Heroes of Space: Gene Kranz

One of NASA’s most decorated flight directors for whom failure was not an option.

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Eugene Francis “Gene” Kranz, born in Toledo, Ohio, USA on 17 August 1933, developed an early interest in aeronautics that would lead to a long and distinguished career with NASA.

After growing up on a farm, Kranz headed to Parks College in St. Louis, Missouri to study aeronautical engineering in 1954. He then spent four years in the Air Force before joining NASA, where his first role was at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia in 1960 in the Flight Control Operations Branch of the NASA Space Task Group. His first taste of space came on the first and third Mercury missions, in 1961 and 1962 respectively, during which he integrated Mercury Control with the Launch Control Team. For the fourth Mercury mission he was promoted to Assistant Flight Director, and by the fourth Gemini mission he was serving as Flight Director.

When the Apollo missions were announced, Kranz was assigned to all the odd numbered missions. This included Apollo 11, with Kranz present in the control room when Armstrong and Aldrin stepped on to the surface. He is most famous, however, for his role in the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission. When an oxygen tank ruptured and left the spacecraft stranded in space, it was Kranz’s decisiveness and quick thinking that enabled the astronauts to safely return home.

Kranz (middle) celebrates the successful return of Apollo 13 in the control room.

Kranz was part of the ‘White Team’ (the others being ‘Red’ and ‘Blue’) for Apollo 13 and, as part of the rotation schedule, it just so happened that his team was manning the control room when the problem occurred. Kranz and his team gave the astronauts specific instructions to ensure their survival, which included setting constraints for critical consumables such as oxygen, electricity and water.

Kranz also had to choose between firing the spacecraft’s rockets and returning it home immediately as it drifted away from Earth, or using the Moon to slingshot the Apollo 13 crew back safe and sound. He picked the latter option, despite the longer route, which would prove crucial in the success of bringing the spacecraft home. It was on this mission that Kranz rose to stardom, not only for his exceptional discipline under pressure, but also for his famous white vests that would become iconic of his remarkable career.

Interestingly, Kranz never actually used the phrase “Failure is not an option” during the mission, as was popularised in the Apollo 13 movie. However, he took such a liking to the phrase and its connotations that he used it for the title of his 2000 autobiography.

Kranz later served as flight director through Apollo 17 and also oversaw some of the Skylab missions. He became Director of NASA Mission Operations in 1974, overseeing the launch of the Space Shuttle, before retiring in 1994 after shuttle flight STS-61 successfully repaired the Hubble Space Telescope.

In 2010 he was voted as the second most popular space hero in a Space Foundation survey after Neil Armstrong, a true testament to his popularity and lasting legacy.

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