It began as a normal lunar mission. They had sent men into lunar orbit four times and landed twice. But, at 55 hours, 55 minutes, and four seconds into the mission, something went wrong. What should have been the third lunar landing became a fight to bring the crew home alive. Gene Kranz is the flight director who led the “Tiger Team” that brought Apollo 13 home safely. From the very beginning of the history of NASA, he worked with Chris Kraft to define the role of Flight Director and became the third to fill the role. Along the way, his adage, “Failure is not an option,” became one of the most famous sayings of the American space program.

Failure Is Not An Option

Gene Kranz talks about his most famous line. There’s some debate about whether the line actually originated with him or was a Hollywood invention, but that was the basic attitude taken during the Apollo 13 mission.

Dreams Of Flying

From his boyhood in Toledo, Ohio, Gene Kranz dreamed of flying. Climbing a tall cottonwood tree in his backyard, he could pretend he was an eagle or the captain of a ship. Sometimes he would see one of the airplanes flying over the nearest airport. He made airplane models out of balsa wood and spent every nickel he could get on aviation magazines.

After his father’s death when he was seven years old, his mother turned their home into a boarding house to help make ends meet. Military men were frequent guests and became his heroes.

Airplanes weren’t his only interest. Like many rocket pioneers in the 1940s and 1950s, Kranz considered the idea of using rockets to travel to other planets. He wrote his high school thesis paper on a proposed method of putting a permanent base on the moon and scored a 98.

After his graduation from high school, he earned a Naval ROTC scholarship to Notre Dame and an appointment to the Naval Academy, but failed the physical when he showed signs of diabetes. The cause was too many sugary snacks. He was disappointed but went to Parks Air College in East St. Louis.

It was a reputable flying school that many World War II aviators had received their primary flight training at. By this point, the Korean War was winding down, so Kranz stuck it out at Parks and then received a commission in the Air Force Reserve. His family bought him a car as a graduation present, which led to an interesting problem. He had learned how to fly before he learned how to drive.

While waiting for an assignment for more training from the Air Force, Kranz went to work for McDonnell Aircraft Company. His first day, he got lost in the maze of offices but got an assist from his boss, Harry Carroll. His job was to interpret data from oscillograph readouts taken during flight tests. The job was an exacting one. Carroll passed along his enthusiasm for it to Kranz.

The experience of boiling down flight test data would serve him well when he became one of NASA’s first flight directors. His orders came through in early 1955, sending him to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. He had an image of Texas that was straight out of old Westerns. That was shattered by the reality of green hills and a beautiful river that ran through San Antonio. He reported in for twelve weeks of preflight training.

Eye of the Tiger

Besides going through pre-flight, Gene Kranz was given the task of whipping some raw recruits into shape. That meant teaching them how to salute properly, the importance of obeying orders and rudimentary military culture. That was his first taste of command and taught him the basics of being a real officer.

From pre-flight, he went on to primary training at Spence Air Base in Georgia. Flight instructor Jack Coleman drilled him on teamwork and the idea that there was no such thing as “good enough.” His very first solo taught him about handling fear, what many pilots referred to as looking into the eye of the tiger. He had just taken off and was turning toward the town of Alma when he looked down to change his radio frequency. When he looked back up, he had somehow flipped upside down and was going into a nosedive. It took him a few seconds to figure out why he was suddenly seeing the town’s lights from the top of his windshield. He was terrified but managed to roll right side up, prevent a stall and fly on instruments back to base.

The experience scared him so much that he procrastinated going out to his second solo. Then, somebody testing the sound system started playing “Stars and Stripes Forever” over the loudspeakers. Somehow, it helped him pick up enough nerve to go out to his plane and ace his second solo flight. From then on, whenever Kranz felt the tiger of fear creeping up on him, the thought of John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” helped him get through it.

From Georgia, he went on to flying jets at Laughlin Air Force Base in Texas. The competition was fierce. Every student hoped for a slot that would have them flying hot fighters like the F-86 Sabre. To be the best and get that slot, Kranz pushed himself like he never had before. His main competitor was a first lieutenant named Anthony “Zeke” Zielinski, who already had some experience as a navigator in B-29 bombers. Both of them would end up with the assignments they wanted.

The competition extended to other areas and Kranz scored one on Zielinski when he married a woman they both liked named Marta Cadena. Marta came from a Mexican family who had emigrated to the U.S. and her mother spoke just enough English to give him a warning: “No givebacks!” The honeymoon ended when he was assigned to an F-86 squadron based in Osan, Korea, three months after their marriage. This was in June 1957 and his squadron was the last F-86 squadron stationed in Korea. When Kranz received his own plane, he named it My Darling Marta in keeping with Air Force tradition. They had a lot of fun trying to outdo each other in mock dogfights. Then, the Soviets launched Sputnik in October 1957. Like many Americans, Kranz didn’t like the idea of being one-upped by the “technologically backwards” Russians. He saw it as a blatant challenge to America’s commitment to lead the free world.

New Mexico

As his squadron counted down the days until they could return to the States, Kranz received orders that would have sent him to Oklahoma to fly jet tankers. Furious at the idea of going from the F-86 to tankers, he requested a discharge from active duty. He returned to McDonnell but found the transition back to civilian life difficult. His job had him doing everything but flying the airplanes and it didn’t take him long to apply for a position at Holloway Air Force Base in New Mexico, which would hopefully put him back in the cockpit. He became the lead flight test engineer for the B-52.

One day in December, he received an urgent call from ground test conductor Jack Ernst. They had sent up a B-52 with a Quail missile attached and had been preparing to launch it when they lost power to the missile. If they couldn’t get rid of it, it could explode when they tried to land. They could eject, but that would mean losing the plane and possibly the entire Quail program. The ground crew wanted to find a relatively safe way to bring back both the plane and the people on board. Kranz was asked to bring his schematics to the operations room.

The B-52 had enough fuel that they had time to make a decision. Kranz knew it wouldn’t last forever and shut down on some of the more outlandish suggestions. While brainstorming the problem, engineer Bob Brown suggested a landing method that, if it worked, would shear the pins in the carriage drive motor. The plane’s crew could then push the missile back into the bomb bay. The plane landed on a foam surface to help smother the flames. The technique saved the crew, the plane and the Quail program.

It was now 1960. Aviation magazines were devoting more space to a new civilian agency called NASA and its mission to send men into space. The names of the seven men who had been selected as America’s first astronauts were everywhere. After a failed attempt to return to active duty in the Air Force, Gene Kranz learned that the agency had openings for qualified engineers and decided to send his application to NASA. Many pilots thought he was making a mistake. At the time, the X-15 plane showed more promise than the spacecraft being developed for the Mercury project. The rockets being developed for the effort had a nasty habit of blowing up. Once Kranz made up his mind, though, he stuck to it and was hired three weeks after sending in the application.

First Day of Work

The NASA "Meatball" Logo. Image credit NASA
The NASA “Meatball” Logo. Image credit NASA

Reporting for work was an adventure in itself. Though not normally antsy when flying, he fidgeted all the way to Patrick Air Force Base in Florida. He had to find his way from there to Mercury Control at Cape Canaveral and must have looked lost. The person who was supposed to give him a ride never showed up, so a fellow passenger in a Ban-Lon shirt and aviator glasses offered him a ride in his flashy new Chevy Convertible.

No sooner did they clear the plane than the apparent civilian floored it. “Yeeee-haw!” Kranz quickly became convinced that he had hitched a ride with a maniac. They slowed just long enough for a police officer to wave them through the gate, and then hit the highway doing between eighty and ninety miles per hour. Finally, the driver introduced himself with an Oklahoman accent, “Hi, I’m Gordo Cooper.” Cooper was one of the seven Mercury astronauts selected from military test pilots in the Air Force, Navy and Marines.

Even with a fun-loving speed demon at the wheel, Kranz made it to Mercury Control in one piece and barely had time to settle in when Chris Kraft came into his office with a job for him. Kraft wanted him to write the operating procedures for Mercury flight controllers. Kranz’s mouth dropped open slightly. He hadn’t done much research on what NASA had done so far and wasn’t even familiar with the space jargon being coined. Kraft sent Paul Johnson, a troubleshooter for one of NASA’s subcontractors, to give him a hand.

This was fairly typical for new hires in NASA’s early days. They were writing the book as they went, rockets were blowing up, and somehow they had to put a man into space. People were simply expected to jump right in and help as soon as they came on board. Most were engineers who were pretty focused on their own projects and it took some time for Kranz to get to know people. At first, Kranz felt like he was floundering and many of the others might have felt the same way. With Johnson’s coaching, he spent an intense two days getting up to speed on the art and science of mission control. Kranz would give Johnson credit for being a life-saver at a time when nobody had any experience with space flight.

He visited Mercury Control and found a room full of technology that would become positively antiquated within a few years. Slide rules, boxes containing mysterious symbols and a single first-generation solid-state computer would be replaced by monitors connected to multiple computers. His first sight of a Redstone rocket was hardly more inspiring. It looked positively ungainly to someone used to flying the Sabre, and then working on the B-52. Within a week, he and Johnson had begun work on the Go/NoGo procedures for telemetry display, command and communications and synchronizing the countdown between the Mercury Control Center (MCC) and the capsule and booster. He frequently traded ideas and information with technicians and engineers who were as brand-new as he was and a rudimentary organization began to solidify as they worked. He began to feel like he was starting to get a handle on things.

The Four-Inch Flight

When testing a new technology, sometimes things go wrong in a dramatic fashion. Image credit Spacecraft Encyclopedia
When testing a new technology, sometimes things go wrong in a dramatic fashion. Image credit Spacecraft Encyclopedia

Mercury-Redstone 1 was to be an unmanned test of the combined Mercury spacecraft and the Redstone rocket, which would be used for the two manned suborbital flights. While the countdown progressed, the air was charged with an intensity familiar to Kranz from the days when he tested B-52s. He had only been on the job for slightly more than a month and was just beginning to feel comfortable with the mechanics.

They had one hold to fix a problem with the hydrogen peroxide system. Then, the clock reached zero and the rocket belched a huge puff of smoke. At first, Kranz thought that the rocket had moved out of sight more swiftly than expected. And then the smoke cleared and everything but the escape tower, which had launched to an altitude of 4,000 feet, was still sitting on the launchpad. Kraft called over to the German at the booster station, “Booster, what the hell happened?” The German was one of a team of engineers who had come to America after World War II and kept talking to his colleagues in his native language. Finally, Kraft yanked the cord of the man’s headset out of its socket. “Talk to me, dammit!”

Booster stammered back in broken English that the rocket had lifted just enough to shed the cords connecting it to the tower, and then the engines had shut down. It would later turn out that one of the cords had been a little too short and disconnected too early. For the moment, they had a rocket full of volatile fuel and no way to deal with it. Somebody suggested shooting holes in the fuel tanks to relieve the pressure. Finally, they decided to do nothing until the next day, when batteries would be depleted and tank vents would open on their own, removing the danger.

Still annoyed at the Germans and the dangerous situation, Kraft growled, “That is the first rule of flight control. When you don’t know what to do, don’t do anything.” Doing nothing worked, and Mercury-Redstone 1 went down in the history books as “The Four-Inch Flight.” The incident pushed back their schedule but, in retrospect, would come to be regarded as part of the learning curve of a brand new business.

Adventures In Communications

The teletype machine used by early Mission Control might have looked like this one.
The teletype machine used by early Mission Control might have looked like this one. Image credit Teletype Gallery

Communications with NASA’s network of tracking stations and remote manned sites were provided with a Teletype machine manned by a fellow named Eshelman. As part of his duties as MCC procedures and operations officer, Kranz would work closely with Eshelman and communications chief Andy Anderson for the next two years. Eshelman communicated mostly with his counterpart at Goddard Space Flight Center, where a man known only as “Goddard voice” worked at a complicated switchboard to make connections with stations around the world.

Chris Kraft trusted Kranz to draft the messages to go out to the stations. Manning those remote stations could be a risky position in countries that weren’t very friendly towards the United States of America. Once, riots threatened one of the stations just before a scheduled test launch and the staff transmitted to Houston, “Will stay on site tonight. We have them where we want them.” It took a little thought for Kranz to realize that they were surrounded by rioters and didn’t want to risk not being able to come in for the flight. In another incident, one brave remote site staffer, faced with a burning barricade across the road guarded by menacing renegades, floored it and rammed his car right through an open spot.

It took some delicate diplomacy to maintain remote stations across three continents. Kranz accidentally caused some trouble when he sent an innocuous-looking message to Nigeria inquiring about health conditions. The reply included information on a nearby hospital of questionable quality, the poverty of the locals, the poor government and equally bad climate. The message was intercepted and the U.S. government had to issue an apology to keep from losing their Peace Corps operations in the area. Kraft was mad. “You screwed up. Next time, you’re gone.”

Most days, though, the worst problem with communications was the complicated dance Goddard Voice had to do to maintain the connections. Kranz was impressed by Voice’s ability to anticipate problems and find alternate connections on the fly.

The outside world was becoming impatient. The American public was becoming fed up by Russian crowing about their space firsts that included sending probes to the Moon and, in April 1962, sending Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into orbit. NASA was still moving in baby steps that included two chimp flights. When Castro crushed the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba, it was very nearly the last straw. America needed a spectacular success to reclaim its tarnished image.

Kranz had watched the news program about the Bay of Pigs and shared the team’s frustration. The detonation of Mercury-Atlas 3 only 43 seconds into the flight did not help morale. Some began to wonder whether NASA was jinxed. Finally, though, the Mercury-Redstone with the name Freedom 7 painted on its side got the green light. Alan Shepard became the first American in space on May 5, 1961.

The Mercury Project

Objectives for the Mercury Project included launching a manned spacecraft into orbit, proving man’s ability to live and work in space and retrieving him safely.

Freedom 7

Launch day started even earlier for Gene Kranz than for Alan Shepard. He left the hotel shortly after midnight, carpooling with MCC RETRO Carl Huss.

Huss’ appearance and habits reminded many of his colleagues of a bear and, like a bear coming out hibernation, he was slow to wake up. Kranz enjoyed the early-morning silence and the searchlights in the distance assured him that the countdown was still running. Everything was on schedule when he arrived.

Kranz checked out communications on his and Kraft’s console. Kraft greeted him with his usual, “How’s it going, young man?” and Kranz responded with a thumbs-up.

Then, Kraft was distracted by some issues with the worldwide data network and Kranz moved on.

Kranz described the moment when he heard Shepard had entered his spacecraft as “surreal.” This was the moment they had all waited for since signing up. Then, things started to go south. They sat through five delays and the weather started to foul up. Some of them had to wonder if they were going to face another scrubbed launch. Pencils tapped on desks and, during one delay, Kraft asked Kranz to get him a pint of milk from the lunch wagon to help calm his stomach.

Shepard was even less patient and barked, “Why don’t you fix your little problem and light this candle?” And then the most astonishing routine came over the communications loop.

“My name? Jose Jimenez. Do you know what it really takes to be an astronaut?”

“No, Jose, tell me.”

“You should have courage and the right blood pressure and four legs.”

“Why four legs, Jose?”

“They were going to send a dog. But they decided that would be too cruel.”

Now who in the world would be playing a recording of comedian Bill Dana’s cowardly astronaut routine at a time like this? Kranz scrambled to find the cause. If it was coming from anywhere in this room, he was history. But, as it turned out, the launch pad crew were piping it into Shepard’s spacecraft in an attempt to get him to lighten up. It certainly added to the surreal feeling and got grins from a few people in Mission Control.

Finally, the countdown resumed and reached zero at 9:34 am Eastern standard time. Kranz was so excited that, when he left his station to go over to the Teletype machine, he forgot to remove his headset. The cord snagged a chair and knocked it over. He picked it up just as Shepard made his thirty-second report.

The Freedom 7 reached an apogee of 116 miles and Shepard tested roll, pitch and yaw maneuvers as planned. This assured the doctors whom Kranz considered too conservative that humans could function in space. Fifteen minutes after launch, Shepard splashed down and was soon aboard recovery ship USS Lake Champlain.

During NASA’s early missions, only Public Relations chief Shorty Powers ever used the phrase “A-OK” during a mission and, years later, Kranz admitted that it was accurate if a little too Hollywood. America was now in the manned space business and, in the wake of this victory, Kennedy set a new goal for NASA in a speech to Congress.

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”

Many people in NASA thought the President was too ambitious. Gene Kranz could only think: “Well, let them get on with their great plans. I’m gonna put a man in orbit first.”

The second suborbital, Liberty Bell 7 manned by Gus Grissom, was nearly a carbon copy of Freedom 7, though the capsule sank and Grissom nearly drowned. The helicopter crews seemed more worried about retrieving the capsule than rescuing Grissom. Kranz growled to his console, “Forget the capsule, just get Gus.” Grissom barely made it out of there by grabbing a line from one of the helicopters.

Then, the Russians forced NASA’s hand with another space spectacular. The next manned flight would be an orbital one. Mercury-Atlas 5 was a successful orbital test featuring a chimp named Enos. By now, the astronauts were sick of the sight of chimps and the cadre of monkeynauts were retired after Enos’ flight.

Friendship 7

Mercury-Atlas 6, named Friendship 7 by John Glenn, was originally slated for December 19, 1961. The Mission Control Center was beginning to relocate to Houston and, when the first delay came through, Kranz was just as happy to have the extra time to move his wife and three daughters across the country.

The launch was set for January 27, 1962 and then scrubbed again due to a faulty tank bulkhead. The next date was February 14, and they were forced to scrub one more time due to weather. John Glenn was actually the coolest of the lot by this point, losing his temper only once when somebody suggested that he could get kicked off his flight for supporting his wife when she didn’t want to see the Vice President.

Finally, they settled for February 20, 1962 for a launch date. Kranz had watched enough Atlas rockets blow up to acknowledge that they were gambling with a man’s life this morning. Somebody broke one of the hatch bolts while John Glenn was being inserted into the spacecraft. Luckily, they had spares on hand and they were able to replace it with only a minor delay.

Walt Williams kept one eye on the weather while they waited. When the hold was over, Williams started the poll of the controllers, spacecraft and test conductors. With each “Go,” the room became more electrified. Scott Carpenter called from the blockhouse, “Godspeed, John Glenn! Three seconds, two, one, zero!”

As the Friendship 7 lifted off, Kranz jotted down some notes that included the time of liftoff in Greenwich time (14:14:39Z) and headed over to the Teletype machine to have the information sent to Bermuda. Alan Shepard, in the CapCom position, relayed the “Go” for seven orbits. Though the flight plan only called for three, the extra orbits would give them some extra time if they couldn’t bring Friendship 7 down as planned.

The signal from the spacecraft was relayed from Cape Canaveral to the station in Bermuda, and then on to the Canary Islands. An ex-Marine named Llewellyn was in charge at Canary Islands and stammered a bit as he asked Glenn for the spacecraft status. As Glenn rattled off readings, Kranz couldn’t resist smiling. He wasn’t the only one who was nervous. But there was an overtone of victory, as well, and he resisted the urge to yell, “We’ve got an American in orbit!”

NASA had really come a long way since “The Four Inch Flight.” Glenn’s reports could have been mesmerizing if Kranz didn’t have a job to focus on. He reported a spectacular sunrise, and then some mysterious glittering “fireflies” surrounding his spacecraft. Those fireflies would turn out to be drops of frozen water from the spacecraft. Kraft was less than impressed when Kranz relayed that to him. “Keep me advised.”

The first orbit came to an end with no problems worse than a slight increase of temperature in the cabin. Then, Kraft dropped a bombshell on Kranz: “Shorty Powers has confirmed that the President will make a call at the end of the first orbit. Get with the communications people and make sure everything is set up.”

Kranz didn’t like that very much. He felt that it could have been arranged in advance. Kraft only replied, “The President is the boss.”

As it turned out, the audio technicians were better informed than he was and had been expecting the call. Alan Shepard told Glenn, “Seven, this is the Cape. The President will be talking to you.”

Glenn was as surprised as Kranz had been. “Ah, the President? This is Friendship 7, standing by.” They had trouble patching the President through. The techs gestured to each other for assistance as they stammered out, “Hello, Mister President!”

In another part of the room, the man monitoring the spacecraft’s systems got Kranz’s attention. “I don’t know what to make of this, but I’m showing an indication of Segment 51.” This was more serious than the President’s phone call. Segment 51 was the impact bag deploy. If that had somehow come undone, the heat shield was loose and John Glenn would burn up when he reentered the atmosphere.

As they tried to track down the indication, the chief audio technician had the unfortunate duty of telling the president, “We’ve gotten pretty busy down here!” The president answered, “Give me a call when you get the chance.” Some of the readouts suggested that the Segment 51 was a false alarm, but they couldn’t be certain.

Glenn was troubleshooting some attitude control problems while Mission Control tried to make sense of the data they were getting from the remote sites. Only about half those sites were seeing the Segment 51. Some of the design techs suggested making sure the landing bag switch was off and asking Glenn whether he had heard any banging noises when he maneuvered. Walt Williams and two of the designers joined Chris Kraft at his console and suggested leaving the retropack on during reentry in the hope it would keep the heat shield in place. Kraft was convinced it was a false reading and didn’t like that very much.

Williams asked, “If we come in with the retropack attached, what’s the worst that could happen to us?” Kranz could imagine Glenn’s response if he could have heard that question: “What do you mean, ‘us’?

After a little more discussion, it was decided that they would keep an eye on it, but not to tell John Glenn because they didn’t want to worry him. Leaving the retropack on could work, but only if all three retro rockets fired on time. If they didn’t, there was a chance one of the rockets could go off during reentry and kill Glenn.

The last orbit was the worst. The controllers had no new data and they were trying to troubleshoot without letting Glenn know that he could be in serious trouble. Glenn figured out that something was up anyway and tried to get them to tell him what it was. When he returned to dry land, he would tell the controllers exactly what he thought of not having all the information available.

As it was, Glenn’s response to the retropack plan was pretty tart: “What is the reason for this? Do you have a reason? Over.”

Shepard finally told him that they weren’t sure whether the landing bag had deployed. All three retro rockets fired on time and, as Glenn reentered, the Friendship 7 was surrounded by an ion buildup that blocked radio signals. It was a tense wait for the people in Mission Control and those watching the live coverage of the mission. Finally, the spacecraft was spotted by the recovery ship USS Noa. John Glenn was brought on board to the cheers of the Noa‘s crew and got a taste of the nation-wide celebration to come when his route back to Cape Canaveral ended with an impromptu parade through the nearby Cocoa Beach. The telemetry readings of the Segment 51 would turn out to be false. The comrades in Mission Control celebrated with a big bash that night.

Move To Houston

Mission Control’s transfer to Houston was getting into high gear and Kranz sent out one of Control’s new recruits, Manfred “Dutch” Von Ehrenfried, as a real estate scout. Kranz’s only conditions were that the housing be affordable and that the down payment not be more than $250. The part of Houston that Von Ehrenfried found for them came to be known as Flight Controller Alley.

The Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) was also growing in size, from 750 to 1800 employees in three months. Many of these new people were brand-new graduates from colleges around Texas. A basic training course for flight controllers was set up. The first class of six spent two weeks’ worth of twelve-hour days learning learning Morse code and speed printing.

Kranz handed out their flight controllers’ certificates himself, and then the first class went out to the remote sites. A few of the controllers posted in unfriendly territories like Zanzibar had military experience that served them well when they ran across such obstacles as burning roadblocks and hostile natives. Some of the new mission controllers served only one or two missions, decided the responsibility was too much for them, and moved on to other careers. Others didn’t want to relocate from Virginia. Those who stayed had a chance to move up the ladder and be reassigned back to the friendlier Houston. By the end of the Mercury Project, there were only 50 controllers left in Florida. Houston proved to be a friendly host city, even naming their baseball team the “Astros” in honor of the astronauts.

Aurora 7


Deke Slayton was slated for the very next orbital mission with Wally Schirra as his backup. Things were going reasonably well until Slayton was making a centrifuge run and the physician detected a minor heart fibrillation. He stopped the run and reported it. Even then, Slayton didn’t expect problems. He had made test flights in the F-105 without any trouble and didn’t expect this to be any more serious. It didn’t turn out that way and Slayton was yanked from the flight. Normally, Wally Schirra would have stepped up to the plate as his backup, but they gave the flight to Scott Carpenter instead. At first, Kranz thought Slayton had been pulled off the flight because he complained too much about the experiments he was supposed to perform on the flight. When he found out the truth, he chalked it up to the fact that if you asked enough experts, you would eventually find one nay-sayer. Slayton took charge of the astronaut corps, an important job that must have felt like a consolation prize.


Carpenter swung right into preparations and named his spacecraft the Aurora 7. The flight date was changed to give him more time for training. The Friendship 7 had proven the value of having a man in control of the spacecraft and they hoped to expand on it with Aurora 7. The plan also included observations of the spectacular sunsets and sunrises that John Glenn has reported, as well as Earth and space. Kranz was promoted to assistant flight director, second only to Chris Kraft in the control room. Other changes to the control room personnel included the addition of Llewellyn at the Retro console, responsible for monitoring the firing of the retro rockets just before reentry. Llewellyn would be replacing Carl “Dancing Bear” Huss, who was being moved to the Mission Analysis branch to take charge of designing lunar trajectories for what would become the Apollo Program.


The launch went off on May 24, 1962 at 7:45:16 EST. The first orbit looked good, with Scott Carpenter reporting that the temperature in his pressure suit was a little high. Everything else was nominal, the ground controllers at each remote station were on the ball, and Carpenter made the planned external observations. The fireflies, a mystery during John Glenn’s flight, were reported by Carpenter as “capsule emanating,” droplets of water being shed by the skin of his own capsule. Then, things began to go downhill. During the second orbit, Scott Carpenter reported a disagreement between the attitude readouts and what he was seeing out the window. The people on the ground concurred and recommended resetting the gyros. This didn’t help, and Carpenter ended up wasting a lot of fuel trying to correct until they suggested that he simply coast until he was ready to start the reentry sequence. As Aurora 7 went into the final orbit, it became obvious that Carpenter would have to make a manual reentry. The Capcom at the Hawaiian station talked him through the checklist for retrofire. In the meantime, he was still having trouble with the temperature on his pressure suit and, by the end of his third orbit, was starting to show signs of overheating. At one point, Chris Kraft snapped to Gus Grissom at CapCom, “Dammit, Gus, keep him on task. I think he’s delirious.” Though California gave him the countdown for firing the retro-rockets, Carpenter hit the button three seconds too late. He was going to land somewhere past the planned landing area. It was questionable whether he could even get into the proper attitude for reentry and he would have to use the fly-by-wire system to keep his spacecraft from tumbling. Llewellyn resorted to high school geometry to determine that Carpenter was going to land at least 200 miles long. As Carpenter began coming back into the atmosphere and they lost radio contact, all the people in the control room could do was pray. Kranz had only felt this kind of helplessness when he held his wife’s hand during childbirth. Finally, Grissom caught Carpenter’s report that his chute had deployed and replied that they would get Air Rescue personnel to him within an hour.


Rescue personnel found an annoyed Carpenter munching on a candy bar. Carpenter was heard to comment, “I didn’t know where I was and they didn’t either.” That made Llewellyn mad. “That SOB is lucky to be alive.” From then on, whenever someone wanted to get Llewellyn to tell the story, all they had to do was repeat the line, “I didn’t know where I was and they didn’t either.” Kranz felt that a combination of a distracted crewman, too many scientific experiments, and ground crew taking too long to remind him of checklists had almost cost them an astronaut. They had gotten lucky, but Kranz wanted to eliminate luck as a factor in future space flights. In any case, Carpenter would go on to participate in Sealab and never flew a space mission again.


Ride 'em, Space Cowboy! Image credit Heroic Relics
Ride ’em, Space Cowboy! Wally Schirra goofs off with Sigma 7. Image credit Heroic Relics

Wally Schirra’s six-orbit Sigma 7 flight was a success, with Capcom Deke Slayton providing a little comedic relief when he asked Schirra, “Hey Wally, are you a turtle?” Schirra recorded his reply, “You bet your sweet ass I am!” and then came back on the radio with a simple, “Rog.”

Mercury was winding up for a grand finale with Gordon Cooper’s day-long flight. Bob Gilruth became director of the Manned Flight Center and began reassigning people to make preparations for Gemini and Apollo. Simulation Supervisor Mel Brooks took charge of training and ran the flight controllers through their paces.

Simulated missions were one thing the mission controllers had in common with the astronauts. Brooks would throw every imaginable scenario at them to see how they handled it. One time, the simulation supervisor (SimSup) decided Kraft was depending too much on Kranz and pulled him off.

“Kranz had an accident on the way to MCC and is in the hospital,” SimSup told Kraft.

Kranz protested, “What are you doing? We have a mission to prepare for!”

Kraft was amused. “Looks like you’ve been benched.”

Von Ehrenfried filled in as assistant flight director and did fine. Just before Cooper’s flight, he got a local hospital to provide an electrocardiogram of somebody having a heart attack, fed it into the simulation, and stood back and laughed up his sleeve while the physicians tried to figure it out. That taught the physicians that an astronaut might not have time for doctors to argue over the diagnosis.

Brooks became notorious for his challenging simulations. Kranz’s family was still growing. Marta gave birth to their fourth child, a boy, and the residents of Flight Controller Alley ganged up on Kranz to send him to her side while she was in labor. He would acknowledge that she was an extraordinary woman for sticking with him when he was spending so many long, stressful hours in the Mission Control Center. In the meantime, the Atlas suffered two failures that needed to be sorted out before Cooper could go up in the Faith 7. The launch was pushed back again when the Atlas booster failed an inspection on the launch pad. The problems were solved and the booster passed a second inspection. The launch date for the final Mercury flight was set for May 15, 1963.

Faith 7


Cooper’s mission would last for 34 hours and 22 orbits. To cover it, Mercury Control operated in two shifts for the first time. John Hodge became flight director for the second shift and Kranz was assigned to his team as assistant flight director. Kranz had forgiven Cooper for the wild car ride on his first day of work and liked him for his fun-loving spirit. However, Cooper was not universally popular. A few people were hesitant about his Oklahoman accent, which made him sound like a back-waters country boy, and he nearly got yanked from the mission when he rattled nerves by buzzing the control center in a T-38.

The launch went off as planned at 8:04 AM EST. Things went smoothly at first, with Cooper ticking off his experiments on schedule and the shift change occurring on schedule as Faith 7 was progressing along its sixth orbit. Hodge had a different approach to mission control than Kraft did. Kraft was a very hands-on mentor of the young mission controllers and comfortable with his status as team leader. Hodge tried to obtain a consensus before making a decision, was good with people but didn’t seem quite so comfortable with his leadership role. Kranz remembered him as a nice guy.


Cooper made some celestial observations and took several pictures of Earth and celestial objects during a quiet period in his schedule, and then set a milestone of his own when he became the first American to sleep in orbit. His heart rate dropped low enough to alarm the physicians, who had CapCom wake him briefly to make certain he was okay. The team fell into a mode of relaxed alertness and kept an eye on things until Kraft’s team came back on duty. During the nineteenth orbit, Cooper’s .05 G indicator came on. This would have meant that he had started reentry, but Cooper believed it was a false reading and disabled the fuses leading to it. This disabled an automatic system that would have been used for retrofire. Cooper would have to fire the retro rockets manually. Kranz made sure the new plans went out to the remote stations and set up backup communications with John Glenn, the capcom on the Coastal Sentry. It may have occurred to the control team that part of the reason Scott Carpenter had landed so far out of the planned recovery area was that he had fired the retros a few seconds late, but that was the biggest concern. While going over the stowage and pre-retro checklists with the Zanzibar CapCom, Cooper reported, “My automatic control system inverter has failed. I’ll have to make a manual reentry.” Zanzibar asked, “Have you tried the standby inverter?” “Roger. It would not start.” They continued with the checklist, and then Cooper made contact with Coastal Sentry: “Oh, my automatic inverter failed along with a few other odds and ends. I will shoot the retros on manual and then reenter manually also. I’m looking to get a lot of experience on this flight.” Glenn’s response was a little sarcastic: “You’re going to get it.” Glenn gave the countdown for the retrofire. Cooper made a nearly flawless reentry and, when complimented on a job well done, drawled in his Oklahoman accent, “Aw, shucks, we aim to please.”

The Gemini Project

The Gemini Project had the goals of developing many of the techniques and technologies needed to get to the Moon. Gemini demonstrated extra-vehicular activity (EVA), rendezvous and docking techniques and man’s ability to function in space for mission durations of up to two weeks.


The Gemini Twins

On the outside, Gemini looked like a bigger version of the Mercury capsules. On the inside, many of the systems had been streamlined. The interior allowed more space for the “twins,” two astronauts, who would be riding it, but would still be cramped. Gemini would make use of fuel cells and cyrogenics, storable propellants, and a rudimentary computer. The Manned Spacecraft Center was also being redesigned to make use of computers. Digital systems were also being installed at the remote tracking stations and the data network was upgraded to transmit data at 2.4 kilobits per second, which was considered high-speed at the time.

A new influx of college graduates were brought in to maintain the new technology and bring the control team up to speed. Kranz had only limited experience with computers and had to scramble to catch up. The residents of Flight Controller Alley spent almost two years preparing for the first Gemini launch and became a close-knit bunch in the process.

One of Kranz’s contribution was a mock-up of a Gemini cockpit. He wanted his team to become nearly as familiar with the spacecraft’s controls as the astronauts would be. They would hold blindfold drills in which they reached for each switch until they could almost have flown the thing themselves. The art of flight control was continuing to be refined and the control team spent many hours studying schematics and writing flight procedures and mission rules. Kraft made one change in the job description of the flight director. The description now said: “The flight director may, after analysis of a flight, take any action necessary for mission success.” This cleared up some vague terms in the previous job description and gave the flight director more leeway in directing the missions.

Gemini 2

Gemini 1 was a fairly straightforward test of the Titan rocket and mission control did not get involved until it was time to review the data. Gemini 2 would require controller support. Chris Kraft and Gene Kranz went out to Cape Canaveral in what they hoped would be their final trip for a launch. They shared a two-bedroom apartment to stretch the per diem they received from NASA.

The goal of the mission was a test of the Titan’s propulsion and guidance system. It would be a simple suborbital shot similar to the first two manned Mercury missions and they deployed two ships downrange to help monitor the mission. Problems developed in the thrusters and seat tests and Kraft dived into the task of insuring that the control team was ready for any contingency.

He was still the senior flight director and gave Kranz the authority to do the same with his team. Kranz assured him that he was already on the job. Then, Kranz got his first real test in his new role of flight director when Kraft became practically bedridden with influenza six days before the launch. The job of handling the final simulation, pad tests and pre-launch briefings fell on Kranz’s lap. There was a chance that Kranz would have to step into Kraft’s place for the launch and he was so nervous that he clipped out a Sports Illustrated picture of a woman in a swimsuit for emotional support.

Kraft recovered enough to cover the actual launch and Kranz stepped back to his original role of insuring that the control teams and data network were ready. It was one of the few unmanned shots covered by reporters in the control room and Kranz thought it was a bit much for an unmanned suborbital shot that had become nearly routine in the Mercury days. There were so many cameras in the room that a fuse blew, plunging them into darkness. This was where blindfold drills came in handy. Kranz worked by feel and the mission came off reasonably well for the fact that they weren’t really prepared for a power failure in the control center. The Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston adapted its electrical systems so that wouldn’t happen in the future and camera crews were required to provide their own power when covering future space missions.

Tug Of War

Deke Slayton gets into an intense discussion with some mission controllers.
Deke Slayton gets into an intense discussion with some mission controllers.

Even though everybody in NASA had the same goal of going to the Moon, there were frequent disagreements about how to get there and who was in charge of what. Mission Control got into a tug-of-war with the astronaut office over who, exactly, was in charge of the remote stations. Since Alan Shepard’s flight, it had become traditional to assign astronauts in the role of Capsule Communicator, the one who would have direct contact with the spacecraft in flight, both in Houston and at the remote sites. Though Deke Slayton had been forced into a purely administrative role after being grounded, he was still an astronaut at heart and believed that only astronauts could handle the time-sensitive decision making and communications involved in the role. His belief was shared by Alan Shepard, who was similarly grounded with a debilitating ear condition and worked closely with Slayton. Most of the astronauts who were actually sent out to those sites felt the same.

A radar dish used by the remote tracking stations.
A radar dish used by the remote tracking stations.

Mission Control believed otherwise. Kranz, in particular, felt that the astronauts’ proper role at the remote sites was as observers and assistants. Five days before the launch of the first manned Gemini, Astronauts Pete Conrad and Neil Armstrong went out to the remote sites at Carnarvon and Hawaii, respectively. Once Pete Conrad got to Carnarvon, he encountered Dan Hunter, who was in charge of the station. Both were equally strong-willed and it would lead to a showdown that would provide greater clarity of the roles of both Mission Control and the Astronaut Office during the flight. The trouble started while Kranz and Kraft were still in Florida after Gemini 2. Deke Slayton was in town, too, and received word that Conrad and Hunter had gotten into a heated argument over who was in charge. Hunter had threatened to kick Conrad out of the station for butting into his turf and the hapless station crew sent a message asking for clarification about whose orders they should follow. He went straight to the apartment where Kranz and Kraft were staying. They had fallen asleep, but the banging on the door woke them right up. Slayton shouted, “Chris, we got a problem!” Kranz threw on some clothes and, by the time he got out there, Kraft and Slayton were about ready to duke it out. “Dammit, Chris, get your guy under control!” snarled Slayton. Somehow, they kept it to mere words and talked it out until three in the morning. They cut a deal that would work for the short-term. Hunter would be in charge of the station, and Conrad would be in charge of real-time operations during the mission. Kranz had the changes Teletyped out to the remote stations in Carnarval and Hawaii. Hunter didn’t seem to know when to back down and, the day before Gemini 3 was due to launch, gave Kranz a message to relay to Kraft. “This message doesn’t resolve anything. I am going to have it framed and hanged on the wall of my bathroom.” Chris Kraft’s patience was gone. “You have your orders, young man!” If Kraft had his way, Hunter wasn’t going to have much of a future in Mission Control.


At the customary party on the evening before the launch, the tension between Kraft, Kranz and Slayton had spread to the rest of the controllers and the astronauts and there was none of the usual mingling. Llewellyn had too much to drink and tried to start a fight with Alan Shepard. Kranz intervened and got him out of there. The Gemini 3 crew, Gus Grissom and John Young, had been unaware of trouble before the party but it wasn’t hard to figure out that something was up. Kranz decided that this was no way to run a mission.


The first manned Gemini mission launched on March 23, 1965. Though the official documentation called it Gemini-Titan 3, Gus Grissom had named the spacecraft the Molly Brown. NASA Public Relations hated it but the name was all over the newspapers after the Houston Capcom gave them the send-off, “You’re on your way, Molly Brown!” The mission was a success. After Grissom and Young splashed down, Kraft went to Slayton and cut a deal. The astronauts would be in charge of the spacecraft and Mission Control would be in charge of the mission. Hunter was transferred to the Goddard Space Flight Center and became the Madrid tracking station manager during Apollo. During the post-mission debriefing, Kranz got up on the stage and gave a speech about discipline and control. Thinking back on it years later, Kranz conceded that it was a wonder that more fistfights didn’t break out during the race to the moon.

Ready For EVA?

Leonov during his EVA.
Leonov during his EVA.

While celebrating the success of Gemini 3, Kranz heard through the grapevine that the Russians had scored another space first with an EVA by cosmonaut Aleksei Leonov. It seemed like the U.S. couldn’t score a space first for anything and Chris Kraft seemed distracted when Kranz delivered a report on the Gemini 3 mission to his office. When Kranz finished giving a verbal summary, Kraft walked across his office and closed the door. “I hope you’re ready as a flight director for Gemini 4 because there’s a job I want you to do for me.” Gemini 4 was already a packed four-day mission and NASA chiefs had decided to add an EVA by Ed White. Kraft wanted Kranz to work with the Crew Systems Division on planned altitude chamber tests and put together the mission rules and data packet for America’s first spacewalk.

Kraft was pacing. “This is risky, but I think it’s worth a shot at getting a spacewalk on [Gemini 4 mission commander] McDivitt’s mission.”

Making the job even more difficult, Ed White knew about the possible EVA before most of Mission Control did. Kranz would have preferred the chance to brief remote site teams before the flight but was told, “No briefings.” The remote site CapComs were given sealed envelopes that would only be opened if given specific instructions from Kranz. They contained only a brief note addressing the EVA, plus a planned rendezvous with the booster after separation. Kranz prepared for his Gemini 4 flight director duties during the day and worked on the EVA at night. The EVA ground team reviewed footage of Leonov’s spacewalk and inspected hardware being developed for White’s EVA with the goal of having everything ready two weeks before the scheduled launch date.

In the meantime, Marta had given birth to their fifth child. Their house in Flight Controller Alley had become too small. With Gene Kranz at work most of the time, she had to prepare for a move to Dickinson, Texas, alone. It was her idea to make him a white vest representing his team’s color that he could wear when leading the White Team during a mission. He agreed to give it a try.

Gemini-Titan 4


This would be the first mission featuring three shifts in Mission Control. John Hodge’s Blue Team manned the control center until the crew woke up, and then Chris Kraft’s Red Team took over and went through a nearly flawless countdown. They had only one pause to fix a glitch in the erector holding the rocket in a vertical position. Gemini 4 launched at 10:15:59 am on June 3, 1965. When the Titan burned itself out, McDivitt separated the Gemini from the Titan booster on schedule. He turned the Gemini around and accelerated toward the spent booster. A few minutes later, he reported that the booster was moving away from the Gemini in a lower orbit.


It was a quick lesson in orbital mechanics. By accelerating toward the Titan, McDivitt had boosted the Gemini into a higher orbit and lost ground speed. To catch the booster, he would have had to drop into a lower orbit and gain ground speed. That was counterintuitive to a pilot used to the idea that he had to accelerate toward the object he wanted to rendezvous with. After another attempt to rendezvous with the booster, Kraft decided that they should give it up.


In the meantime, Ed White was preparing for his EVA. This would mean exposing the entire interior of the spacecraft to vacuum. There would be nothing between the astronauts and instant death but their thin space suits and helmets. The team decided to give him an extra orbit to get through his checklist. No one knew what to expect. Deke Slayton had told McDivitt that if White was having problems outside that could endanger both of them, he should simply close the hatch and come home. Nobody really expected him to obey. During the third orbit, Gemini 4 was given the Go to depressurize the spacecraft.


While the air in the spacecraft was gradually reduced, McDivitt and White performed final checks on their spacesuits. An inflated pressure suit was like a balloon with a man inside and White had difficulties getting through the hatch. He made it, though, and cavorted around the Gemini with only a thruster gun to manuever. He was obviously having a good time as he made observations on the Earth and space. Twenty minutes sped by fast and both the ground team and McDivitt prompted him to begin thinking about getting back into the spacecraft. McDivitt told him, “Come on, let’s get back in here before it gets dark.” White reacted like a kid told to come in for supper. “It’s the saddest moment of my life.” “Well, you’re going to find it sadder when we have to come down with this whole thing.” “I’m coming.” White came back through the hatch and they wrestled to get the hatch closed. It had lost its flexibility in the cold of space. Mission Control had planned to jettison the now unnecessary EVA gear but decided not to press their luck. With that done, Chris Kraft turned the flight director’s chair over to Gene Kranz. “Young man, it’s yours.”


Kranz donned his white vest for the first time to a mixed reaction. Von Ehrenfried rolled his eyes and couldn’t resist needling his boss. “If you’re not careful, they’re going to haul you away and then I’ll be in charge.”

The needling didn’t stop there. Kranz suddenly found himself the center of the closed-circuit TV cameras and several controllers commented, “Nice vest, Flight!” The next day, pictures of Kranz in his spiffy white vest were featured in newspapers across the country.

There were a few unresolved items and glitches, informally referred to as “funnies”, in Kraft’s logbook. They were minor items and easily resolved, and then Kranz turned his attention to preparing Gemini 4 for drifting flight so the crew could get some sleep. Direct contact with the spacecraft would be sporadic as its orbit took it into areas not covered by the tracking network.

Kranz’s team spent most of this quiet time to do a more in-depth analysis of the spacecraft’s systems and orbital trajectory. Llewellyn had taken charge of the flight dynamics team. His team made use of a pneumatic tube system for sending messages to other controllers and computer operators. The aluminum cylinders reminded him of his days as a Marine.

He exclaimed to nobody in particular, “I think I am back in the trenches again with my fire control team, surrounded by empty 105 howitzer canisters!”

From then on, the Flight Dynamics team was referred to as “The Trench” and it wasn’t long before “The Trench” matchbooks were circulating.

In the meantime, Llewellyn’s team was busy working on orbit trajectory propagation. Their job was to keep track of the spacecraft’s orbit and forecast where it would be hours or days in the future. This was critical for planning maneuvers like rendezvous and Gemini 4 was their first real test of their ability to keep track of variables like atmospheric drag.

Kranz’s first shift in Mission Control passed uneventfully and he handed the logbook to John Hodge. He hung his white vest on a hook, his thoughts racing ahead to the news conference he now had to face. Though NASA’s public-relations officers were not universally popular and often hated by the astronauts, Gene Kranz thought they really earned their pay when dealing with the press conferences.

This press conference did cause one lingering misconception about Kranz. The blurbs about the flight directors in the press release said he looked like a poster boy for the Marines. The press ate that one up and, from then on, Kranz felt like he was forever explaining that he was Air Force, not Marines.

He found a place at MCC to sleep until the end of the mission. If he needed an assist to wind down, he could go to the doctors for a double shot of whiskey to put in his coffee. He found out fast that whiskey and coffee were not a good combination. Other controllers didn’t like the idea of relying on drugs to get to sleep and did without. Gemini 4 splashed down on June 27 after a successful mission. Marta was happy that her white vest had gone over so well and Kranz had an idea that she could make a more flashy vest he could wear at the end of a mission to signal his team that they had done a good job.

Gemini-Titan 5

Kranz’s team came up with a surprise for him in the form of an American flag he could keep in his office and bring down to Mission Control at the beginning of each mission. It saw its first use on August 21, 1965, at the launch of Gemini-Titan 5, an eight-day mission set to beat Russia’s endurance record and put the U.S. in the lead. The crew was Gordon Cooper and Pete Conrad. Cooper had come up with the slogan “Eight Days or Bust” for the mission. The public relations department didn’t like that very much and suppressed it until after the mission. Conrad had recovered nicely from his spat with Hunter before Gemini 3 and Kranz liked his intensity and honesty. It turned out to be a good match for Gemini 5.


The oxygen flow to the fuel cells dropped to alarming levels during the first orbit. Thinking fast, the crew abandoned the planned rendezvous maneuver and powered down equipment. Kraft could have aborted the mission right then, but decided to give it a few more orbits to troubleshoot and see if the oxygen levels began to level out. To be on the safe side, Kraft had recovery teams redeployed to emergency landing areas. The White Team began to move into place to back up Kraft’s Red Team. The fuel cell situation began to stabilize, but it was obvious that they weren’t able to operate at full power and some of the experiments were canceled. Kraft wanted to go for a full day and began preparing for the handover. Kranz expected a normal handover routine in which they would go over any outstanding issues. Kraft was eager to get to the press conference and abruptly put his headset away. Kranz didn’t know if he had a plan.

“Chris, what do you want to do?”

“You’re the flight director; it’s your shift. Make up your own mind.”

Kraft was handing him another test. Gemini 5 was going to fly through a zone of poor coverage in the ground network and Kranz had an important Go/NoGo decision to make.

Systems engineer John Aaron had helped design the fuel cells and suggested running a load test. Kranz had the crew power up and then send an oxygen purge through the fuel cell. This would hopefully get rid of excess moisture and impurities in the cell. He timed it so that, if something went wrong, they could run on batteries until they could get to a convenient spot to start reentry.

The fuel cell held up to the load test and Kranz watched the oxygen flow to the fuel cell begin to increase gradually. By the time Hodge’s Blue Team took over, they had worked out a plan to power up systems incrementally for the next few days. His team’s handling of the crisis convinced Kranz that he was now a full-fledged flight director and, at the press conference at the end of the shift, he featured Aaron as the real hero for saving the fuel cell.

The mission made it almost the full eight days. Kranz was forced to cut it one orbit short during his final shift so the crew wouldn’t fall into a hurricane during reentry. This gave him a perfect opportunity to pull a fast one on Llewellyn. Scott Carpenter had just started his thirty-day Sealab mission and Llewellyn hadn’t forgotten his line, “I didn’t know where I was and they didn’t either.”

Kranz recruited FIDO, RETRO and CapCom as co-conspirators and told them that he wanted to convince Llewellyn that the countdown for the retrofire would come from Sealab. Llewellyn came into Mission Control to start his shift and FIDO pretended to be so focused on his job that he didn’t even respond to Llewellyn’s greeting. So he asked RETRO what was going on and RETRO answered, “It’s this dad-blamed test from Sealab. It doesn’t make sense.” Llewellyn got curious and asked Kranz.

Kranz had a hard time keeping a straight face as he explained, “We have orders to patch communications through to Sealab so Carpenter can give the countdown for the retrofire. I argued with Kraft about it but he says, ‘Do it!'” Llewellyn was furious and inadvertently pulled Dave Scott into the gotcha by telling him all about the fictional test. Scott blew up and threatened to quit the program if this was the kind of crazy decision he could expect during a mission.

Kranz let them both dangle for a few more minutes before explaining that it was all a joke. Kranz had taken up Judo at Llewellyn’s invitation and realized that the evening’s match was going to be an especially rough one.

Gemini 5 splashed down with a duration record under their belts and Mission Control began to look ahead to their first attempt at rendezvous and docking. The planned star of the show was an automated spacecraft called Agena. Some of the MCC controllers were less than impressed, especially after one ground test in which faulty software sent every available command to the Agena. If this had happened during an actual mission, they would have been in big trouble. Their disparaging comments would turn out to be accurate.

Gemini 6


October 25, 1965 looked like a beautiful morning for the planned double launch. The Agena would go up first to set up the conditions of the rendezvous. Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford waited in their Gemini for the second launch. The Agena launch went smoothly. The Atlas booster separated from the automated spacecraft on schedule and the Agena lit its engine. Then, the data on FIDO’s console stopped updating. They had lost contact with the Agena.


The Gemini 6 countdown continued until Range Safety reported debris falling into the ocean. When it became obvious that the Agena had exploded, Kranz’s team decided that there was no point in launching the Gemini and called it a day. That evening’s Judo match gave both Kranz and Llewellyn a chance to vent their frustrations, and then they retreated to the Singing Wheel. This was the controllers’ favorite bar, where they celebrated successes and mourned losses. For a little while, it looked like Gemini 6 wasn’t going to happen. Then, somebody had an inspired idea. Gemini 7 was going to go up before too long. Why not make it the target vehicle for the Gemini 6 rendezvous? Though neither side in the Space Race had mastered rendezvous yet, the Russians had already demonstrated their capacity for running two missions at once. Could the Americans do the same? They were certainly going to find out and Gemini 6 and 7 came to be known collectively as Gemini 7/6.

Gemini 7/6

Image credit: Kennedy Space Center
Image credit: Kennedy Space Center

Some people at the Cape weren’t too thrilled with the idea of a dual mission, mostly because it added quite a bit of complexity to their normal work. MSC chief Robert Gilruth was a quick convert and a review by Kranz’s team revealed no problems that they couldn’t solve or work around. The Gemini 7 crew, Frank Borman and Jim Lovell, welcomed the idea. They were up for a two-week mission in a spacecraft that wasn’t very big and the rendezvous would give them a break in the monotony. The plan was to launch Gemini 7 and promptly swing into action to prepare the same pad for the launch of Gemini 6. The pad and the surrounding area would be checked for debris. The pad would be checked for damage, and then the Titan with the Gemini 6 spacecraft on top would be brought out to the pad and inspected. If everything went smoothly, Gemini 6 would launch one week after Gemini 7.

Mission deployment began on November 21 and SimSup began running the controllers through their paces. For all his inventive simulations, there was one “gotcha” that he wasn’t responsible for. Somebody got the idea that the man in charge of Hawaii, named Ed Fendell, could fake a heart attack during training. The goal was to see if the backup team were capable of jumping in if something happened to him.

During the final dress rehearsal for network simulation, Fendell crumpled in a heap as planned. It was such a convincing act that the rest of the Hawaii team were momentarily distracted. Bucholz plugged into the voice loop to Houston. “Chris, Fendell just had a heart attack!”

Kraft probably remembered the time SimSup had told him that Kranz had gotten into an accident on the way to the Center. “Is this your doing, SimSup?” “Not mine, Flight!” Kraft told Hawaii to inform the Houston surgeon of Fendell’s condition and kept his team on task. Bucholz stepped up to the job beautifully. When it was over and Fendell rolled to his feet, a startled but relieved Hawaii team wondered how tell Kraft. Kraft wasn’t very happy but acknowledged the “gotcha.” Bucholz had passed his test and went on to critical ship assignments for the rest of Gemini.

Gemini 7

December 4 1965


There wasn’t a single controller who didn’t sympathize with Borman and Lovell. The Gemini spacecraft was so small that they would effectively be confined to their seats for two weeks. If they hadn’t been working in weightless conditions, they would have inevitably developed pressure sores. They wore lightweight suits designed only for use inside the spacecraft. Theoretically, they should have been able to get into those suits in less than twenty minutes, but in reality, it took about an hour. Space food was still so unappetizing that no one who had actually tasted the stuff blamed John Young for smuggling a corned beef sandwich on Gemini 3. Kranz compared it to a camper’s worst nightmare and led efforts to keep the crew’s morale up during the mission.

The launch of Gemini 7 went smoothly and the ground team wasted no time. The Titan booster for Gemini 6 was on the pad within two hours. Borman and Lovell successfully rendezvoused with their own booster and flew in formation for a while. Then, they got started on medical experiments. The suits might have been lightweight, but Borman and Lovell had a repeat of Scott Carpenter’s suit heating problems during Aurora 7.

When the crew reached Day 3 with little relief, Lovell stripped off his suit. Mission Control wanted to let both of them remove their suits when medical data showed that Lovell was sleeping better, but NASA management refused to allow it. Control even tried playing the media card and told the press that the crew risked overheating in those suits to no avail. Borman and Lovell had to take turns wearing the suits.

NASA procedure also called for nearly all communications between the crew and the ground to be available to the press. To allow for limited private communications, Mission Control worked out a workaround code called UHF-6. If either the ground or the crew requested a UHF-6 test, a private loop would be set up with a surgeon in the back room and the surgeon would privately brief the flight director afterwards.

The press was typically nosy, however, and Kranz tried to give them a runaround with highly technical jargon about communications and antenna. That failed and he was forced to admit defeat. With the Gemini 6 launch coming up, all the controllers were pulling exhausting double shifts.

Llewellyn got himself into trouble when he went home to sleep. When he didn’t show for White Team’s next turn in the control room, Kranz had the previous shift’s RETRO give him a call. Llewellyn raced to work and, without thinking of the possible consequences, drove his car across the lawn and up the stairs. Perhaps he thought he had found the perfect parking place at the building’s main entrance, but security personnel weren’t amused.

Lunney and Hodge had his parking pass suspended and told Kranz, “Llewellyn has got to learn a lesson. Having to walk on site will maybe put a dent in his thick skull.”

Kranz doubted it and Llewellyn proved him right when he showed up with his own horse the very next day. Whenever Gemini 7 flew into gaps in ground coverage, Kranz drilled his team in the fine art of handling two flights at once. It was a nightmare for the CapComs and the computer people, who had to learn how to switch between the programs for each mission in an instant. One little glitch could bring the computer system down. Early in the morning of December 12, 1965, Kranz’s team was exhausted but ready when they handed things over to Hodge’s Blue Team. Somebody had cancelled the post-shift press conference, leaving him free to return to his quarters at MCC. As a result, he missed seeing how steady astronauts could be when things went wrong but heard all about it later.

No Lift-Off

The computing team responsible for planning the rendezvous were real heroes for working with calculators and computers that were cutting-edge at the time but only one step up from slide rules. Their numbers indicated that, if Gemini 6 launched at 8:54 a.m. CST on December 12, 1965, they could perform the maneuvers necessary for the rendezvous. Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford were up bright and early on launch day and went through the traditional launch routine that included the steak-and-egg breakfast that became an astronaut tradition, a medical checkup, and suiting up for the ride.

The countdown went smoothly. There were two abort controls that could be activated if there was trouble. One was in Mission Control between booster engineer Charlie Harlan and CapCom C.C. Williams. The other was in the Gemini, located where Wally Schirra could grab and yank it.

Harlan had exactly two worries at this point. Nobody particularly liked the Gemini ejection system, so he did not want to call an abort when one wasn’t necessary. Neither did he want to call an abort too late and risk losing a crew in a fireball. The clock reached zero and the engines lit with the usual rumble intense enough to be felt inside the Gemini.

Then, everything went quiet. For an instant, Harlan wondered if they were having a repeat of “Kaputnik,” an early American answer to Sputnik that had been lost in a launchpad explosion, with two crewmen inside. Then, he checked his readouts. “No liftoff!” he told the flight director over the communications loop.

In the Gemini, nobody would have particularly blamed Wally Schirra if he had activated the ejection system. However, he was cool as a cucumber and realized that it would have been the wrong move. He would comment later that having been through a launch once before helped. He knew what liftoff felt like and knew by the lack of rising G-forces that they were still on the launchpad.

He and Stafford kept rattling off numbers. The ground crew moved swiftly through the launch kill procedures. The Titan’s systems detected that launch hadn’t occurred and engines shut down automatically. Inspections revealed that an umbilical had released prematurely and a dust cover also hadn’t been removed. Some people may have thought of “The Four-Inch Flight,” in which a power cord had also caused a premature shutdown by disconnecting early. Once again, they were lucky. The ground crew went through an efficient turnaround and they were ready for the next launch window just three days later.


Gemini 6 had given them so many problems that it was almost a letdown when it finally launched without a hiccup on December 15, 1965. The rendezvous maneuvers went smoothly and Gemini 6 caught up with Gemini 7 six hours after launch. When the White Team took over the control room, they had little time to celebrate but the 6 crew certainly found time for a few jokes.

Wally Schirra had brought along signs that read, “Deke Slayton, are you a turtle?” and “Beat Army.” Deke Slayton at the Capcom position recorded his answer and Gemini 7 shot back, “Oh, Wally has a sign. It says ‘Beat Navy.'”

Since it was the Christmas season, Gemini 6 couldn’t resist reporting a UFO apparently originating at the North Pole. “It’s a large module being pulled by eight smaller modules, moving rapidly from north to south. There’s a man in a red suit inside.” Wally Schirra played “Jingle Bells” on a harmonica with Tom Stafford accompanying him with a string of bells to the sniggers in Mission Control. Of course, the “UFO” would be driven by Santa Claus. Gemini 6 was a success and came home the next day. At the press conference, the reporters played a gotcha on Gene Kranz by bringing along a bottle of what they claimed was champagne for a toast. It turned out to be Canada Dry ginger ale. Gemini 7 went on to set an American endurance record that would stand until Skylab eight years later. After the success of Gemini 7/6, many of the controllers began to move over to Apollo, draining the Gemini team enough that Mission Control decided to go with a two-shift rotation for Gemini 8.

Gemini 8

March 16, 1966


Having only two shifts for a mission was a staffing mistake they never made again. By the time the launch day for Gemini 8 arrived, Kranz and Hodge were both exhausted from planning, training, mission reviews and press conferences. The crew, Neil Armstrong and Dave Scott, were going to rendezvous and dock with an Agena. The Agena control team was made up of novices but was balanced out by an experienced Gemini team. This time, Hodge’s team got both the Agena and the Gemini on their way smoothly. The crew and Mission Control were preparing for final rendezvous maneuvers when the White Team came on duty. Mission Control and the remote sites used timed-tagged stored program commands (SPC) to control the unmanned Agena. Because the Agena spacecraft had given them so many problems, nobody was taking any chances that it might misinterpret a command and go wild. The Agena had an error checking routine that helped controllers verify that the command being put in the onboard computer’s memory was the one they had sent. As a backup, the remote site computers performed an echo check by automatically recording each command as it was converted into radio waves and checking it with the intended command load. If the telemetry from the Agena’s error checking routine failed, controllers could perform a manual check that would take several hours or save time by basing their decisions on the echo check.


Gemini 8 was only half an orbit from rendezvousing with the Agena when the CapCom on Rose Knot reported that they had lost the automatic data comparison on the Agena. The Agena systems engineer tried to rerun it, and then began printing out the memory data for the manual check. The echo check looked okay, so Gemini 8 approached the Agena as planned, Rose Knot gave everything one last check, and the controllers gave the Go for docking. The Americans scored their second space first when Armstrong reported, “We’re docked, no noticeable oscillations, very smooth.” Everything seemed to be going well, though CapCom Jim Lovell decided that Armstrong and Scott should be informed of the failed load comparison. A military coup in Zanzibar had forced NASA to move the remote station over to Madagascar and Gemini 8 was making a pass over it when Lovell told them, “If the Agena attitude control system goes wild, just send the command to turn it off and take control of the spacecraft.”


Everything looked normal when Gemini 8 flew into a zone of no coverage. When they regained contact, Armstrong and Scott were rolling at a rate of one complete rotation per second. At that rate, they risked blacking out. The roll had started when they were still docked to the Agena and they had undocked, thinking something had gone wrong with the automated spacecraft. As it turned out, one of their own thrusters was stuck open. Armstrong drained the orbital fuel trying to get the Gemini back under control and had to fire the reentry thrusters to stop the roll. They would have to come back home. Hodge’s Blue Team had been on duty for eleven hours and was exhausted, so Hodge asked Kranz to take over. Kranz called in his White Team and contacted recovery forces. Gemini 8 was going to come down in an area not covered by the recovery network. Armstrong wasn’t very happy about having to abort and spend time floating in the western Pacific Ocean but started the reentry procedures. Gemini 8 lasted only ten hours and forty-one minutes but the rookie Agena team got two more days to practice controlling the Agena. Though Gemini 8 had been abortive, NASA had learned some important lessons. Gene Kranz summed it up at the debriefing. “We got our crew home safely and the control teams did a damn fine job under real-time pressure. I know this is going to sound like Monday morning quarterbacking, but the lessons from the mission are how we screwed up in planning and training. “The crew reacted as they were trained, and they reacted wrong because we trained them wrong. We failed to realize that when two spacecraft are docked, they must be considered as one spacecraft, one integrated power system, and a single structure. “The next thing is that many of us did not trust the Agena. Brooks’s team thought it was a great piece of hardware. If we don’t trust a spacecraft, we have to fix it. We were lucky, too damned lucky, and we must never forget this mission’s lessons.” They were all lessons that would serve them well during the Apollo 13 crisis. For the moment, they made the necessary changes and went forward into preparations for Gemini 9. It would be Gene Kranz’s last Gemini mission before he moved over to the Apollo project.

The Angry Alligator


With John Hodge moving over to Apollo, Gene Kranz was the only one of the original three flight directors left in Gemini. Glynn Lunney and Cliff Charlesworth were promoted to fill the role. Lunney was the youngest flight director and earned a reputation as one of the smartest. Kranz thought of him as his main competitor. Charlesworth had a background in Army ordnance labs and earned the nickname “The Mississipi Gambler” for his laid-back personality. Both had been part of the trajectory team.


They had only two months to prepare for Gemini 9 and Kranz was forced to make an unpopular move. He declared that there would be no holidays or vacations. Some of the controllers’ wives were quite annoyed and let him know about it. He stuck to his guns and explained that astronauts’ lives were on the line every time they sat on top of one of those rockets. During a launch, controllers had to be capable of making split-second decisions. Whenever a controller made a mistake in simulations, the worst that would happen was that he would get teased about it at the end of the day. If it happened during a mission, the astronauts might not make it home. The crew for Gemini 9 was Gene Cernan and Tom Stafford. Cernan was one of the few early astronauts who had served a role other than CapCom in Mission Control. He had been a booster tank monitor for the first four Gemini missions and the controllers easily accepted him into their ranks. He did most of the talking for the 9 crew. Stafford was the quiet one of the two and generally kept his opinions to himself. Their first launch attempt on May 17, 1966 was a bust when the curse of the Agena struck again and pieces of it fell into the Atlantic Ocean. So they pulled out a new backup rendezvous vehicle called the augmented target docking adopter (ATDA), the mission was renamed Gemini 9A for the sake of bureaucracy and they scheduled the next launch attempt for June 1. The ATDA launch went well but the controller for this new automated spacecraft reported that it was guzzling fuel and the adapter shroud might not have opened fully. A command shut down the ATDA’s attitude control jets. If the shroud hadn’t opened fully, they might not be able to dock but that was a secondary objective. A failure in the ground support equipment forced them to scrub the Gemini launch for two days.


Marta made a special vest with gold and silver brocade over the familiar white for the next launch attempt. It made an impression on visitors on June 3 and Kraft even made a few kidding comments. It may have been a good luck charm. Either way, the launch was successful that day. The crew rendezvoused with the ATDA on the third orbit and confirmed Mission Control’s suspicions about the shroud. It was only partly open and held in place by a band. “It looks like an angry alligator,” reported Stafford. Mission Control sent several rapid maneuver commands in an attempt to jettison the shroud with no luck. In the meantime, the Gemini left the Agena, orbited Earth one more time, and returned for a second rendezvous. A brainstorming session by the ATDA team failed to come up with any workable ideas. Stafford suggested using the nose of the Gemini to nudge the shroud off and Kranz was quick to veto that idea. For the time being, Kranz’s team gave up on trying to get the shroud off. Kranz went home for supper and to get some fresh clothes to bring back to MCC quarters. When he got back, he found out that somebody had come up with an idea of doing an EVA to release the shroud and went down to the ready room to see what he could find out. Some of NASA’s top staffers were there. Kranz considered the plan too risky and had his suspicions about who was behind it. Buzz Aldrin was one of the more loudly opinionated astronauts and had picked up the nickname of “Dr. Rendezvous” for his attempts to assist with rendezvous planning. He was in the middle of explaining how the EVA might be done. Kranz explained to the top players in the room that there was a lot of energy stored up in the shroud’s release mechanism and Cernan would have nothing to latch onto while he worked. Newtonian physics applied while in orbit and just using a screwdriver could send him spinning if he had nothing to hold onto. If that thing came off with Cernan nearby, they stood a chance of losing one astronaut. NASA didn’t need that kind of poor publicity. He was overridden and, even worse, Chris Kraft had done nothing to back him up. Furious, Kranz threatened to quit after the mission was over. Kraft shrugged it off and ordered him to get the job done. However, Kranz still had one trump card. No one could override a flight director when he was directing a mission in real time. If it seemed like Cernan was having any kind of trouble, Kranz would wave him off. Even so, he spent a sleepless night going over possibilities. The safest approach seemed to be taking some medical scissors to the lanyard. Gemini 9 was just completing the third planned rendezvous when the White Team came back on duty. The crew ended up saving Kranz from having to make a choice. They were already exhausted and getting low on fuel. They wanted to save the EVA for the next day. Considering the circumstances, this was the equivalent of canceling it altogether. CapCom looked to Kranz for direction and a relieved Kranz gave him a thumbs-up. “Flight concurs.”


Kranz had recently been offered a chance to return to test flight and would likely have done so if they had gone ahead with the plan to release the shroud. He had dodged a bullet. Cernan went on to make the planned EVA. Even without going over to the Agena, it was a surprisingly tough job and he wore himself out just getting to the backpack stowed in a compartment outside the Gemini. He was drenched with sweat and the evaporation fogged up his visor, blinding him. NASA physician Chuck Berry recommended rest breaks that didn’t help much. Cernan didn’t need any prodding to give it up. White’s easy EVA during Gemini 4 had fooled them all. EVA was harder than it looked and it was added to their list of problems to solve before the first moon landing. The problem was in the way the astronauts were being trained and the rocketmeisters in Huntsville, Alabama, solved it with a water tank where astronauts could practice EVA activity. Gemini 9 came home safely and Gene Kranz moved over to Apollo. He missed being a flight director for Gemini 10, 11 and 12 but had plenty of work to do. He found a program full with problems.

Apollo 1


For all the problems that the Mercury and Gemini missions had thrown at them, NASA hadn’t yet lost astronauts during a mission. NASA personnel were starting to get overconfident and NASA senior staff had decided to go with a new contractor called North American Aviation to build the Apollo spacecraft. Chris Kraft was already on the project and trying to straighten out the way it was being mismanaged by arrogant NAA employees. It wasn’t going well. The NAA fought them on issues like releasing technical details of the spacecraft and assigning representatives to the control center to help with preparations. They even got into the ongoing debate about the route they would take to the moon. One favorite route was called Earth Orbit Rendezvous (EOR), in which astronauts would rendezvous with a spacecraft already in orbit and land that spacecraft on the moon. Another route was an underdog called Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR), in which a crew of three astronauts would go into lunar orbit, and then two of them would undock in a smaller spacecraft and land it on the moon. NAA took the EOR side, which would give them full control of manufacturing the spacecraft.


North American turned out a spacecraft that was so riddled with problems that Gus Grissom hung a lemon on it. Perhaps someone should have taken the hint. The “plugs-out” test scheduled for January 27, 1967, was considered to be low-risk. The crew were in their pressure suits, in a one hundred percent oxygen atmosphere, and locked in with a newly redesigned hatch that would not blow off by accident.


The crew were Mercury astronaut Gus Grissom, Gemini 4 Spacewalker Ed White and a rookie astronaut named Roger Chaffee. At 1:00 pm, they were sealed into the spacecraft. Kranz volunteered to lead the MCC team participating in this test and was in his office before sunrise. The Apollo program director had been complaining about the MCC’s readiness and especially their computer systems, so Kraft sent a memo to Kranz telling him to get his systems people to quit their “gold-plating” and justify their requirements. Kranz sent back a quick acknowledgement and went to get the MCC ready. Controllers started to arrive for the test at about 11:00 a.m. They were all sick of the amount of testing by this point and John Hodge griped to Kranz, “I sure hope things go well today. We need to get going on our own work.” Kranz just handed over the logbook, went down to his office to get a little work done, and then knocked off early to beat the rush hour traffic. The crew received their “go” to enter the capsule. Grissom plugged his suit into the oxygen supply and immediately reported a sour smell. Hodge paused the countdown for air sampling and the countdown resumed at 1:25 p.m. Chris Kraft had planned to head up his Red Team for the launch and went down to the MCC for the planned handover. Hodge decided to hang around in case the test dragged on as it had for some of the plugs-in work. Some intermittent communications problem gave Kraft’s team headaches and caused Grissom to growl, “How can we get to the moon if we can’t even talk between two buildings?” They could have called it a day, but decided to give it another hour. Then, shouts from the cockpit sent chills down everybody’s spine. “Fire!” “We’ve got a fire in the cockpit!” “We’ve got a bad fire, get us out! We’re burning up.” Then, somebody screamed and they heard nothing else. Efforts to get them out took several minutes and they found the crew in a heap next to the hatch. They had obviously been trying to undo it but simply couldn’t in time.

The Aftermath


Gene Kranz had just gotten dressed for a night out with his wife when he got a knock on the door. He thought it was just the baby-sitter, so he called, “Hold on, I’m coming.” He went downstairs and the man at the door was flight controller Jim Hannigan. “They had a fire on the launchpad. They think the crew is dead!” Kranz turned on the TV to see what the reporters had found out so far. It wasn’t much. Chris Kraft had acted quickly to lock down Mission Control so they could investigate. Envisioning explosions and an inferno that consumed the entire pad, he rushed to the Center and had trouble finding a parking space. Every available controller was reporting in to see what they could do to help.


The controllers still in the control room were too stunned to say much. Those still capable of focusing were going over data at their stations. Most of the rest were milling around, trying to make sense of the tragedy. “It was gruesome,” was all John Hodge could get out. Chris Kraft was on the phone with Deke Slayton. Slayton described fire spewing out from inside the capsule and molten metal running down the sides. There was nothing more they could do for the crew. They had lost three pilots in the worst way imaginable, in a ground test that shouldn’t have been much of a risk. Most thought it had taken only seconds. It was a harsh reminder of the hazards of space flight. Kranz organized a meeting of his branch and flight control team in a nearby auditorium. At Hodge’s request, he also included the civil servants, Philco controllers and spacecraft contractors.


Hodge started the meeting with a briefing that included the information they knew so far. Then, Kranz took the podium. He had gone from shock to anger and wanted to say something that would snap the people out of their own shock. He had not planned a speech, but the words seemed to flow naturally anyway. “Spaceflight will never tolerate carelessness, incapacity and neglect. Somewhere, somehow, we screwed up. It could have been in design, build or test. Whatever it was, we should have caught it. “We were too gung ho about the schedule and we locked out all of the problems we saw in each day of our work. Every element of the program was in trouble and so were we. The simulators were not working, Mission Control was behind in virtually every area, and the flight and test procedures changed Daily. Nothing we did had any shelf life. Not one of us stood up and said, ‘Dammit, stop!’ “I don’t know what Thompson’s committee will find as the cause, but I know what I find. We are the cause! We were not ready! We did not do our job! We were rolling the dice, hoping that things would come together by launch day, when we knew in our hearts it would take a miracle. We were pushing the schedule and betting that the Cape would slip before we did. “From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: ‘Tough and Competent.’ Tough means that 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. “When you leave this meeting today you will go to your office and the first thing you will do there is write ‘Tough and Competent’ on your blackboards. It will never be erased. Each day when you enter the room these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White and Chaffee. These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control.”


The official investigation would reveal that the fire had started somewhere near Gus Grissom’s seat. There was some speculation that Grissom could have done something to cause the fire, which the controllers and engineers who were most involved in the project thought was pure nonsense. The fire had started in an area that Grissom couldn’t reach from his seat, even by accident. The Apollo spacecraft went through a redesign process that included a hatch that could be opened in seconds, a reduction in combustible materials in the spacecraft, a change in the cabin’s atmosphere from pure oxygen to a hydrogen-oxygen mix, and insulated wires that couldn’t cause sparks. Though the blame was never pegged on any one person, some of the controllers quit and others suffered breakdowns and were transferred out of Mission Control. Those who remained set their minds to picking up the pieces and swore that they would do whatever it took to honor the Apollo 1 crew’s sacrifice and reach the Moon by the end of the decade.

The Apollo Program

The Apollo Program was America’s final push in the race to the Moon. It would produce nationally and internationally recognized names like Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Jim Lovell, Pete Conrad and many more.


Chris Kraft had been promoted to chief of the Flight Operations Directorate and gotten so busy with his new duties that he was no longer an active flight director. Gene Kranz had been promoted to the deputy of the Flight Control Division and decided to only direct the odd-numbered Apollo flights. Though he didn’t realize it at the time, this put him directly in line to be a flight director for the first lunar landing.

NASA returned to unmanned tests of the Saturn V rockets and the new Command, Service and Lunar Modules that made up an Apollo spacecraft. Apollo 2 and 3 were skipped and Apollo 4 launched successfully on November 9, 1967. It was an “all-up” test, checking out all three stages of the Saturn rocket and then hurling the empty command module back toward Earth to test the heat shield. It was the idea of George Mueller, who was in charge of the actual manned spaceflight program, and Gene Kranz would give him a lot of the credit for getting to the moon a lot sooner than they would have otherwise.

Apollo 5 was a test of the Lunar Module. The walls of the LM were so thin that a good poke with a pencil would have punched a hole right through them. They wouldn’t have worked in an atmosphere and were so ungainly-looking that the astronauts called the training version “flying bedsteads.”

It was a good chance to try out a few new controllers who had come on board since Gemini. Kranz would need them. Three days before the launch, LM control engineer got into a traffic accident on his way to work. While he was still able to cover the actual launch, he was unable to move his upper body and could only communicate with the help of fellow controller Bob Carlton. The launch went smoothly, and then they ran into two alarms at once.

DPS DELTA V indicated that the thrust hadn’t built up fast enough. They would have to reset the timer. The other one was simply labeled, FORGET IT. This meant that the command to throttle up the engine had not been executed.

They extended the mission by an orbit to see if they could still accomplish all their goals. Sending commands went from being a hassle to being a major problem due to poor signal strength. The controllers ended up punching in commands manually. Kranz did not want to lose the test of the LM’s abort system, so he decided to ditch all the other tests if he absolutely had to and focus on that one.

The command was sent up and Kranz heard the welcome news from Carlton: “Fire-in-the-hole, abort stage, we are stable!” Their struggles with the commands had done some damage to the LM but they accomplished all the important objectives. Because of their success, newspapers were able to report the happy news: “Apollo Mission A Success, Lunar Program On Track!”

Apollo 6 was less than successful due to failed rocket engines. In August 1968, Flight Control Division chief John Hodge was abruptly transferred out to study post-Apollo options, leaving Kranz in charge. Coupled with an accelerating schedule, he would compare it to “juggling grenades.” They were about to get rolling with manned flight again, with Wally Schirra in command of Apollo 7. It would turn into a battle of wills.

Apollo 7

October 11-22, 1968

Apollo 7 was to be a simple shakedown of the command and service module. It would also be the first three-man crew with Wally Schirra, Walter Cunningham and Donn Eisele and the first time the American public could watch a live mission through the on-board TV camera. Wally Schirra was not thrilled with the idea. In fact, the normally good-humored Mercury astronaut seemed to have suddenly turned into a grouch. Glynn Lunney oversaw the launch and handed things over to Gene Kranz. Things seemed to be proceeding smoothly so far. Then, Schirra reported that he had developed a cold and taken an Aspirin. Luckily, they had Kleenex on board though Schirra reported that he had to blow pretty hard to clear his nostrils. The flight surgeon recommended a decongestant. His crewmates caught his cold and it did nothing for the mood of any of them. By the third day, Schirra’s bad temper was obvious enough for newspapers to comment, “Captain Awakes Grumpy.” He curtly vetoed the TV show, leaving an embarrassed PR staff to explain that one to the press. He backed down after the fifth day and the crew tried to make up for it by continuing the tradition of Schirra’s humorous signs. Kraft and Slayton broached the subject of keeping their helmets on during reentry and Schirra blew up. As he later put it in a Sudafed commercial, “Have you ever tried sneezing in one of these?” On the one hand, keeping the helmets on would protect them if the cabin depressurized suddenly. On the other, they still had the colds and risked ear blockage and possible hearing loss if they kept the helmets on. It took some doing, but the flight directors did their best to keep their cool with the crew and keep their flight teams on track. Even so, it took its toll and Lunney vented his frustration to Kranz during the last handover, “I have finally had enough of this crew.” Schirra got his way on the helmet issue and his crew made it down on schedule. It was Schirra’s third and last space flight and Eisele and Cunningham never flew in space again. Lunney received a well-deserved medal for his efforts. Kranz never found out why Schirra had been so bad-tempered and, after leaving NASA, Schirra went back to his normal funny self.

Apollo 8

December 21-27, 1968


Apollo 8 gave the trajectory people some interesting problems to figure out. Many of them remembered the complexity of rendezvous during Gemini and that was in Earth orbit. Performing a rendezvous with another world 250,000 miles away was a whole different ballpark. While Kranz did not plan to participate in the control room for this mission, he did find opportunity to stop by. Apollo 8 really belonged to Llewellyn and his team in the Trench, along with a fellow named Bill Tindall. Tindall had been brought in to help pull things together after the Apollo 1 fire and Llewellyn’s people sparred with him at first. Tindall won their respect quickly enough and they spent a lot of time debating ideas. Kranz had to fight the urge to jump in and help. This was his first mission as FCD chief and he was understandably keyed up. His team assured him that everything was on schedule and, the evening before the launch, they got a surprise visitor. Charles Lindbergh stopped by to say hello and Kranz chose to interpret it as a good sign. “Lucky Lindy” had been the first to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean and it seemed to Kranz like he was silently passing the baton on to the next generation of pioneers.


Cliff Charlesworth’s Green Team got the crew on their way at 7:51 EST on December 21. Like many of the Gemini controllers had been, some of the members of his team were fresh out of college and Llewellyn couldn’t resist playing a joke on one of them. One of the youngsters asked about a controller who had visited the coffee station ahead of them. Llewellyn retorted, “Sheeet, man, that’s Captain Refsmmat, the ideal flight controller!” Refsmmat was Trench shorthand for “reference to stable member matrix.” The rookie controller fell for it and “Captain Refsmmat” became the mascot for the Trench. Pretty soon, pictures of Refsmmat were hanging in strategic locations around Mission Control and scribbled on by appreciative members of the team who saw it as a safe place to express their thoughts. Captain Refsmmat stuck around for the rest of Apollo and Skylab. Being an observer was rough on Kranz and he spent a lot of time roaming the halls of Mission Control, plugging his headset in where he could. It was a big relief when the TLI burn that would send Apollo 8 out of Earth orbit and on a path to the Moon came off successfully. Three days later, Apollo 8 would be swinging around to the far side of the moon for the first time. The control room was almost completely silent except for the voice of CapCom Gerry Carr, “You’re Go for lunar orbit insertion.”


No one on Earth would know if the lunar orbit insertion (LOI) engine burn was successful until Apollo 8 emerged from the radio blackout that came with being on the far side of the moon. Carr told the crew, “Apollo 8, you’re looking good. … Ten seconds to loss of signal.” Jim Lovell answered, “See you on the other side.” They heard a burst of static. Now came a tense half hour of waiting. The time for the LOI came and went and the controllers took the opportunity for a break. Charlesworth the “Mississippi Gambler” wasn’t as laid back as normal and went out for a couple of cigarettes. There was nothing any of them could do but watch the clock and hope to reacquire the signal on schedule. The minutes dragged on until the clock reached zero. “Flight, we’ve had telemetry reacquisition.”


A relieved control team let out a few cheers and went back to reviewing the data. Apollo 8 was in the planned orbit just sixty miles above the surface. The crew described craters that they named in honor of space luminaries like Gilruth, Kraft, Slayton and Low and also honored fallen astronauts Grissom, White, Chaffee, Ted Freeman, Elliot See, C. C. Williams and Charlie Bassett. They took numerous pictures, including this iconic image of the Earth rising over the moon. The crew had been working for almost a full day by this point and Borman decided that the crew should get some rest before the trans-Earth injection burn that would put them on course for the return to Earth. Kranz was observing from one of the consoles in the back of the room when Bill Anders revealed his Christmas Eve surprise. He began reading the Creation story from the Book of Genesis. Kranz, a Catholic, felt chills go down his spine as Jim Lovell and then Frank Borman picked up the story. What could possibly be more appropriate? Borman closed it out with, “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you – all of you on the planet Earth.” As the crew settled into a route back to Earth, some of the controllers kidded about the possibility of actually hitting the carrier assigned to retrieve the crew during the final reentry phase. The guidance system had improved that much. Luckily, that didn’t happen and the Apollo 8 crew had a successful splashdown on December 27, 1968.

Apollo 9

With the successful completion of Apollo 8, Kranz’s team jumped right into preparations for Apollo 9. The mission was meant to test the Lunar Module in Earth orbit and was scheduled to launch in two months. They had gotten behind on preparations.

During one simulation, Gene Kranz proved that not even the flight director was immune to mistakes when he called an abort too late and sim-killed the crew by landing them in a mountainous area of Africa. It was an embarrassing mistake but a good reminder not to get too relaxed during a mission.

The mission commander was James McDivitt with Dave Scott as the command module pilot and Russell “Rusty” Schweickart as the lunar module pilot. The crew came up with the names of Gumdrop for the CSM and Spider for the LM. That got chuckles from some of the controllers while PR staff howled in outrage at the undignified names.

The entire crew caught colds before the launch date of February 28. Nobody wanted to risk having another sick crew in space, so it was pushed back to March 3, 1969. This was the first actual Apollo launch Kranz would be covering and he had “Stars and Stripes Forever” playing in his head as he donned his white vest.

The Saturn V was the most powerful rocket built to date and consumed five and a half million pounds of fuel in just over two and a half minutes. He prayed silently during the final seconds of the countdown. The launch came off smoothly.

When they tried to retrieve their LM from the compartment on the Saturn, some of the thrusters weren’t working. The culprit was a switch that had been accidentally bumped. Switch covers would be included in the future.

A few hours later, the Spider finally came out of the compartment. For such a fragile spacecraft, the Spider held up well to the repeated firings of the Gumdrop‘s main engine over the next few days.

They were just getting ready to power up the Spider for testing when McDivitt sprang an unpleasant surprise on them. Schweickart had been space sick for days and might not be able to perform a planned spacewalk that would have taken him from the lunar module to the command module.

The people in Mission Control wished he had reported it sooner. Though the astronauts and NASA medical staff had never gotten along, the flight surgeon could have helped.

It certainly didn’t help Scweickart’s reputation or the image of the tough astronaut. Fortunately, he was still able to perform most of the work.

Tests of the Spider‘s thrusters and descent engine went well. The next day, Schweickart was feeling well enough to try his EVA. Retrieving some science packets from outside the LM wore him out and they decided to call off the planned transfer to the command module.

They were ready for the real test. The LM was in good shape and Dave Scott reported that it looked good on his end, so Kranz gave them the go for separation. The descent propulsion system quickly moved the Spider away from Gumdrop and Scott reported that he could see it to a distance of fifty miles. They kept going out to one hundred miles. The Spider‘s crew now had to reverse course and head back to the Gumdrop. This meant firing the ascent engine as if they were returning from the moon. If it didn’t work, Dave Scott would have to perform the first space rescue and track them down. The Spider successfully flew back to the point where Scott could dock with them again. The highlights of the mission were a success. The LM tests revealed only a few minor issues that were fixed easily enough. The next Apollo was a full-dress rehearsal of the first lunar landing.

Apollo 10

Kranz had been overloaded with controlling both the Lunar Module and the Command and Service Module during Apollo 9, so he decided to try the idea of having one flight director for each spacecraft for Apollo 10. One director would work with EECOM and GNC while the other would work with a lunar module team made up of CONTROL, keeping track of guidance, attitude control propulsion and navigation, and TELMU, keeping track of electrical and environmental systems and EVA systems. Lunney and Charlesworth weren’t convinced. The crew of Tom Stafford, Gene Cernan and John Young launched on May 18, 1969. They had named their CSM Charlie Brown and their LM Snoopy. This got the same howls from PR, leading NASA to decide that names for spacecraft would be serious from now on. They were in lunar orbit three days later. As planned, Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan took Snoopy down to within five miles of the lunar surface. They were preparing to go back up when their navigation system went haywire. Hearing a startled exclamation, “Son of a bitch!” from the crew sent adrenaline spikes through the control center. They reported that Snoopy had become a wild dog and they were forced to take manual control to make it up to Charlie Brown. The crew splashed down safely and the concept of having two flight directors proved out well enough to convince Lunney and Charlesworth. The stage was set for the first lunar landing.

The Apollo 11 Channel

Preparing for Apollo 11

Gene Kranz made Charlesworth the chief flight director for Apollo 11. This meant the leader of the Green Team would be in charge of assigning flight directors for each mission phase. He walked into Kranz’s office and spent a moment looking out the window before turning to Kranz with a smile.

“I think it’s time to decide on the Apollo 11 phase assignments. I think I should launch Apollo 11 and do the EVA. Milt Windler will take the entry. This leaves Glynn with the lunar ascent and you with the landing. Is this okay with you?”

Kranz agreed and, with that done, Charlesworth left his office. Kranz promptly called home to share the good news with his wife, and then called his staff in. There was no way he could sit still and perhaps they guessed the good news from the way he was pacing around his office.

He chose his landing team quickly. Bob Carlton, dubbed “The Silver Fox” for his gray hair, became CONTROL, responsible for LM navigation, control and navigation systems. Among other things, he would be responsible for keeping track of how much fuel remained on the LM.

Don Puddy became TELMU, responsible for communications, power and life support systems. He appointed himself leader of the lunar module team.

Steve Bales became GUIDO, responsible for guidance systems. He had the black round-rimmed glasses characteristic of his nature as a computer whiz, and had a habit of speaking rapidly.

FIDO was a New Yorker named Jay Greene who took on the self-appointed role of coaching Kranz in the trajectory work needed to land on the moon.

RETRO was a cocky Trench veteran named Chuck Deiterich. He had a bad habit of giving Flight either too much or too little information, once even giving Kranz some cheek: “You don’t want to hear about that. It’s too technical.”

Ed Fendell took on a position that involved consolidating communications between the CSM and LM. It was his idea to use the command module as a communications relay if they couldn’t get a direct connection with the lunar module. His attitude could be abrasive and he didn’t get along well with some of the flight directors. Kranz thought he did fine as long as he was kept on a short leash.

Charlie Duke joined the team as Kranz’s CapCom. He integrated with the team so well that Kranz thought that he would have made an excellent flight director.

While establishing the mission rules, Bill Tindall livened things up with his Tindallgrams. A typical Tindallgram might read: “There is another thing about powered descent crew procedures that really bugged me. Just call me ‘Aunt Emma’; certainly some smart people may laugh at my concern, but I just feel that the crew should not be diddling around with the computer keyboard during powered descent unless absolutely necessary. They will never hit a wrong button, of course, but if they do, the results can be really lousy.”

Many of his Tindallgram ideas were incorporated into the mission rules, including changing the Go/NoGo decisions to Stay/NoStay for actual lunar activity. For his efforts, Bill Tindall became an honorary flight director with Gray as a team color and Kranz invited Tindall to sit beside him for the lunar landing.

Training started eight weeks before the planned launch date. They ran through the planned mission for the first couple of days to identify major Go/NoGo points and get a feel for what a “normal” mission with no problems would be. A new SimSup named Dick Koos continued the tradition of imaginative simulation scripts that helped the control team refine procedures and mission rules.

Not everything went perfectly. The crew and controllers often trained together and that meant the computer network between the control room and crew simulators needed to stay up and running. When it didn’t, SimSup had to contend with impatient astronauts and controllers while technicians tried to troubleshoot. If things got too bad, Slayton and Kraft could get involved and things tended to snowball when training for subsequent missions got pushed back.

Sixteen-hour days were not uncommon. When the computer system did work, they nailed sim after sim until Koos decided that Kranz’s team was beginning to get too overconfident and ratcheted up the pressure. Kranz’s team would remember June 10th as a killer.

They nailed the first few scenarios, but they turned out to be just warm-up rounds. On the fourth run, the Trench allowed the LM’s speed to build up too fast, resulting in a crash. On the fifth, a combination of an electrical problem and a primary computer failure killed the crew. The team’s performance went downhill from there. It got so bad that Chris Kraft gave Kranz a call.

“I listened to your runs today. Sounds like you had a tough time. What’s going on?”

Kranz assured his boss that his team was only having a bad day and would get through it with more training and revisions of the mission rules.

Things did improve for a while. A readiness review on June 17 revealed only one issue that sparked a debate that would last until the week before the launch. Chris Kraft brought up the issue of landing data rules. Most controllers had made a bad call based on faulty telemetry data at some point during training. Would they be able to get enough telemetry data to make a decision on landing?

Kranz finally solved the issue by adding a mission rule: “The flight director will determine if sufficient data exists to continue the landing.”

This would insure that humans would make the final call where computers failed.

By July 5, the Apollo 11 crew had deployed to the Cape and the White Team was training with the Apollo 12 crew. They had nailed six tough simulations, boosting their confidence. The 12 prime crew switched places with their backup crew. This would be the final simulation before Launch Day and Kranz’s mind was already on the bits of business he had to take care of before the launch.

It turned out to be a mistake. SimSup had “Case Number 26” loaded into the simulation computers and told his men, “OK, gang, let’s see how much they know about program alarms.” The GUIDO, Steve Bales, spotted a 1201 alarm on his readouts. He had to look it up in an index file. “1201-Executive Overflow-No vacant areas.” For some reason, the computer was receiving more data than it could handle and had gone through a restart cycle.

Mission rules told him nothing, so he checked with his computer expert. “It’s a BAILOUT alarm. The computer is busier than hell and has run out of time to get all the work done.” Still clueless, he watched the computer go through some more restarts. He had to make up his mind. “Flight, Guidance. Something is wrong with the computer. I’ve got a bunch of computer alarms. Abort the landing, abort!”

Kranz passed the abort command along to CapCom and it was executed perfectly. Dick Koos told them, “That was not an abort. You should have continued the landing.” He skewered both Kranz and Bales for the mistake. It was a lousy way to finish the team’s training. Steve Bales was embarrassed and frustrated. He promised Kranz that he would find out what he could and went off to make phone calls to MIT, which had developed the software. By the end of it, they had a new mission rule listing the program alarms that would trigger an abort. Neither 1201 or 1202 were among them.

Launch of Apollo 11

Gene Kranz was up before sunrise on July 16, 1969. He was even more psyched this day than he was on most launch days and all his wife could do was pack him a lunch and boot him out the door. Once he was in the control room, he only betrayed his nervousness with the constant clicking of his ballpoint pen and sweaty palms that made pages from the logbook curl up.

For all that the other flight directors teased him about it, none of them could deny that they were tense today, as well. Chris Kraft was sitting at the back of the room and kept asking Charlesworth about the status of the countdown. Charlesworth finally threatened to have him kicked out of the control room if he didn’t cool it. This was one of the few times when a flight director could talk back to his boss and Kraft desisted.

At first, the launch could have been just another simulation if it wasn’t for the presence of luminaries like Bob Gilruth and the MCC’s in-house PR representative, Jack Riley. Riley kept up a running commentary for the benefit of reporters outside the control room and, when Kranz overheard him saying something about “lunar landing mission,” it sank in. They were finally going the rest of the way and only Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins had better seats than the people in the control room.

Charlesworth stayed on duty until after the trans-lunar injection, and then Kranz took over. The crew went into their first sleep cycle during Kranz’s shift and his team only had to keep track of any funnies. He made notes and everything went smoothly for the next few shift rotations. During his final shift before the landing, the crew entertained television audiences with a tour of the spacecraft that included a first look into the lunar module. The controllers were relieved to see that it looked in good shape, though they wouldn’t get any telemetry on it until Armstrong and Aldrin powered it up for the landing. Kranz had the traditional post-shift beer with his team at the Singing Wheel, and then went home to wait out the thirty-two hours until the landing.

Eagle Undocks with Columbia

July 20, 1969 started just like any other day at the Center. Kranz pulled into his usual parking spot bright and early and was greeted by a security officer known to him only as “Moody.”

“We gonna land today, Mr. Kranz?”

Kranz gave him a thumbs up. “Today’s the day. We are Go.”

There was certainly extra security on hand today to make certain the control team was not bothered by outsiders. The American public’s attention had been diverted by social upheavals and the war in Vietnam. The control center had received some anonymous bomb threats over the past few years and did not need the distraction today of all days.

The conversation was subdued in a counterpoint to the electric sense of excitement in the control room. They were finally going to go the final five miles. The control room had its usual odors of pizza, coffee and cigarette smoke. Kranz paused just long enough to hang his coat on the rack and allow his eyes to adjust to the darker lighting.

Many of the White Team controllers were already preparing to take up their roles. A bouquet of roses had come in from an anonymous admirer and was placed where it could be picked up by TV cameras. He picked up a cup of coffee and brownie on his way to Flight’s console.

Kranz brushed off some debris Lunney had left on the console and went over the logbooks from the previous shifts. Most of it was trivial enough for Lunney to label it “Peanuts.” Chris Kraft and John Hodge stopped by to wish him good luck. Neither of them were active flight controllers anymore and they were probably a little envious of Kranz.

Sitting to the right of Flight’s console, space artist Robert McCall was rapidly making a series of sketches, one of which would evolve into this picture of Armstrong and Aldrin on the lunar surface. Kranz called for his team to check in and received a series of green lights in return.

Armstrong and Aldrin began their checkout of the Lunar Module bearing the name of Eagle. As they powered up equipment, the Lunar Module controllers received their telemetry and passed a “Go” along to Kranz. The Trench updated their navigation data, synched up clocks with the spacecraft, and passed along new maneuvering data to the crew. At 99 hours and 24 minutes into the mission, Kranz polled his controllers for the final Go/NoGo decision before Eagle undocked with the command module, Columbia.

CapCom Charlie Duke passed the final “Go!” on to the crew. The Eagle undocked. At the time, they didn’t realize that a small puff of air between Eagle and Columbia had given the lunar module a little extra push that would throw off their calculations. Eagle maneuvered around Columbia so that Michael Collins could get a good look at it. “You have a good looking flying machine, Eagle, despite the fact that you’re upside down.” Neil Armstrong shot back, “Somebody’s upside down!” Kranz scribbled notes on both spacecraft as Charlie Duke continued to exchange information with the crew. Kranz polled his controllers again and then gave the “Go” for the separation maneuver that would take the Eagle from flying formation with Columbia to a point 50,000 feet above the moon.

“The Eagle Has Landed!”

Michael Collins in the Columbia fired a burst with his thrusters and Eagle tracked its departure with the radar. The tension in the air was almost like static electricity and the paper in Kranz’s logbook was rolled up like a papyrus scroll. Both spacecraft disappeared behind the Moon and the team took a break. They were all so focused on business that there was none of the usual byplay in their conversations. Crunch time was in forty minutes. They would either land successfully, abort, or face the devastating loss of two brave men. When the White Team returned to their consoles, Kranz called for a private conference over the Assistant Flight Director loop. He gave him a pep talk. He didn’t remember exactly what he said, but this was the gist of it:

“Okay, all flight controllers, listen up. Today is our day, and the hopes and the dreams of the entire world are with us. This is our time and our place, and we will remember this day and what we will do here always. In the next hour, we will do something that has never been done before. We will land an American on the Moon. The risks are high. That is the nature of our work. We worked long hours and had some tough times but we have mastered our work. Now we are going to make this work pay off. You are a hell of a good team. One that I feel privileged to lead. Whatever happens, I will stand behind every call you will make. Good luck, and God bless us today!”

The team returned to the main flight director loop. There was no recording of what he had said and no way anyone on the outside could have listened in. It was a private moment between the members of the White Team. They were getting down to crunch time. Kranz wrote down the time on a curled up page in his logbook and ordered, “Ground Control, lock the control room doors. Take Mission Control to battle short.” No one would distract the team by entering or leaving.

The Eagle and the Columbia emerged from the far side of the moon. Communications and telemetry with the Eagle proved to be unreliable. Communications would last just long enough for the LM crew to make a report on a maneuver and then go out again. With only five minutes to make a Go/NoGo decision for descent engine ignition, Kranz prayed, “Please God, give us comm.” Ed Fendell’s solution of relaying information through Columbia came into play pretty quickly. Charlie Duke called Eagle with a suggestion that they change the LM’s attitude.

They received telemetry just in time for the Go/NoGo decision and Kranz fired off the poll of his controllers before they could lose it again. Duke asked Columbia to relay the “Go” to Eagle. The attitude change helped marginally and Armstrong’s and Aldrin’s voices came in like a bad signal on an AM radio. For all that it was broken up, the crew sounded confident and Kranz listened to the control room’s communication loop. On schedule, the crew reported, “Engine start, ten percent thrust.”

Then, communications went out again. GUIDO began to see indications that the navigation system could be carrying them out of the planned landing zone and alerted Kranz. The Eagle confirmed that they were going to land long. Otherwise, the spotty telemetry seemed to indicate that everything still looked nominal. The team began to relax and the telemetry bottomed out again.

Kranz told his team to base their decisions on the last good data and, though GUIDO still didn’t like that they were going to land outside the planned area, all the indications were still “Go.” They could just barely hear Armstrong’s report of a new alarm. “Program alarm! It’s a 1202.”

Bales’ team went to work to track it down. Charlie Duke was quick to catch the significance. “It’s a 1202 alarm. … It’s the same one we had in training.” This time, the computer whizzes were on top of it. Bales relayed his team’s “Go” to Gene Kranz. One of the controllers commented, “This is just like a simulation,” and Kranz agreed.

The alarm would pop up a couple more times. Otherwise, the throttle-down went smoothly and the Eagle began its turn from its horizontal flying position to a vertical one. Landing was scheduled for seven and a half minutes later. Kranz took the final Go/NoGo poll for landing and told Duke, “Capcom, we are Go for landing.” However, Armstrong didn’t like the look of the area that the Eagle‘s computer was taking them into and took manual control to find another landing site.

Aldrin continued to report on altitude, “3,000 feet. Program alarm, 1201.” Bales was quick on the uptake: “Go. Same type. We’re Go.”

Carlton at LM CONTROL was keeping an eye on the fuel situation while controllers continued assessing data and making their calls. Finally, on Duke’s advice, Kranz ordered, “The only call-outs now will be for fuel.” As they got under 500 feet, the fuel was starting to get dangerously low.

At 160 feet, Carlton warned, “Low level.” There wasn’t enough fuel left for the gauges to measure it. Kranz silently urged the crew to select a landing site, and quickly. “Sixty seconds.” Duke relayed that to the crew.

The flight directors had argued with Armstrong about landing rules and Kranz had a feeling that he would have tried to land no matter what. Armstrong finally found a spot he liked.

“Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

Charlie Duke stammered, “Roger Twan…Tranquility. We copy you on the ground. You’ve got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.”

“Thank you.”

Kranz had to fight a strong surge of emotion and ended up tossing a pen through the air. “Everybody stand by for Stay/NoStay. Stand by for T1.” This was the first of three major Stay/NoStay decisions. Both the T1, two minutes after landing, and the T2, eight minutes after, were Stay. T3 would come when the Columbia was above the landing site again. However, sixteen minutes after T2, they had one tense moment when Carlton reported, “Flight, the descent engine helium tank pressure is rising rapidly. We want the crew to vent the system.”

If left unchecked, it could have ruptured a disk. If the crew had to leave the moon now, it could have triggered one of command module pilot Collins’ nightmare rendezvous scenarios, but venting the system worked and the pressure stabilized. T3 came and went with a “Stay” decision. With the landing accomplished, Charlesworth’s team began the handover. Kranz went back to the simulator control room to thank SimSup’s team. He learned that SimSup had flipped his car in his haste to get to the control center and luckily walked away unscathed. Kranz went to the press conference, regretting only that he hadn’t had more time to simply savor the moment.

The First Moonwalk

Both Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were too keyed up to take the planned nap. Kranz was keyed up, as well, and went straight back to Mission Control after the press conference. He found a seat next to Charlesworth and, at 9:56 pm Houston time, Armstrong put the first footprint on the Moon. His words summed up what Kranz felt for the next few months: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Aldrin followed soon afterward with, “Beautiful, beautiful. Magnificent desolation.” It was certainly a thrill to be part of one of the proudest moments in American history. Armstrong and Aldrin spent the next couple of hours collecting samples, setting up experiments and taking pictures. They got a picture of Aldrin saluting the flag and had intended to get a picture of Armstrong, but a congratulatory call from the president distracted them. Armstrong went exploring a little bit and looked into a nearby crater, and then they tossed out a “packet” commemorating astronauts and cosmonauts who had given their lives for space exploration. Armstrong jumped back onto the ladder and returned to the Eagle. The next month, Kranz attended a presidential dinner with several other controllers and control center staff. The Army Drum and Bugle Corps kicked things off and President Nixon handed out awards. Steve Bales received a well-deserved Medal of Freedom. No one had expected to land on the moon on the first try. Having done it once, they felt the increased pressure on Apollo 12 to repeat the success. It would certainly get off to an exciting start.

Apollo 12

Launch of Apollo 12

The planned landing site for Apollo 12 was the appropriately named Ocean of Storms. A Surveyor probe had landed there three years before and one of the goals for the mission was a more precise landing within walking distance of the probe. The weather was miserable on the launch date of November 14, 1969.

The crew was Alan Bean, Richard Gordon and Charles “Pete” Conrad. Flight Director Gerry Griffin would be launching the spacecraft for the first time. Gene Kranz sat beside him at the assistant flight director’s console. It was still raining at the Cape and they called a hold at twenty-two minutes to check the weather forecast. Although the weather would remain lousy, the decision was “Go.”

Apollo 12 disappeared into the clouds within seconds. Gordon reported, “Looking good. The sky is getting brighter.”

Then, all the lights went out in the Yankee Clipper. “Uh-oh!”

Conrad asked his crewmates over a private link, “What the hell was that?” “We had a whole bunch of the buses drop off,” Gordon told Mission Control.

The controllers had their hands full. Their displays went out and then stopped updating.

A systems controller named John Aaron remembered seeing something like this once before during a pad test. A technician had switched off the power supply, scrambling the data. He told Griffin, “Flight, have the crew take the SCE to Aux.” This would activate a backup power system.

CapCom Gerry Carr relayed the order to the crew. Conrad had no idea what he was talking about. However, Bean did.

“I know where it is!”

He flipped the SCE switch to Aux. It worked. The electronics in Yankee Clipper began coming back online.

The atmospheric funnies weren’t done with them yet. The radar at Carnarvon picked up the Yankee Clipper several minutes before it should have. This meant that Yankee Clipper was moving faster, at a lower orbit, than it should have been. However, the telemetry indicated that it was at the altitude they wanted. Some quick troubleshooting revealed that an atmospheric anomaly was bending the radio waves in a way that fooled the radar.

Griffin was still worried about the lightning strike and would have given the Yankee Clipper a complete checkout if it wasn’t in orbit.

Kraft took some of the pressure off: “We don’t need to land on the moon today, young man. It’s your call.”

Griffin talked things over with the controllers and crew and finally gave them the “Go” for trans-lunar injection. Apollo 12 went on to land precisely on target and featured two moonwalks. About this time, Kranz had an irrational feeling that things were going to go wrong. 1969 had been a highly successful year for NASA and he felt that they had gotten too lucky. He didn’t have to wait long for trouble.

Gene Kranz and Apollo 13

Launch of Apollo 13

The 5th Dimension’s “Aquarius/Let The Sun Shine In” practically became the theme song to the Apollo 13 control team. The crew had named the Command Module Odyssey and the Lunar Module Aquarius. Jim Lovell was the commander, with Fred Haise as the Lunar Module pilot. Ken Mattingly was to be command module pilot, but was exposed to the measles and replaced by John Swigert, who transitioned smoothly into the position.

Charlesworth had moved on after Apollo 12 to become head of the new Earth Resources Project Office. Gene Kranz would be lead flight director for this mission. Lunney had recently been promoted from the Trench to be part of the flight directors’ team. Gerry Griffin and Milt Windler would also be working with them.

Windler was cool as a cucumber during his first launch. The center engine of the second stage gave out, but the other four engines proved sufficient and Apollo 13 reached orbit smoothly. After the trans-lunar injection, the controllers believed that they had gotten past the most likely place for a major glitch.

For the next few shifts, the controllers maintained an attitude of relaxed alertness with the most exciting event being a live TV broadcast from Apollo 13. Mattingly pushed for access to the control room. Not wanting to risk exposing his controllers to the measles, Kranz agreed that he could have an unused network console during the EVA. During Kranz’s second shift, they had some difficulties with the communications antenna and the EECOM was troubleshooting difficulties with the telemetry readings for Oxygen Tank 2.

The oxygen tank had initially been part of the Apollo 10 spacecraft, but had been removed and inadvertently damaged in the process. Ground testing had given them some problems and the tank only needed a spark to explode. As they moved through the pre-sleep checklist, EECOM asked for a cyro tank stir. This caused a spark between two wires in the heater circuit and the oxygen tank blew. Lovell called over the radio, “Okay, Houston, we’ve had a problem!”

A Crisis In Space

At first, Kranz thought it was just an electrical glitch. Haise reported that they had heard a bang with the Caution and Warning and the voltage levels were still looking okay. The White Team had been preparing to hand things over to Lunney’s Black Team and Kranz decided it would be better if he stuck around.

On the surface, it seemed pretty similar to the temporary chaos that the Apollo 12 lightning strike had caused. As they troubleshooted for the next fifteen minutes, it became obvious that there would be no lunar landing. The best outcome would be getting the crew home alive.

They were losing the liquid oxygen for the fuel cells, which provided power for the Command and Service Module. They were in danger of losing control of the main propulsion system. No simulation had ever covered a situation like this.

Every controller wrestled with his data and CapCom Jack Lousma echoed their frustration when he asked, “Flight, is there any kind of lead we can give them? Is it instrumentation or have we got real problems or what?”

Kranz suggested that the crew check the helium valves were open. The bang they had heard could have jolted them shut.

Ten minutes into the crisis, Kranz decided to get Chris Kraft in the loop. He called Kraft’s house and Kraft’s wife picked up. Kraft was in the shower and Kranz let her know that it was urgent. Kraft came on and Kranz filled him in.

“Chris, you better get out here quick, I think we’ve had it!”

As Kraft raced to the control center, the controllers and crew fought to keep the gimbals from locking up, which would have cost them their ability to control the spacecraft attitude. Then, Lovell happened to look out the window.

“We are venting something out into space. It looks like a gas!”

That was the final piece they needed to put the puzzle together. The bang the crew had heard was an explosion that had destroyed their cryogenics and fuel cells. With both the White Team and the Black Team in the room, the chatter had reached a distracting level.

Kranz ordered, “Okay, all flight controllers cut the chatter. I want every member of the White Team to settle down and get back on the voice loops. The rest of you shut up. Now let’s everybody keep cool. The LM is still attached, the spacecraft is good. So if we need to get back home, we have the LM to do a good portion of it with. We are in good shape to get home. Let’s solve the problem, team. Let’s not make it any worse by guessing.”

Kranz’s team worked to stabilize the situation. Controllers heard about the problem on their radios and raced in to help. Kraft arrived as they were powering down the CSM and preparing to transfer to the Lunar Module.

He plugged into Kranz’s console just as Liebergot reported, “Flight, I hate to tell you this, but I think we’ve lost fuel cells 1 and 3.”

Kranz thought fuel cell 2 and an oxygen tank might still be usable. Apollo 13 was just about to cross over from Earth’s gravitational influence to the Moon’s. The Trench drew up two options: a direct abort, and a slingshot maneuver around the moon. The direct abort would have gotten them home sooner but would have also forced them to jettison the LM.

Windler of the Maroon Team favored the direct abort. Lunney and Kranz didn’t like the idea of losing the Lunar Module as a lifeboat. Neither did the Trench like the idea of a direct abort with the spacecraft only 45,000 miles from the Moon. Kranz had a hunch that the main engine on the Command and Service Module had been damaged as well. Estimates revealed that the electricity would be short by about 20 hours and they would be short on water by 36 hours.

Kranz believed that they could stretch those resources if they could just buy the crew some time. That was enough for Kranz to make up his mind.

He told Kraft, “I don’t trust the CSM service propulsion system. It’s in the back end, where we had the explosion, and we won’t know if it is good until we try it. We need to buy some time to think and to build the come-home procedures. I believe we can find the power. Our only real option is to go around the Moon.”

Kraft gave his okay and went off to brief the NASA brass. Kranz finished the handover to the Black Team a little over an hour after the crisis had started and went down the hall to meet with his team. They had to work out procedures that would normally gone through weeks or months of review and testing in only a handful or hours.

The White Team was already on the job, going over orange-colored recorder paper in an attempt to pin down the cause and get a better picture of how extensive the damage was. Kranz called Aldrich, Bill Peters and John Aaron up to the front. The rest of the team gathered up rolls of recorder paper and found seats on tables and on the floor.

The problem was making the oxygen and electricity in the lunar module, designed to support two men on a two-day exploration of the Moon, last until just before reentry approximately sixty hours later. Kranz aimed to develop procedures and maneuvers that would speed up the return journey as much as possible.

The room was getting crowded as engineers rousted from sleep to help with the crisis started coming in, so Kranz sent some of the people back to their control consoles and announced that the White Team would go to the control room only for the critical maneuvers and for reentry and spend the rest of the time planning for the return trip.

The White Team would earn their nickname of the “Tiger Team” for their tenacity in managing the crisis. Kranz separated the Tiger Team into three teams. Aldrich took charge of the checklists for the reentry phase and for the Command and Service Modules from the beginning of the power-up phase until splashdown. John Aaron got the job of developing checklist strategy and keeping track of Apollo 13’s resources. Bill Peters took charge of making the lunar module last for the three days until the crew made it home.

They would need numbers and resources from the program office and design engineers. Kranz told the engineers to give them answers and, if they didn’t have an answer, they should give their best judgment. The Tiger Team spent some time brainstorming for initial ideas, and then the three team leaders selected their workspaces and teams. Kranz ended the meeting with a short speech.

“Okay, listen up. When you leave this room, you must leave believing that this crew is coming home. I don’t give a damn about the odds and I don’t give a damn that we’ve never done anything like this before. Flight control will never lose an American in space. You’ve got to believe, your people have got to believe, that this crew is coming home. Now let’s get going!”

The Age of Aquarius

In the meantime, the Apollo 13 crew had moved into the Lunar Module, which they had called Aquarius, and were about to execute a small maneuver that would start them on the route back to Earth. Kranz returned to the control room for a status update.

Glynn was busy powering down the navigation system. Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan were spending some time in the simulators to study the problem of using the LM optics to align the navigation platform. They reported that it was impossible to recognize stars due to the glittering cloud of debris around the spacecraft. They would have to keep the LM computer and display system powered up until after they completed the maneuvers that would send them around the moon and back toward Earth.

John Aaron didn’t like it. It would mean that much less power for telemetry and keeping both systems and crewmen from freezing. Kranz cut off his arguments. “Get on it!”

The water problem was easier to solve. While developing the mission rules, they had worked out scenarios where they might have to stretch the water by making use of condensation and the crew’s sweat and urine. If they also rationed the drinking water and made use of survival water from the command module, they might be able to pull it off.

Kranz focused on developing the procedures for the maneuver that would bring them home. He had engineers bring up simulators, run tests and pull their now-vital data. He chose a maneuver that would have the crew fire the descent engine on the Aquarius two hours after the spacecraft reached its closest point to the Moon.

Then, he looked at options for a swift return to Earth. Some of the more aggressive options involved jettisoning the service module, but he decided that it would be too risky without procedures in place. Other options were vetoed on the grounds that they would leave no backup options if they failed. As the engineers debated, he stayed out of the fray until it was time to make up his mind.

During all this, Kraft was running interference with NASA’s management. The big bosses would have their own ideas, and the engineers and flight directors kept their debates to the back rooms until they were ready to take the real plan to them as a united front.

When the Black Team handed off to Griffin’s Gold Team, they had selected a plan that shaved twelve hours off the return journey. It wasn’t as much of a time savings as Kranz would have liked, but kept the risks manageable. With that done, the White Team checked into the control room at 3:00 pm.

The Gold Team had set things up for the maneuver that would slingshot Apollo 13 around the moon and back on a course for Earth. Griffin expedited the handover to the White Team and Kranz had CapCom give the crew a complete briefing of their plans in case they lost communications. The exact time of the burn wasn’t very critical. If something looked wrong, they could put it off until they were certain everything was Go to proceed.

Apollo 13 swung behind the moon and, two hours later, fired the descent engine. With the successful execution, the recovery ship Iwo Jima was sent to the landing point. Kranz was ready to ask the crew to perform a passive thermal control (PTC) maneuver meant to set up a slow roll in the spacecraft. Deke Slayton and Chris Kraft cut in with a reminder that the crew had been awake since the crisis began.

“I want you to get my crew to sleep. They are too damn tired, they are going to make a mistake,” Slayton told him. Kraft added, “I want you to get the spacecraft powered down. You’re calling it too damn close on the batteries.”

Kranz lost his temper. He had always thought that Slayton was overprotective of his astronauts and believed that Kraft, of all people, should know not to interfere when the flight director was directing a flight. The PTC was meant to keep equipment from overheating in the sun or freezing in the darkness of space. They couldn’t afford not to execute it.

“Crew sleep and power-down are going to have to wait. We won’t get them home if we let everything freeze up. I’m going to do the PTC. CapCom, read the crew the PTC procedures.”

They glared at each ofther for a few moments, and then Kraft and Slayton backed off. Max Faget did his best to get those two calmed down. When the first PTC attempt caused a wobble, Kranz bypassed the loop and hollered, “Okay, CapCom, tell the crew we’re gonna have to do it again!”

Kraft and Slayton grumbled about it but respected the Flight Director’s authority during real-time operations. The second attempt worked and they began the power-down. With the shift over, the Tiger Team convened in one of the back rooms. With the spacecraft running at only a twelve-amp load, things were bound to get cold for the crew.

They were still going to be short on water. Engineers were making progress on a third problem. They had run out of cylindrical air scrubbers and carbon dioxide was beginning to build up in the lunar module. They were testing a solution that involved cardboard, a plastic bag, a sock and a hose from one of the pressure suits.

The plastic would be used as a cover to funnel air flow. The hose would be attached to the scrubber’s bottom. A small fan would pull air through the scrubber and the sock, which would act as a filter. The whole thing would be held together with duct tape.

By this time, the Tiger Team had been awake for thirty-six hours. Kranz told them to knock off and get a few hours’ sleep so they could be fresh for planning the procedures for reentry. Most of the viewing rooms were packed with reporters and NASA staffers, but Kranz managed to find an empty one on the second floor where he could catch a nap and be available if he was needed.

Failure Is Not An Option

Once the Tiger Team returned, slightly fresher for having gotten about six hours of sleep, they dived into the procedures for reentry. Kranz’s handpicked chiefs, Aldrich, Peters and Aaron, took charge and made full use of their veto power to shut down on outlandish or ill-considered ideas. Representatives from the contractors Grumman and North American Aviation teamed up with NASA engineers to come up with solutions to problems they hadn’t thought of in the previous brainstorming sessions.

They basically took over the Spacecraft Analysis room and, thanks to their planning, would actually have some power to spare in the Lunar Module. Aaron had the idea that they could send some of it to the command module batteries to bring them back to full capacity. The three chiefs agreed to rig a test to see if they could use the LM’s heater cable to transfer the power.

While engineers set up the test, Aarons spent a lot of his time going around to different groups, delegating where he could and clearing up disputes that could have caused loggerheads between team members. A major concern was whether the cold thrusters could handle the stress of firing. Slayton wanted to use a little of the extra power to warm up the spacecraft and give the crew a break from the cold.

Procedures developed in the Spacecraft Analysis room were tested by astronauts in the simulators to make certain three cold, tired and dehydrated crewmen could handle them. Kranz got involved only to make sure the procedures stayed simple with as few deviations as possible.

Kranz called for a cut-off of the debate at 24 hours before the planned reentry so his team could be in the control room during this final phase. Aldrich brought the official procedures that he had guarded jealously for the past few days. When the White Team finalized the procedures on April 16, 1970, they were bleary-eyed but confident.

Windler’s Maroon Team started the power-up of the CSM two hours early to give the crew some warmth. Slayton took the CapCom position to reassure the equally exhausted crew and get them to catch some sleep before the reentry began. Kranz had to send someone to make copies of the procedures for the team and chafed at the delay. Finally, well before dawn on April 17, the White Team took their consoles for reentry.

The crew jettisoned the service module as planned and Lovell described the damage. “Okay, I’ve got her, Houston. There is one whole side of the spacecraft missing. Right by the…Look out there, will you? Right by the high-gain antenna, the whole panel is blown off, almost from the base of the engine.”

CapCom Joe Kerwin acknowledged, “Copy that!”

Haise added, “Yes, it looks like it got the SPS bell, too. That’s the way it looks, unless that’s just a dark brown streak. It’s really a mess.”

Lovell said, “And, Joe, looks like a lot of debris is just hanging out the side near the antenna.”

Kranz was reminded of his hunch not to trust the main engine. Proven correct, his main focus was now the command module. Had it been damaged?

He was briefly reminded of the scare they had gotten during the Mercury Program, when a faulty signal indicated that the heat shield had come loose. He put it aside and focused on the job at hand. Once they gave the “Go” for reentry, there would be nothing else the White Team could do.

The controllers went through their checklists and made a final status check. Kerwin relayed the “Go” to the crew.

Jack Swigert came on with, “I know all of us here want to thank all you guys down there for the very fine job you did.”

Lovell confirmed, “That’s affirm, Joe.”

Kerwin answered, “I’ll tell you we had a good time doing it.”

He paused, then added, “Just for your information, Battery C will fail about the time your parachutes come out. You have enough in the other two for landing.”

There was a burst of static, and then Apollo 13 went into blackout. This was an especially tough time for the controllers. Had they done the best job they possibly could? If something went wrong, was it something they overlooked? Several controllers lit cigarettes to cope with the stress. Eyes were glued to a clock that couldn’t move fast enough.

Joe Kerwin called several times, “Odyssey, Houston standing by.” A minute past. A minute and a half. Then, “Aria 4 has acquisition.” There were brief cheers, and then the controllers went back to business. Kranz surprised himself by crying and tried to stop, only making it worse. The crew hit the water and were successfully recovered. Apollo 13 came to be known as a successful failure. Gene Kranz’s adage, “Failure Is Not An Option,” had been proven out. By refusing to accept the possibility of failure, they had successfully brought three crewmen back from the brink of disaster.

Back Side Of The Moon

The return of Apollo 13 set off a series of events that caught Gene Kranz flat footed. He and the other flight directors received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Nixon. The flight directors and astronauts flew on the NASA Administrator’s private jet to Chicago, where high school bands played “Aquarius” for them on the tarmac and they were treated to a parade and a luncheon.

Richard Daley presented them with the key to the city and Jim Lovell received the Medal of Merit. Kranz would remember Chicago as a class city. Debriefing went quickly and, at the debriefing party, just about everybody involved with the mission got parodied in a tape put together by the Apollo 13 backup crew.

Not even Gene Kranz was spared. He came to regret an exchange he had gone through with Sy Liebergot: “I don’t understand that, Sy.” “I think we may have had an instrumentation problem, Flight.”

There would be no more flights for the rest of the year. In the meantime, the official investigation ended with a recommendation that the oxygen system be redesigned. Apollos 18, 19 and 20 were canceled by Congress, leading some controllers led by John Llewellyn to go behind some people’s backs and plan a landing on the far side of the room.

Llewellyn had moved over to the Skylab mission and was not happy about it. Kranz only got wind of it when some computer operators alerted him that Llewellyn had requested some runs. Full of questions, Kranz called Llewellyn to his office.

Llewellyn told him, “We think the program is pretty well fucked up. This cancellation of the rest of the Apollo missions is a bunch of shit, and we’re trying to do something about it.”

“John, just who the hell is ‘we’?”

“Gene, can’t you see what the hell is going on? The pogues [bureaucrats] are taking over and pretty damned soon there won’t be anything left of the space program. I know you had to put someone in this crappy job you gave me, but you better be aware that I am a RETRO first, and the section chief for Earth resources second!”

Llewellyn then stormed out, leaving Kranz with very few more answers. Luckily, Kranz got a visit from Jack Schmitt later that day.

“I understand you just had a talk with Llewellyn. I’ve got a small study group going on alternate lunar missions. I provide the refreshments.”

Schmitt was part of a new breed of scientist-astronauts, a geologist who had explored old Native American reservations and was well respected by the control team. Kranz attended the next study session. There was a lot of cross-talk between the flight controllers and designers as they discussed switching at least one of the final Apollo missions to the far side of the moon. They hoped that this mission would rekindle public interest in the space program. Kranz could certainly see their point. Some of the controllers were already questioning what would happen to both them and NASA after Apollo was over. It took a lot of effort to keep their spirits up and convince them that there was a future for them. Perhaps their planning sessions helped. Unfortunately, it was not to be.

Apollo 14

The Return of Alan Shepard

Apollo 14 ~ January 31, 1971


Alan Shepard was no quitter. After his Freedom 7 mission, he had been riding the high of fame, but that would change when he started having debilitating dizzy spells. He was diagnosed with Meniere’s disease right before he would have commanded an early Gemini flight and took on a desk job in the astronaut office, working beside Deke Slayton. He kept looking for a cure and finally found an experimental surgery that led to his return to flight status. The people in Mission Control were delighted that he was able to come back and command Apollo 14. Edgar Mitchell became the Lunar Module pilot. He was interested in psychic phenomena and Kranz thought it would have been interesting to see if they could exchange data telepathically. Stu Roosa became the Command Module pilot. The media would dub the trio “The Three Rookies,” ignoring Shepard’s previous experience in the Freedom 7. They named the command and service module Kitty Hawk in honor of the pioneering Wright Brothers, and the Lunar Module became Antares. Early in the mission, Roosa had trouble retrieving the Lunar Module from its storage compartment. Alan Shepard told him, “Forget about conserving fuel. Juice it.” It worked, and everything looked okay until they got to the moon.

Apollo 14 Lunar Landing

Fra Mauro

Fra Mauro was the site that would have been explored by Apollo 13. Interesting features included Cone Crater, a relatively young formation approximately 340 meters in diameter. A stray piece of metal in the Antares’ abort system, causing some faulty telemetry. LM Control Engineer Dick Thorson spotted a warning light that indicated that the crew had aborted on their own. That would only happen if there was a serious problem.

He double-checked the reading with his technicians and they confirmed, “Channel 30, bit 1 is on.” That meant a valid indication. Carlton, “The Silver Fox,” also saw the indication and suspected that the switch had been contaminated. He suggested, “We should get the crew to knock on the panel.” Perhaps that would make the faulty reading go away.

The unusual method was passed on up to the crew and Ed Mitchell tapped on the panel with a flashlight. The indicator turned off. Dealing with the faulty abort switch meant creating a patch for the computer software. On the one hand, ignoring the switch would allow the landing to continue. On the other, it meant using the backup system or the keyboard to abort if they needed to.

They decided it was worth the risk and roused an MIT software developer out of bed to write the new program. Mitchell used the keyboard to input a total of 46 commands and Thorson gave his “Go” to continue the landing. Considering the fact that the patch hadn’t existed two hours before and the crew had never trained for precisely that scenario, Kranz thought they did an excellent job.

Shepard also gave them a mildly sarcastic compliment: “You guys do a nice job down there.”

At 32,000 feet, the radar should have come on but didn’t. Guidance officer Will Presley kept an eye on his displays, ready to call an abort if he didn’t get readouts in about ninety seconds. Thirty seconds later, he gave a tentative “Go” and added, “Flight, have them cycle the circuit breaker.”

The crew did so and Presley got his readouts. “Altitude data is go, accept the radar.”

The Antares landed successfully and Kranz chalked it up to “Just another day at Mission Control.” Shepard hit two golf balls on the moon and claimed that he would have tried to land even without the radar. Nobody doubted him.

Changes were still taking place at the Manned Space Center in July 1971. Kraft was going to be promoted to the position of director. Sig Sjoberg was taking his place. Kranz and Sjoberg were friends and Sjoberg would occasionally give Kranz’s children gifts like a tricycle. Kranz still felt a little uncomfortable with the change. He could count on Kraft to passionately argue a position and had occasionally been on the receiving end. Kranz could argue his position just as passionately and understood that Kraft also listened. Sjoberg was quieter and friendlier and most were convinced that his position as their immediate boss would only last until he was promoted to become Kraft’s deputy.

Apollo 15

Apollo 15 Launches

As Apollo rolled on, the sciences were playing more of a role. Controllers routinely interacted with geologists and other scientists during mission planning and Kranz got to know some of them pretty well. He even met Schmitt’s old university professor, Lee Silver, at one of Schmitt’s study sessions for alternate lunar missions.

When Gerry Griffin relayed an invitation from the Apollo 15 crew to take a break from the office and go along on one of the geology field trips, Kranz jumped at the chance. David Scott was to be Apollo 15’s crew commander and, like Kranz, had a background in jet fighters. So did Gerry Griffin.

Scott, Griffin, and Kranz got along fantastically as they lifted off in a helicopter from Kranz’s old training ground of Nellis Air Force Base. They landed in an area ninety miles northwest of Las Vegas known as Frenchman’s Flat. No Earthly landscape could ever completely duplicate the lunar surface, but Kranz was reminded of Apollo 11’s Tranquility Base.

Lee Silver was their instructor for the field geology class. Dave Scott and Lunar Module Pilot James Irwin tackled the work with the same enthusiasm they brought to flight testing. Silver gave Kranz a lesson in basic field geology and encouraged him to look around for potential samples like Scott and Irwin would be doing on the moon. Kranz did his best to see the area like a geologist would.

By the end of the day, he was picking out differences in rock formations and coming up with some crude theories about what might have caused them. A new addition to Apollo 15 was the lunar rover. It was specifically designed to increase range on the moon and the addition of a camera in the front would let controllers see what the astronauts saw. The all-Air Force crew of Dave Scott, Jim Irwin and Alfred Worden named their CSM the Endeavour and the Lunar Module became the Falcon.

The Mission

July 26-August 7, 1971


The launch of Apollo 15 came off without any delays. Once in orbit, they were just about to retrieve Falcon when Al Worden noted, “The main engine thrust light on the entry monitoring system panel is on. I’m not sure when it came on.” Gary Coen at the Guidance and Navigation Console was quick on the uptake. “Flight, Panel 8. Have the crew pull both pilot valve circuit breakers.” Worden acknowledged, “Okay, they’re pulled.” The main rocket engine had been armed and ready to fire. Mission Control spent the next few shifts troubleshooting and developing workaround procedures for this glitch. The system was critical was getting the crew to lunar orbit and back home. An unplanned engine start, or an engine that failed to work properly during a maneuver, could have ruined their whole day. Lunney’s Black Team determined that the problem was in one of the control circuits and Griffin’s Gold Team executed the amended procedures without a hitch. The landing site was called Hadley Rille, located in a mountain range in the Moon’s northern hemisphere. Interesting features included a mile-wide canyon seven miles from 18,000-foot-tall Mount Hadley. They had one tense moment when the contact light came on prematurely and Scott reacted by turning off the landing rocket. They fell the final few feet, bringing them to a jolting but safe landing. Two of the landing pads settled into a small crater, causing the Falcon to lean to the right.


During the first EVA, Scott and Irwin worked like a couple of eager beavers to outdo the previous crews. At the time, no one in Mission Control realized the damage they were doing to their fingers. They were performing tasks that required a lot of dexterity in bulky space suits and it turned their fingertips black from hemorrhaging. The crew refused to complain and went through their second EVA the same way. During their sleep period, Lunney negotiated for a four and a half hour third EVA. It meant trimming their sleep period, mealtime and stowage and ascent preparation. At the end of the third EVA, Scott and Irwin paid homage to three Russian cosmonauts who had died after setting a 570-hour duration record. Their spacecraft had leaked oxygen, killing them silently, and they had been found reclining in their seats as if they were asleep. The rendezvous between Falcon and Endeavour went well. Then, as the crew was preparing to jettison the Falcon, a pressure suit integrity check revealed a leak in the fitting where water was fed into the cooling system. The problem was easily solved by plugging the suits. Then, Scott made a remark about the difference in pressures between the command module and the tunnel. The tunnel’s pressure was falling from 2.7 to 2.0 psi. Spooked over what had happened to the cosmonauts, Lunney decided that it was better not to risk a leak and scrubbed the jettison. As the astronauts made a manual inspection of the seals, Dick Koos waved Kranz over to his console. Koos had recently been moved over from SimSup to a new position as an experiments engineer and didn’t like what he was hearing. “Lunney’s having a hell of a problem getting the crew through the separations checklist. Something is out of whack.” Kranz thanked him and went over to the control room. Dave Scott had just accidentally vented the tunnel. Lunney never once lost his cool. He just told the crew to repressurize it. Glynn told his controllers to call out every step in the checklist as the crew performed it. Finally, they were able to jettison the Falcon. FIDO planned a new maneuver that would give the command module enough clearance to avoid a collision. Lunney only showed how tense and frustrated he had been in a log entry, “Hurrah, I felt I was in one of those bad dreams where you can’t wake up and you can’t get anything to go right!” Kranz felt the same way. It was like watching a bad simulation. The bad news wasn’t over yet. Flight surgeon Chuck Berry had something on his mind and had been conferring in hushed tones with Robert Gilruth and Chris Kraft through the jettison nightmare. He came over to the flight director’s console just as Glynn and Kranz were preparing for the handover. He had picked up some irregularities in Irwin’s heartbeat during the third lunar EVA and they were back. Essentially, Irwin had the “honor” of going through the first recorded heart attack in space. For all that astronauts and physicians feuded during NASA’s early days, it was obvious that Berry had been trying to protect Irwin’s privacy. Both Kranz and Glynn could have blown up at Berry right at that moment. They should have been told, especially considering the exertions Irwin and Scott had gone through to get all their tasks done on the lunar surface. Slayton also knew about it and was not happy. He had been grounded for an irregular heartbeat and had to be thinking that it could have been him. It certainly wouldn’t help his cause of getting back on flight status. He got on the loop to Apollo 15 and told the crew, “I want the commander and the lunar module pilot to each take a Seconal and get a good night’s sleep.” The crew knew Slayton well enough to realize that he was looking out for them. “Thanks, Deke.” They were asleep two hours later and the control teams completed the handover. The White Team spent most of the sleep period reviewing the data to make certain both the suit and the cabin pressure were up to snuff. Apollo 15 remained in lunar orbit for two more days, performing experiments and mapping the surface. It was the first time Kranz remembered being truly spooked during a space flight. The crew was exhausted and feeling the effects of dehydration and potassium deficiency. Combined with James Irwin’s heart attack, it could have spelled trouble. It was a relief to give the “Go” for trans-Earth injection and the crew splashed down safely.

Apollo 16

Apollo 16

April 16-27, 1972


The crew for Apollo 16 was Mission Commander John Young, Lunar Module Pilot Charlie Duke and Command Module Pilot Thomas Mattingly. They named their command and service module Casper and the Lunar Module Orion. The mission faced several delays to troubleshoot LM batteries, pyrotechnics, experiments and space suits and another delay when Charlie Duke had to break from training to recuperate from the flu. The onboard diet now included orange juice with added potassium, which was unpopular with the crew. They complained about the taste, it caused nausea and flatulence that were very inconvenient in an enclosed spacecraft in zero G, and the drink bag on Duke’s space suit began leaking orange juice so badly that it interfered with his vision and got into his hair. The crew rebelled against the idea of continuing to consume the stuff.

Just before one of Kranz’s press conferences, he sampled the drink, got a full blast of a heavy metallic flavor, and yelled to one of the flight surgeons, “John, it tastes like crap. How about taking some to the press conference and let them take a shot?”

Luckily for NASA public relations, the drink never made it to the press conference. Otherwise, things seemed to be going relatively smoothly until after the twelfth lunar orbit. Orion undocked and went through the visual inspection without a hitch. The crew received the “go” for the maneuver that would put them into a circular orbit, but Mattingly didn’t like the way a Thrust Vector Control (TVC) thruster reacted and scrubbed it on the back side of the Moon.

When the Trench noticed that the trajectory was off, they delayed the maneuvers that would have sent the lunar module on a course for its landing site. Larry Canin at the GNC position swung into action. He was an expert in the TVC system and asked for another TVC test while he got his team online. His first guess was that a wire in the control system had broken. If that was the case, he could still give the “Go” for the landing. He had an idea that would force the engine nozzle to move and lock it into the position they wanted. Griffin’s Gold Team sent the revised procedures up to Mattingly.

On the sixteenth orbit, Mattingly was happy to report that it had worked. “Casper did it this time!” The landing was successful and Kranz’s White Team worked on a revised plan for surface activities while the crew slept. They worked out the three EVAs and planned for a liftoff on Casper‘s fifty-second orbit, and then handed things over to Pete Frank’s Orange Team.

By this point, there were rumors floating around that one of the EVAs would be canceled. That would mean someone in management was interfering with the flight directors and he believed such a decision would not be good for the crew. Young and Duke would have pushed themselves that much harder to accomplish their objectives, risking more of the bruised fingers, exhaustion and physiological damage that had plagued the Apollo 15 crew. Kranz decided to shut down on it fast and checked with Bill Tindall, who told him that the idea had come from that day’s program management meeting. “Does Kraft know about this?”

Tindall confirmed it. Kranz went to Kraft’s office to give Mission Control’s side of it. He laid out his plan for the lunar activity and explained that he considered canceling one of the EVAs would be unsafe for the crew with no real trade-off for the risk. “Chris, why don’t you leave the mission planning to the team? What the hell is the hurry to get off the moon?” Kraft agreed, “So be it.” Young and Duke successfully carried out their activities over the three EVAs and the crew came back home. Apollo now had only one more lunar landing to go.

Apollo 17

The Last Moonshot

December 7-19, 1972


By the time Apollo 17 rolled around, a whole new generation of flight directors had been trained. Phil Shaffer’s Purple Team, Charles Lewis’s Bronze Team and Neil Hutchinson’s Silver Team were faster and smarter than Kranz ever remembered being. Of the active flight directors, Gene Kranz was the last of the original set.

Apollo 17 would be the first and only nighttime launch of the lunar landing missions. The crew was Gene Cernan, Ronald Evans and Harrison Schmitt. The scientists and controllers had cheered when Schmitt got the assignment. The scientists had wanted to make certain that a scientist got a shot at the moon and Kranz remembered Schmitt’s informal study group for alternate lunar missions. They named the Command and Service Module America and the Lunar Module Challenger.

When Kranz took over for the launch, there were the usual notes on funnies like a battery problem that had been closed out as acceptable. During the final hour of countdown, new problems cropped up. The worldwide data network acted up and the control center had some power glitches that affected the display system. Maintenance crews went into action to solve the problems and the White Team prepared to move to adjacent consoles, just in case.

At T minus sixteen seconds, the liquid oxygen tank pressurization did not start automatically, triggering a Saturn auto sequence cutoff. During the launch hold, recovery forces and communications relay aircraft moved to compensate for changes to the trajectory ground track. They were able to sort out the problems by the end of the launch window and Mission Control gave the “Go for Launch.” Launch and TLI went smoothly and the crew waxed lyrical as they described events.

Ron Evans commented, “During each staging, the fireball overtook us, then when the engine kicked in we once again flew out of the orange-red cloud into darkness.” Sunrise was again a spectacular event and Jack Schmitt philosophized on life, the universe and man’s quest to extend his realm. Kranz thought it was a magical moment that matched Apollo 8’s reading of the Book of Genesis and Armstrong’s report that the Eagle had landed.

The White Team said their farewells to the booster team. The Marshall Space Flight Center had assigned them to the control team to oversee the Saturn boosters during launch and this was their final launch. Though a rivalry had built up between Houston and Marshall over the years, the team had managed to break through the ice and worked smoothly with the control team.

Llewellyn summed it up in a simple tribute as he watched them leave: “They was us.”

Over the next few days, Kranz wished there was a way to stretch the mission out forever. His career as a flight director was winding down and he spent a lot of time mentally reviewing all the good work they had done. It seemed a miracle that they had succeeded so spectacularly and he knew they could have never done it without the leadership of people like Chris Kraft and Robert Gilruth and the dedication of people like Deke Slayton, John Hodge, John Llewellyn and all the people who worked behind the scenes.

When he wasn’t on duty, Kranz would often watch the other teams at their work with a sense of melancholy. During the final lunar EVA, Cernan and Schmitt unveiled the plaque commemorating the end of an era.

“This is our commemoration that will remain here until someone like us, until some of you who are out there, who are the promise of the future, will come back to read it again and to further the exploration and the meaning of Apollo.”

In a rarity, the entire Mission Control team teared up. Gene Kranz put aside his sentimental attitude and donned his white vest for the final time for the lunar liftoff. There would be no abort and no second chances for this maneuver. Either the ascent engine would fail to ignite, stranding the crew on the lunar surface, they would fail to reach orbit and crash, or they would successfully dock with the command module.

As they went through the detailed checkout and pressurized the propulsion system, Kranz braced for a call from his lunar module team. If they shouted, “Emergency liftoff!” it would mean there was a leak. Everything looked good and they gave the “Go” for liftoff.

As they fired the ascent engine, Cernan transmitted, “We’re on our way, Houston.” Kranz wrote in his log, “At 188:01:35 [Mission Elapsed Time] the last men left the Moon.”

He then formally passed the baton on to the next generation of flight directors in the form of Neil Hutchinson’s Silver Team and Charles Lewis’s Bronze Team for the journey home. His wife, Marta, made him a special red, white and blue vest for him to wear at splashdown so he could thank the control teams for a job well done and thank America for the privilege of being part of a proud era in American history.

When it was over, he found a private place and cried for hours. He went on to become deputy and then director of NASA Mission Operations and retired from NASA in 1994. He returned to aviation, constructing an acrobatic biplane and flying as an engineer on a B-17 Flying Fortress. He made as many as 70 public speaking appearances every year.

The White Team Is Retired

“Whereas his leadership and inspiration molded the flight control team, which was vital to the first rendezvous, manned lunar exploration, and the study of man, Earth, stars, and technology. Be it resolved that on behalf of the personnel of the Flight Control Division, the color “White” be retired from the list of active control teams to forever stand in tribute to “White Flight,” Eugene F. Kranz”

-From a proclamation hanging on the third floor Mission Control room at the Johnson Space Center

Gene Kranz: Failure Is Not An Option