Books and Authors: Gene Kranz

Wednesday, June 7th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — Just about everybody thinks he said it. He wishes he had. But Gene Kranz, Mission Control's feisty flight director, never, ever said ``failure is not an option'' as Apollo 13 lurched toward the moon.

Hollywood came up with the catch phrase.

Kranz liked it so much he borrowed it for the title of his new book about America's early space program as seen from his seat inside Mission Control.

``The words I used: 'OK, we've never lost an American in space, we sure as hell aren't going to lose one now. This crew is coming home,' '' Kranz says during a visit to the Kennedy Space Center, just days following the 30th anniversary of Apollo 13's triumphant return to Earth.

``This crew is coming home'' was too bland for Ron Howard's 1995 hit movie, ``Apollo 13.'' A brainstorming session with scriptwriters resulted in ``failure is not an option.'' Ed Harris, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Kranz, got the line.

Admittedly the most emotional and quotable of all NASA's flight directors, Kranz isn't surprised that so many people think ``failure is not an option'' came from him.

Certainly, the tourists who lined up for an autograph this warm spring afternoon did; they appeared to be in awe of the gravelly voiced man with the crew cut and booming enthusiasm. The only thing missing was his trademark vest, made for each mission by his wife.

``Failure Is Not an Option'' tells the behind-the-scenes story of Mission Control, from its primitive origins in Cape Canaveral during Project Mercury to its celebrated heyday in Houston during Apollo. The 66-year-old Kranz was there for it all.

A former Air Force fighter pilot who grew up poor in Toledo, Ohio, Kranz, who is now retired, begins his story with his arrival at Cape Canaveral on Nov. 2, 1960. No one was at the airfield to greet him, so a thin, curly haired stranger offered him a lift in his new Chevrolet convertible.

To Kranz' disbelief, the Chevy peeled into a 180-degree turn and roared through the Air Force gate and onto the highway. Only after hitting 80 mph to 90 mph and shouting ``Eeeee hah'' did the driver offer his hand and introduce himself as Gordo Cooper.

``I had just met my first Mercury astronaut,'' Kranz writes. ``As I soon learned, if you saw someone wearing a short-sleeved Ban-Lon sport shirt and aviator sunglasses, you were looking at an astronaut. We humble ground-pounders wore ties and white shirts, and yes, those nerdy pencil-holding pocket protectors.''

Within a day or two, and without knowing anything about rockets or countdowns, Kranz was writing the Go NoGo rules for Mercury Control. Within three weeks, he was at the console for his first launch. The unmanned Redstone rocket rose a scant 4 inches and then landed back on the pad, right-side up.

One month after the ''4-inch flight,'' Kranz and the rest of Mercury Control sent the rocket aloft. Ham, a chimpanzee, went up on the next Redstone. Alan Shepard followed on May 5, 1961.

Kranz recalls the strain inside the Mercury Control Center during Shepard's countdown.

``It wasn't a subject anyone talked about openly,'' he writes, ``but we in MCC fully expected to lose one or two astronauts in Mercury. The prayer at that moment was, 'Not now, Lord, please, not today.''

Kranz found himself praying a lot.

He wept in Mission Control, feeling the presence of the Creation and the Creator, as Apollo 8's astronauts read from Genesis as they circled the moon on Christmas Eve 1968. And the evening before Apollo 11's Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, Kranz went to Mass.

``Blessed by my mother with strong faith,'' he writes, ``during almost every mission, I find a way to get to church and pray for wise judgment and courage, and pray also for my team and the crew.''

In this respect, ``Failure Is Not an Option'' stands apart from the multitude of books written by astronauts.

``Most of the astronauts by nature, they have to suppress emotion,'' says Kranz. ``Where I can say, 'OK, I get sort of wound up at times.' '' He laughs at the understatement.

Kranz never intended to write a book after retiring from the space agency in 1994. Building an aerobatic biplane was his top priority and, besides, he says, ``I was pretty well burned out at NASA by the time I punched out.''

But a book agent who saw Kranz in a TV documentary began pestering him. ``Finally, he just browbeat me into the doggone thing,'' Kranz recalls.

Kranz had kept all his notes from meetings, console logs and mission reports; the stuff filled seven file cabinets and numerous boxes and bookshelves at his Houston-area home. But he needed more, especially after so many decades. So he turned to his former flight controllers from Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, who helped fill in the gaps.

Because of all the interest in the movie ``Apollo 13,'' Kranz quickly snagged a contract in 1997. But the relationship with the publisher was stormy, according to Kranz, and he ended up buying back the rights to his book.

After streamlining the manuscript, Kranz sold it to Simon & Schuster last fall. Seven months later, in April, ``Failure Is Not an Option'' was out, just in time for the 30th anniversary of Apollo 13. He dedicated it to his wife of 43 years, Marta, and their six grown children.

The title was his choice from the start. It's a recurring theme in the dozens of motivational speeches he gives each year, along with leadership and trust.

``It appears to be related to one mission in particular,'' Kranz says. ``But I don't think any flight director who was ever worth his salt, and I can't think of any who weren't, would ever consider putting a crew into a spacecraft and up in orbit without the conviction, the utter conviction, that they were going to come back home.''


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