From “God Speed, John Glenn,” to “Houston, we have a problem,” NASA’s Mission Control Center has been the uncelebrated focus of support for the U.S. space program. Astronauts made the news and rode in ticker-tape parades; the telemetry crew at Mission Control in Houston and the dozen-or-so tracking stations simply did their jobs.
We first learned about the tense behind-the-scenes action at NASA with the release of the movie Apollo 13, the airing of the mini-series From the Earth to the Moon—and this book, Failure Is Not an Option, written by NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz.
Kranz, an insider at Mission Control from the first “manned” flights (“chimped” flights, actually), is in an excellent position to tell the story of the unsung battles and triumphs of Mission Control. These stories ring with the genuine voice of the tautly-focused events inside the control room. For those of us whose most uplifting experiencees of the 1960s were not founded on rock-and-roll, but on rocket launches, the effect is like returning in time to a cleaner, more earnest age, when shrill voices meant disaster. That calm, reasoned, in-control aura pervades this book.
It is strongest as Kranz discusses the fire on the launch pad that claimed the lives of astronuats Ror Chaffee, Ed White and Gus Grissom; and the computer crash that nearly stranded Apollo 13 in space. The appalling blaze during a capsule test for the first Apollo mission would have halted less determined men.
It was perhaps the most defining moment in our race to get to the Moon. After this, nothing would be quite the same, ever again.
—from “A Fire on the Pad”
For a time, we simply could not bear to look back at the Apollo 1 inferno. We could only look forward to the next blank page, the next mission… we would dream about those terrible last seconds. They would be with us forever.
—from “Out of the Ashes”
Apollo 13′s victory-from-the-jaws-of-defeat has been told graphically in the Ron Howard movie. Here, Kranz’s inner dialog is the revelation that did not come through in the film.
At this point, Lovell uttered the ominous words, “Okay, Houston, we have a problem.” In both the MCC and on board the spacecraft, voices were normal, but heart rates had picked up… In the MCC, you can’t see, smell, or touch a crisis, except through the telemetry and the crew’s voice reports. But you can feel some instinct kicking in when something very wrong is going on… I was wondering which problem Lovell was reporting… The reports and our experience indicated an electrical glitch. I believed we would quickly nail the problem and get back on track… I was wrong.
—from “The Age of Aquarius”
These are admirable men, and Kranz makes it perfectly clear why they (and by extension, he himself) ought to be admired. This is one of the books that is kept on my bed-side shelf, ready for me to reread a section or in toto.