Perfection: No Other Option by Brianna Baker

Perfection: No Other Option by Brianna Baker 

 The 1960’s were years filled with wars, conflicts, social and political movements, along

with road-paving technological advancements which have led to the future technologies we

know today. The first satellites were heavily used in this time period, and in 1961 man joined

metal in orbit around the world. In 1967, after years of competition in what became a “Space

Race,” a tragic ground accident that cost three American astronauts their lives left the nation

grieving and shocked. The following week flight director Gene Kranz addressed his team, and

told them: “From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: ‘Tough’ and

‘Competent.’ Tough means 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 to

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.” From that point on,

“tough and competent” was what every member of Mission Control fought for, and what they

inevitably became.

 Today, the phrase “failure is not an option” is rarely connected with anyone except Gene.

Although he never said those exact words, he was the epitome of them. Between his demands for

toughness, competence and ultimate perfection from Mission Control, he set the example for

everyone at NASA. As the Apollo 11 astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong made their
approach to the surface of the moon it was clear that they were moving too fast. Moments later,

alarms echoed through the room, signaling meter failure. But after years of practice in predicting

and solving possible problems under the “Kranz Dictum,” the issue at hand was resolved in

seconds. An hour later, Gene lived in a world where man had walked on the moon.

 Four months later, Apollo 12 was the second successful moon landing. It too, came with

a few bumps of its own, but proved again just how “Tough” and “Competent” all of NASA had

become. Minutes after liftoff, flight control screens went dark with no hint of what had

happened. As Mission Control fought with the decision to abort the mission or wait for a

solution, countless hours in simulators and reviewing of data patterns found their purpose when

astronaut John Aaron remembered a minor switch from a year before. The astronauts laughed

with relief after the switch had been thrown and the spacecraft’s data could once again be

transmitted to Mission Control.

 Now 80 years old, Gene Kranz’s straight posture, focused eyes, white buzz-cut and sharp

profile still portray a man of authority who has experienced a great deal and knows how to

command the respect of any room. In the almost 10 years Gene spent as NASA’s flight director

the only thing that called more attention to him than his appearance and obviously dominating

persona as director of Mission Control was his uniform. In a scene from “Apollo 13,” one of the

controllers brings a white box to Gene, played by Ed Harris, minutes before liftoff. Some of the

engineers in the background whisper as the box passes them: “‘Mrs. Krantz has pulled out the

old needle and thread again.’ ‘The last one looked like he bought it off a gypsy.’ ‘You can’t

argue with tradition.’” As Gene opens the box, where he finds a white vest, he says “I was

starting to get worried,” then tries on his new wardrobe to the applause of Mission Control.

 Homemade by his wife, a vest for each mission Gene directed was as customary as his
frequent speeches to the engineers throughout the room. Just prior to the Apollo 11 moon

landing, he addressed his engineers and told them, “We came into this room as a team and we

will leave it as a team.” In March of 2012 as Gene was inducted into the “Hall of Fame” he told

the crowd, “The assignment of responsibilities was clear-cut: You give a person a job and let ‘em

do it. It was that kind of training that carried us through the early days of the space program. It

was all kinds of things coming together, without ever even knowing it, that when I sat in Mission

Control for the first (moon) landing, it gave me the confidence that we could go forward.”

 From the disaster of Apollo 1 and the frightening close-call of Apollo 13, to the six

successful moon landings of Apollo 11, 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17, Gene Krantz guided mission

control through its golden years through these ideas of teamwork and dedication. From his

encouragement NASA magnified its goals of space flight and never losing an American in space.

In an interview back 2000, Gene described the teamwork of the controllers and flight directors as

“an Olympic relay team, handing over the baton of the shift, hour after hour, day after day.” By

the time the Apollo 13 mission launched, Mission Control “was a championship, Super Bowl-

quality team. We took the challenges of that mission and we met them head on… We had people

addressing survival issues and astronauts coming on to work the simulators.” Jim Lovell, Fred

Haise and Jack Swigert couldn’t have been in the hands of a better team. With a flight director

who would not accept less than perfection, in the sense that no crew would ever be stranded in

space or that no permanent harm would come to the Apollo 13 astronauts, Mission Control was

left with one option: to bring them home. With the problems that continued to arise, simulators

and survival guides could only go so far. When Gene was asked about having a delayed reaction

from the high-pressure situations, he remembers feeling that intensity days after the astronauts

were home safely. “When we looked back…we realized the kind of obstacles that we had to
hurdle and get over. It was looking back at these decisions we made where we didn’t hardly even

have time to think about it, that turned out to be the right decisions. It was really recognizing

how desperate it was in those final hours with this crew in this “refrigerator,” hurtling back

toward Earth when we were still trying to come up with a game plan for how we were going to

do it.” They did it. They made it happen. The three astronauts were safe, and home; and Mission

Control was proved once again, to be “Tough” and “Competent.”

 Gene’s goal, to make Mission Control as perfect as possible was obvious in his always

confident appearance, no matter what uncertainty he may have been feeling. “No way can you

ever, ever, ever evidence confusion, concern, lack of understanding. You have to be in charge.

You are the guy. You have to be cooler than cool, smarter than smart.” When the Apollo 13

capsule landed safely in the ocean, he recalls that being one of the most difficult moments to

keep his composure: “I was crying. It was really hard to stop from crying at that time. I sat down

in a chair and rubbed my eyes because I’m embarrassed in front of my team to let them know

I’ve lost it.” His goal for perfection was again clear in the way he addressed his talented

engineers. When it became apparent that the same mission would no longer be landing on the

moon, he told his team as much but gave them an even more important reason to strive for

perfection: “We… know it’s going to be damn tough, maybe impossible, to get this crew back

home… We have never lost an American in space, and we sure as hell aren’t going to lose one

now. You have to believe it, your team has to believe it, and we are the ones that must make it

happen.” He left no room for arguments, no room for excuses and no room for failure.

 Gene’s goal, however, was even more apparent in the ways he pushed himself. In a 3 ½

inches thick notebook he filled in the months that lead up to the Apollo 11 mission, Gene’s made

detailed notes about how to run the mission, second by second. He knew that the discipline in
engineering was the key to their success. “You have to be intensely aware of… pulling this ballet

together that involved everybody doing the right thing at the right time under a constantly

changing set of circumstances…I did everything by the numbers. I had checklists upon

checklists. If I wasn’t ahead of everybody on my team, I didn’t feel I was doing my job.” In all

these ways Gene fought for the perfection of Mission Control. He brought the problem home,

making sure that he, of all people, was leading the way to the goal that made that era of space

travel as successful as it was.

 "Keynote Speaker Gene Kranz." OmniTI Presents Surge 2013. Surge 2013, 12 Sept. 2013. Web.
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Pesyna, Colin. "Lessons in Manliness from Gene Kranz." The Art of Manliness RSS. The Art of
 Manliness, 20 July 2009. Web. 11 Mar. 2014.