High-tech can fail, and humans emerge

April 23, 2000|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun Staff

"Failure is Not an Option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond," by Gene Kranz. Simon & Schuster. 339 pages. $26.

If you weren't up that night listening to the Apollo 13 mission on the radio, you surely heard astronaut Jim Lovell's chilling words replayed the next day: "OK Houston, we have a problem."

What you never heard were the near-desperate words of flight director Gene Kranz 10 minutes later, in a private phone call to his boss, Chris Kraft. Kraft was home in the shower when conditions on the crippled, moon-bound spacecraft began cascading toward disaster.

"Chris," Kranz told him, "you better get out here quick; I think we've had it."

Kranz was a cool, buzz-cut former Air Force fighter pilot who moved to NASA in 1960, at age 27, and helped the infant space agency invent America's manned space program.

He played key roles in the development of the mission rulebooks, countdown and flight procedures that helped make NASA's staggeringly complex and dangerous manned missions so consistently successful, and ultimately boring to much of the public.

In his trademark white vests, Kranz led shifts of flight controllers throughout the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. And in July 1969, less than a year before he engineered the dramatic Apollo 13 rescue, he had led the Houston control team that guided the first Apollo spacemen to the moon.

Kranz's memoir is an important addition to the chronicles of America's early space program. It's told from the perspective of Mission Control -- those men in white shirts and pocket-protectors who seemed tethered to their consoles in Houston while the heroes in the space capsules got all the glory.

These were the people who watched every twitch and murmur in those rockets and capsules, poised to dissect any difficulty and act coolly in seconds to save a mission from spinning out of control.

This is not Tom Wolfe or "The Right Stuff." Kranz's narrative suffers from deadening recitations of NASA organizational charts, and tedious descriptions of who was reassigned where to do what. Space wonks may get off on the fine points of space technology, but others will easily find places in this book to catch a nap.

But when Kranz is good, he is very good. His retelling -- from Mission Control's side -- of the Apollo 13 crisis, the moon landing and the moment when Gemini 8 began spinning wildly and nearly killed Neil Armstrong and Dave Scott, are gripping and colorful.

He reveals a closed world -- a brotherhood of controllers that Walter Cronkite and Life magazine never really told us about.

They were young, most in their 20s and early 30s, and many straight out of college. Brilliant, patriotic, supremely competent and fiercely dedicated, they were the sort of people whose increasing scarcity at NASA veterans often lament.

Best of all, they weren't computers. Their control rooms stank from their cigarette butts, stale coffee and pizza, Kranz says. They poured whiskey in their coffee to unwind and sleep after a rough shift, and wept after three Apollo 1 astronauts died in a launch pad fire. They were human.

But who knew?

Frank Roylance, a Sun science reporter, has written about space and astronomy for more than a decade. He covered the post-Challenger launch program. He also stayed up all night listening to the Apollo 13 drama unfold on the radio.

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