by Gene Kranz
NASA Flight Director.
Our Time began in the mid 50’s in the era of supersonic flight and continued through the decades of the 60’s and 70’s. Project Mercury proved man could work in space and Gemini provided the skills, the teams and the technology to rendezvous, dock and space walk. During Apollo we were privileged to live and walk with explorers and chart their paths. To many it was our greatest adventure.
Our last hurrah was the initial flight period of the Space Shuttle. We were the engineers, operators and aviators who pushed the envelope and accepted risk as the price of rapid progress. We had to develop tools and technology that simply did not exist, even in rudimentary fashion. Our computers had less memory than current $25 flash memory sticks. Today’s basic laptop is far more powerful and faster than the bulky computers we had on the ground, and those we could install in the Apollo spacecraft and lunar module. Despite these limitations we placed Americans in orbit and carried an American Flag to the Moon. We demonstrated the power of a free society, contributed to winning the Cold War, and won the hearts, minds and respect of the peoples of the world.
We lived in a time of rapid progress, and high risk. Each new space system was a breakthrough; our Go/No-Go decisions were irrevocable, and we lived and risked in the full light of the world’s global media. Integrity was the mark of our leadership, trust was our bond, and ruthless honesty prevailed. This relatively small group of people, in the cockpit, on the launch pad, in the control room and in the factories, carried the day when we had to cope with the loss of our team members. The 50’s, 60’s and 70’s were our decades and saw us through the prime of our lives. It was Our Time.
We were children of the Depression; we grew up during a world war. Our parents schooling most often came from their work in homes, offices and factories. Those of us who came from the Midwest grew up on farms and small towns and were often the first in their family to go to college. Our work ethic and values were shaped by our parents, our teachers provided the knowledge and our friends taught us the give and take in our rough and tumble life before TV. A treat was a five-cent cold “Coke” or a trip to the movies for the twenty-five cent Saturday afternoon double feature. The common thread in our backgrounds was the sense of adventure which came from reading pulp fiction, watching Saturday afternoon newsreels and listening to Jack Armstrong the “All American Boy” on the radio. Some of our generation saw service at the end of World War II but most learned of it from the newspapers and radio reports that described the great battles on land, air and sea. We were riveted by those bulletins and many of us kept track of Allied battles and advances by plotting updates to maps we pinned on the bedroom wall. We were too young to go to war so we helped our parents grow vegetables in Victory Gardens and collected paper, scrap iron and other materials essential to the war effort. But we were also kids playing at sandlot sports. There we learned leadership and teamwork and win or lose we played by the rules.
When we looked at the skies over our nation, we saw the fighters and bombers produced in our factories and thought of the brave men who piloted them over Berlin, Schweinfurt, and Tokyo. We made model aircraft and ships, constructed of balsa wood, tissue paper, and whatever came to hand. With our face to the sky our dreams of flight began to form along with the love of country. Without our being aware, Duty, Honor, Country entered our lives and we stood at attention, hands over our hearts as the flag passed by. These words were not symbols but beliefs passed on by our parents, churches, schools, and the neighborhood where we grew up. When we passed a house with a Gold Star banner in the window we knew the family had lost a son or daughter in the war and we were determined to help by cutting their grass, running their errands, and saying a prayer.
Some of us joined the scouts, some excelled at sports, others at academics and when we reached 17 we registered for the draft. Some of us, just a few years older than the average were called to service in Korea, the “Forgotten War.” Meanwhile the rest chafed at the fact that we were just too young to join our brothers and sisters in service to our country. We made a vow to serve when we could. The G.I. Bill provided the path to an education for the warriors, while others, assisted by their parents, obtained their education by working their way through school. The Cold War called many of us to serve in distant places and we felt honored to be the flag bearer of our nation. In those distant places we received practical experience in leadership, trust, sacrifice and brotherhood and we returned wiser for the experience.
Through the decade of the 50’s we charted our individual paths of adventure, risk, learning and experience. Many became aviators and midway through the decade we moved from subsonic to supersonic flight. “Gabby” Gabreski, Boots Blesse and James Jabara, the Korean air aces, now led the fighter groups in the supersonic age. For others the models were Chuck Yeager, Scott Crossfield and Neil Armstrong as they advanced the frontiers of flight. Joe Kittinger’s balloon free fall of over 100,000 feet, and Col John Paul Stapp’s sled tests expanded the boundaries of human performance. Our nation was in motion; breakthroughs in aeronautics and all areas of science had become routine. Risk was the key ingredient that allowed rapid advances in aviation and space technology. The fighter aces and test pilots drove our imagination and we each adjusted our course to be the first and the fastest.
In October 1957, Sputnik, a Russian basketball sized Earth satellite, drove the convergence of our individual destinies. Looking skyward we saw space as our new arena and “higher and faster” now took on a new meaning for us.
Responding to the Soviet challenge, in July 1958 the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was born. Its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics provided the facilities and many of the key leaders. Four months later the Space Task Group (STG) was formed under the capable leadership of Dr. Robert Gilruth, a pioneer of aeronautical research. By November Gilruth had acquired 37 engineers and 8 secretaries to serve as the nucleus for the rapidly expanding team charged with Project Mercury, America’s Man in Space Program. When the Canadian government cancelled the Avro Arrow Interceptor program the members of the Arrow flight test and engineering team applied to the Space Task Group and in short order were brought on board.
The Space Task Group was rich in leadership. Walter C.Williams, the former director of the NACA High Speed Test Station led Project Mercury. Chris Kraft and Merritt Preston had responsibility for Launch and Flight Operations while a brilliant young Cajun engineer Max Faget led the spacecraft design effort. Under their mentorship a new generation of spaceflight leaders was born.
Chemistry in any organization is a force amplifier. The combination of the engineers from Langley with ‘Hands-On” design experience combined with the flight test experience of the Avro Arrow team and the passion of the young engineers recruited from America’s colleges created a powerhouse capable of winning the “space race.”
The Mercury 7 Astronauts became instant heroes when their names were announced in April 1959. Their selection, training, and every aspect of their personal and family life made headlines in magazines and newspapers of the nation and across the globe. While still in its infancy, the television coverage by the networks’ space reporters, Jules Bergman, Roy Neal, and Walter Cronkite, opened every evening’s TV newscast treating the Mercury crewmen like rock stars. Within the program however the tone was different. After our test failures the U.S. Congress and the media begged the question, “When is America going to catch up with the Russians?”
Yuri Gagarin’s orbital flight in April 1961 was countered by Alan Shepard’s sub-orbital launch a month later. Then on May 25, a brash young American President John F. Kennedy placed the marker with the challenge, “We choose to go to the Moon. We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do other things. Not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” The Space Task Group was challenged not to match the Russians but to beat them to the Moon before the end of the decade. We had yet to have a Mercury craft in orbit.
Kennedy’s challenge galvanized the young space team. The lunar goal became a fire that consumed thousands and then tens of thousands as it spread across the nation. Our challenge was one of leadership, team building, inventing the technology, and developing the skills to rendezvous, dock, and spacewalk.
Risk is the price of progress. It is the price explorers and their guides must pay to chart new paths. It is the price of discovery. We were fortunate in Our Time because America recognized there were no guarantees in the new business of spaceflight. America expected our best effort, it expected us to succeed in the lunar goal, and it knew that in our high risk occupation failures and losses would occur.
In Project Mercury we learned that man could live and perform in space, but we accomplished much more. We developed leadership: leaders with integrity, who were teachers, team builders, great listeners, and above all, masters in managing risk; leaders who did the blocking, so when we had trouble the team could continue the drive toward the goal. We also learned to check our ego at the door each day when we began our work, there was too much to learn and to do
Project Gemini required massive infusions of new skills, new talent knowledgeable about computers, fuel cells, and the mathematics of rendezvous and docking. We brought in the young people working in the college laboratories and merged them with the experienced Mercury team. With the youth, vitality and knowledge of the new generation we began working on the leading edge of scientific and engineering knowledge, experience and technology.
In Gemini we worked with two man crews, extended our flight duration, and learned to rendezvous, dock, and space walk. The new generation of astronauts were no longer rock stars; they became our teammates in the laboratories, test stands, and Mission Control. With each Gemini mission our confidence in the technologies of space and our skills as a team grew. We had now set the standard and in full view of the world we assumed leadership in the arena of manned spaceflight.
Outside of our protective environment the world was changing: Three American leaders in their prime were cut down by bullets, cities burned, Vietnam dominated the headlines and America’s campuses fostered “flower children.” The civil rights and environmental movements marched within our nation. Change was in the air and members of our team were called to serve in Vietnam.
On January 27, 1967 we came face to face with death. We had always expected to lose a crew but the deaths of the Apollo 1 crew, Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, in a launch pad fire changed us forever. We had been on a roll, had faced risk and emerged safely on our prior missions but now we were bloodied, we were different.
In Mission Control the words, “tough and competent” entered our vocabulary. Every member of Apollo assumed a personal responsibility for our failure. A personal realism for the risks of our work emerged and as a mighty team we began the final march to the Moon.
We invented everything we needed. “Learn by doing” was the byword, ruthless honesty in debriefings was the standard, absolute professionalism was the measure of every individual on our team.
Each Apollo mission was a “first”…. Apollo VII was the first manned mission. Then in a bold and risky stroke Apollo VIII went to the Moon. Three missions later on July 20, 1969, America put it all on the line as the crew and mission controllers battled to reach the lunar surface for the first time. The landing was close,… very close… but when we landed, walked on the surface, and brought the crew home we fulfilled the pledge made to our dead president John F. Kennedy and to Grissom, White and Chaffee.
Other events now took the headlines. Our nation was preoccupied with the war in Vietnam, Earth Day, civil war in Africa, the Cultural Revolution in China. We had prosperity at home but the world outside our protective environment now dominated our nation’s collective consciousness.
The lunar missions continued, but all too soon the first era of space exploration ended. With frustration and great sadness, Americans departed the Moon for the last time in our century in December 1972. The great crusade of Our Time had been fulfilled. All that remained was to write the final chapters.
We now looked toward Earth orbit once again. It was time to exploit the near space environment, so we crafted the Apollo systems to build a space station and called it Skylab. Teams and crews who had looked to the Moon turned their efforts to science and the effects of long duration spaceflight on humans.
Skylab did not emerge from its birth easily. Structural failure during launch damaged the electrical and thermal systems. Mission Control flew the Skylab by ground command for a week while engineers and astronauts devised umbrella devices to shield the structure and techniques to deploy the solar power system.
Skylab became the world’s most productive space station and for a year its three missions studied the Sun, Earth, and human aspects of flight. However for the second time America abandoned its high ground in space.
No longer commanding the powerful budgets of the 60’s, NASA’s manned efforts were tied to low Earth orbit. The Space Shuttle, a truly magnificent flying machine was the last hurrah for the members of the Space Task Group. Part aircraft, part spacecraft, it traverses over half the Earth’s surface during orbital reentry, a 120 ton glider flying to a to a dead stick landing on a runway at Cape Kennedy.
The handover to a new generation began in the mid 80’s to men and women who shared our energy and passion. They would continue to write the history of space exploration and we wished them well.
Our Time was rapidly coming to an end. There were fewer of us at each Mission Control reunion. The glint remained in our eyes, the stories still rang out, but our edge was now softer and we drank a lot less than in the debriefing parties of our earlier years. Our only regret is that we will not live to see an American walk on the Moon. We had grown and lived through three wars, had served and had seen our countrymen die for our freedoms. We lived as explorers and charted America’s path in space. We knew about high risk and grief for our friends who gave their lives to the effort. In the words of Teddy Roosevelt, “We knew the triumph of high achievement, and when we failed, at least we failed while daring greatly. Our place will never be with those cold and timid souls who neither knew victory or defeat.”
Eugene F. Kranz
Reproduced by permission of, and with thanks to, Gene Kranz.
© Eugene F. Kranz.