Gene Kranz: Failure Is Not An Option

Cover of Failure Is Not An OptionGene Kranz is the most famous of NASA’s Flight Controllers, having led Mission Control on both the Apollo 11 first Moon landing, and the Apollo 13 crisis. This, his insider memoir of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo years, was published in 2000.

As an Apollo buff, it’s odd that it has taken me fifteen years to get around to reading it. And there’s really only one reason for my having put this off—that terrible title. It was such an incredibly fatuous bit of content-free motivation-speak when Ed Harris uttered it (while playing Gene Kranz) in the 1995 film Apollo 13, I confess to having felt slightly betrayed when Kranz adopted it as his own.

To the extent I’ve been drinking coffee out of this mug for a few years:Failure Is Always An Option

In any case, Kranz never said it. It came from something said by Jerry Bostick, Flight Dynamics Officer on the Apollo 13 mission, when he was interviewed by the scriptwriters for Apollo 13. He said something rather different: “… when bad things happened, we just calmly laid out all the options, and failure was not one of them. We never panicked, and we never gave up on finding a solution.” The scriptwriters spotted the potential for a striking phrase, albeit one so trimmed down that it sent a different message.

Kranz seems to have embraced that phrase, however. And he has said other, similar things. In the aftermath of the Apollo 1 fire, in which astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee died, Kranz delivered a speech in which he instructed his team to write the words “Tough and Competent” on the blackboards in their offices, and to never erase them. When I first heard that story, I couldn’t see how a group of very smart, hard-nosed engineers could find that in any way motivating. It seemed … well, childish. Actively demoralizing.

But it needs context. In the video below, Kranz reenacts his “Tough and Competent” speech for a 2003 documentary entitled Failure Is Not An Option:

Context is all. Kranz is infinitely more nuanced than the “Tough and Competent” soundbite suggests. He delivers a package, and the memorable, pithy phrase is just a wrapper for the whole deal.

So, OK. I belatedly decided that I needed to read the package Kranz had wrapped in Failure Is Not An Option.

It’s beautifully written. I don’t know how much of that is Kranz and how much is Mickey Herskowitz, a journalist that Kranz credits with helping him “condense the story and better focus my role in the story.” However it came about, the narrative pacing is excellent, and the atmosphere of Mission Control beautifully conjured up. I developed sweaty palms during the recounting of the Apollo 11 landing, and it’s not like I haven’t read that story before.

And Kranz also gives an insight into what it was like to do that job at that time. Seventy-hour weeks on government pay, keeping going with black coffee and cigarettes, and then a (Flight Surgeon issued!) double whiskey to come down at the end of the stint of duty. The quantity of beer consumed after missions seems to have been heroic, and the drink-driving rate … astonishing. But they just paid their fines and keep on doing it.

There’s a lot of technical detail, but it’s there to show what a hard job Mission Control is, especially at that time. They were dealing with big, complicated and sometimes potentially explosive devices, operating in an unfamiliar environment, with people inside them. The devices kept changing, radically, on a rapid schedule. And the ability to test these things was minimal, given the financial and time constraints imposed. They just had to try to understand as much as they possibly could about how everything worked, practise constantly in simulations, and then deal with problems on the fly. Kranz describes very clearly how it feels to make a wrong decision in simulation, killing the simulated crew, while the astronauts who are just about to be strapped into a rocket under your guidance stand in a corner and watch the whole thing.

The problem-solving is an interesting mix. On the one hand there are complicated software patches being developed in a couple of hours, to fix a control problem that would otherwise abort the mission. On the other hand, there are some pretty basic approaches: force it (to get a reluctant docking adapter to work), tap it (to get a dodgy panel button to behave) and switch it off and on again (or “cycle the circuit breaker on the radar”, in Mission Control parlance). Kranz calls this a “shade-tree mechanic” approach.

Kranz also talks a lot about himself. He has the slightly teary-eyed patriotism, the ready religiosity and the unique American reverence for his country’s flag that seem to go with a military career in 1950s America. He loves his flat-top crew cut, but lets his hair grow when his daughters complain that it is scaring the boys who come to visit. Then after a while everyone realizes that it’s actually Gene Kranz himself that scares the boys, and he gets to have his crew cut again.

He doesn’t make himself out to be a steely-eyed missile man; he tells us how often he gets angry, demoralized, anxious and confused. But he feels it’s very important to look and behave like a steely-eyed missile man, just as often as you can, because that’s how you get your job done in this environment, and keep those around you doing their jobs, too.

I think the scene in the book that best sums up the man and his attitude to his work appears in the chapter about the Apollo 1 fire. Kranz was at home when it happened. When he found out about it, he writes, “I grabbed my badge and my plastic pocket protector full of pencils.” And then he drives through every red light on the way to Mission Control.

Organized. Meticulous. And bloody determined.

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