion 200,000 miles from home ended their chances of being the third NASA crew to land on the moon, flight director Kranz had a tough call to make: Turn the ship around, cut loose the lunar lander and fire the big engine to bring the three men straight back or swing them around the far side of the moon and slingshot them back to Earth, using the lander as a lifeboat.

Kranz, the first speaker in this year’s Space Lecture Series (view the entire lecture here) sponsored by the Rice Space Institute, told a packed McMurtry Auditorium on Sept. 12 that the smart choice seemed to be to fire the engine and return the crew as quickly as possible. But despite objections from his flight controllers and awareness that the limping craft was venting precious oxygen into space, he decided to take the long way home.

“The missions run on trust,” he said. “When you turn seven-and-a-half million pounds of thrust loose on a Saturn that contains three men, trust is the thing that allows you to make a split-second decision and very rapidly seek out every option that may exist.”

In an understated moment late in his talk, Kranz noted the Apollo crew finally got a look at the damaged service module after separating it from their capsule before reentry.

“(Fred) Haise said, ‘Yeah, it looks like the fire got the engine, too. There’s nothing out there but a dark brown streak by the injector.’” Recalling his decision, he said, “I always felt that somewhere along the line I had some help from above that guided me in the proper direction.”

Kranz, 79, as true an American hero as anyone who has gone into space, told the crowd the compelling story of the early years of NASA before and after the famous speech by John F. Kennedy at Rice University. Fifty years to the day earlier, Kennedy challenged NASA – and America – “to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

The former Air Force fighter pilot joined NASA’s space test group in 1960, in time to strategize on the hardware that would send Americans into space but also in time to watch some of that hardware blow up.

With a wary eye on the Soviet Union’s stunning progress in space, Kranz recalled, “We struggled through 1960, moved into 1961, and in April we launched the Mercury-Atlas 3, which self-destructed shortly after it left the launch pad. We turned around and 10 days later launched Alan Shepard.”

With Shepard’s sub-orbital flight, Kranz said, “We had a total of 20 minutes manned spaceflight experience. But then President Kennedy addressed Congress May 25″ and announced his intention to race the Soviets to the moon.

Kranz quickly rose through the ranks under the tutelage of original NASA flight director Christopher Kraft. Flight directors, he said, are the highest authority on a mission, with a one-sentence job description. “The flight director may take any actions necessary for crew safety and mission success,” he said. “That’s it.”

Kranz led several of the two-man Gemini missions that led up to Apollo and was in control when three astronauts perished in a launch pad fire during a procedural test of Apollo 1 in 1967.

That dramatic failure led NASA to what became known as the Kranz Dictum: a dedication to diligence and perfection that permeated the agency through the Apollo program and beyond. “We listened to our crew’s screams as they died,” he said. “With their deaths, in our anger at ourselves, because we knew we were responsible for America’s first space disaster, we wrote two more words into our vocabulary as mission controllers: tough and competent.”

Kranz was in charge of the odd-numbered Apollo missions, including the moon landing that fulfilled Kennedy’s challenge with Apollo 11. While none of the missions were hitch-free, none that flew were as spectacularly close to disaster as Apollo 13.

Kranz gave an extensive account of the events that played out over six days in April, 1970, from the imperfect launch (a second-stage booster engine shut down prematurely) of astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Haise to the tense moment when Lovell, near the end of Kranz’s shift, said: “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”

Kranz led the effort by his team of flight controllers – average age 26, powered by “black coffee and cigarettes” – and the hundreds of ground-based astronauts, engineers and support staff in Houston and around the world (including tracking aid from the Soviet Union). They attacked each new crisis as it came up in the determined effort to bring the crew home safely.

“The theme for that day was, ‘We have never lost an American in space, and we sure as hell aren’t going to lose one now,’” Kranz recalled telling his controllers shortly after the explosion. Though he did not at the time use the famous phrase “Failure is Not an Option” popularized by the movie, the feeling was on target. “‘This crew is coming home. … and we will make that happen,’” he told his staff. “From that moment forward, that team had their directions and they pulled off a miracle over the next four days.”

Kranz came to campus earlier in the day to attend the introduction of a moon rock in a display at Fondren Library that honors Rice’s participation in the nation’s space effort. The moon rock is contained in an Ambassador to Exploration award presented posthumously to Kennedy three years ago; the Kennedy family decided it should rightly be displayed at Rice. The display was unveiled by Rice President David Leebron, astronaut and Rice alumna Peggy Whitson, Rice Space Institute (RSI) Director David Alexander and astronaut Mike Massimino, RSI executive director.

Before Kranz talk, Whitson presented NASA’s Exceptional Public Service Medal to Leebron, who accepted the honor on behalf of all those at Rice who continue to contribute to the nation’s space effort. Massimino gave a short tribute to Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, who died Aug. 25.

Kranz clearly enjoys telling the story of what has become legend in his own time, particularly for the lessons to be learned from Apollo 13.

“This was an era when risk was the price of progress,” he said. “We had people and a nation willing to accept this. We had a group of media, professional journalists in science and technology. We had a U.S. Congress that had gone through World War II and Korea. So we had an awful lot of support whenever we had problems.”

During a short Q and A, Kranz said the nation needs new challenges. “What we must do is get some stability in the political environment, and then get them to define an objective. … I personally believe that, not within my lifetime but within yours, you will see Americans back on the moon.”

He knows a thing or two about setting – and meeting – goals. “Whatever challenges you pick up in life, you can never decide, ‘I know enough.’ You’ve got to keep pressing the boundaries,” Kranz said. “When I talk to young kids, I say there are three things I want you to remember, five words from this talk: Dream, aim high, never surrender.”

The next event in the Space Lecture Series on Oct. 23 will feature Toni Myers, a producer and director of IMAX films. See the Rice Space Institute website at http://rsi.rice.edu/ for details.

About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.