The straight talk from mission control

FAILURE IS NOT AN OPTION By Gene Kranz Simon & Schuster 320 pp., $25

As a science writer covering the dawn of human space flight, I became a fan of Gene Kranz. This crisp-talking, cut-to-the-chase NASA flight director projected competence, frankness, and enthusiasm for the new adventure. Besides, he was usually good for a timely quote.

But his candor had a limit. When there was trouble on orbit or on Earth, it did no good to pry. He kept his counsel - until now. What he reveals in this introspective memoir would have enhanced the drama we were reporting if only we had known these things at the time.

Here is the angst that underlay high risk, high reward decisions taken with little prior experience as a guide. Here, too, are the creative intelligence and workaholic dedication that enabled the bold venture to succeed.

With penetrating insight, straight-talking Kranz, tells it like it was for the mission control and planning teams upon whom the astronauts were utterly dependent.

"Failure is no option" has become clich. Hard-pressed business executives who utter it know that, if necessary, they can declare bankruptcy and go home to dinner. For Kranz and his colleagues, the phrase was a stark reality. Failure in a manned mission would mean lost or marooned spacecraft and dead crew. That realization bred a culture of personal responsibility. It permeated everything the ground team did, especially in matters of safety.

Kranz explains: "During the final hours before launch every engineer in the program has the right to voice any and all concerns ..." Had that culture survived into the 1980s, officials would have heeded the concerns an engineer expressed about the space shuttle Challenger's booster rockets. They would have scrubbed a fatal launch.

Kranz and fellow controllers came close to a comparable disaster with the explosion of a faulty fuel cell oxygen tank on Apollo 13. Several books and the Tom Hanks movie have portrayed that saga. Now the key controller tells what it looked and felt like to be at the focus of the crisis. Kranz is a master of detail as well as the big picture. Every grubby detail is infused with edge-of-the-seat drama.

The mission failed to achieve its lunar exploration goals, but it succeeded brilliantly in overcoming near disaster to bring the crew safely home. It was Gene Kranz's finest achievement, but he's too modest to say that. His memoir is not an ego trip. By the final page, he has shown how so many people contributed so much to the US space flight program that you know it was a massive team effort.

Kranz is retired from NASA now and free to speak his mind. As you might expect of such a committed space pioneer, he's unhappy with what he perceives as an out-of-shape NASA and lack of national will to run a strong space program. He makes a few brief recommendations to rekindle the great adventure. He would turn over the international space station, when completed, to a new international agency and refocus NASA on pioneering research and exploration. Others have made similar suggestions.

No one knows what actually will happen in human space flight. But of all the players, the mission controllers will still be key. The first astronauts certainly had the right stuff. So did their ground team partners, without whom there never would have been "one small step for [a] man" on the moon.

*Robert C. Cowen writes about science for the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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