Calling The Shots: Ruler Of The Mission
No mission, be it one to low Earth orbit or all the way to the Moon, could work without a Flight Director. Known simply as “Flight” during a mission, Gene ran the show, monitoring all aspects of the mission to keep things running smoothly. There have been a host of Flight Directors in NASA’s 50 years, but the one most people recognize is Gene Kranz, the lead Flight Director on Apollo 13.
Museum Exhibit: Autographed Gene Kranz Photo
The role of Flight Director was created in NASA’s early days of manned spaceflight. Gearing up for the first Mercury missions, NASA created the Mercury Control Center (later renamed Mission Control Center) as a place where all the flight information could be synthesized. Controllers staffing the room received data from the spacecraft and its crew then analyzed it in real time. Their task was to use that information to keep the mission running and address any problems. The man in charge of MCC was the Flight Director. Listening to simultaneous reports from controllers, he had the final say in every phase of the mission from launch to splashdown.
Fun Fact 1: The White Team
As missions got longer, NASA adopted the practice of having multiple flight teams monitor a single mission in shifts. Each team, led by a flight director, was identified by a color. Gene Kranz’s flight team was called the White Team.
Kranz and Apollo 13
Gene Kranz became a flight director in charge of his own team during the Gemini program, and served as the lead flight director on all odd-numbered Apollo missions. This not only put him in charge when Apollo 13’s oxygen tank exploded halfway to the Moon, he was on duty when the accident occurred. Kranz famously sprung into action, keeping his White Team working around the clock until the astronauts were safely home. Under Kranz’s leadership, the White Team figured how the crew could ration consumables, fit the Command Module’s square lithium hydroxide barrel into the Lunar Module’s round carbon dioxide filter, correct their trajectories without using their guidance computer, and power up the Command Module safely for re-entry. When the mission was over, Kranz and his team received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for their work.
The Famous Vests
Aside from saving Apollo 13, Gene Kranz is best known as the flight director who wore a vest on every mission. It was a tradition that actually started with his wife, Marta. Kranz became a Flight Director when he was just 37, and as the most junior Flight Director he was assigned the youngest and more inexperienced controllers. To keep morale high, Kranz wanted to give his team some symbol or insignia around which they could rally and Marta suggested a vest; Kranz was a fan of three-piece suits and Marta loved to sew. Kranz debuted a white vest in honor of his White Team during the Gemini 4 mission in 1965 and it was an instant hit. From that point on, Marta made Kranz a new white vest for every mission as well as special splashdown vests. But Kranz didn’t wear a celebratory vest when Apollo 13 splashed down. Though the crew returned alive, the mission had failed to meet its primary objective of a lunar landing.
Fun Fact 2: Failure is Not an Option
In Ron Howard’s 1995 movie Apollo 13, Gene Kranz (played by Ed Harris) says the phrase, “failure is not an option.” The real Kranz never said this, but he liked it so much he used the line as the title of his autobiography.
NASA’s Flight Directors were pivotal to the success of the Apollo program and aside from the astronauts, they are among the most recognized players in the lunar landing effort. Known for problem solving, delegating responsibilities, and keeping a cool head under pressure, no mission could have worked without the right man in charge. Kranz’s career was marked with some of the most noteworthy Apollo missions: the first landing on Apollo 11, the Apollo 13 near disaster, and the last landing with Apollo 17. As luck would have it, they were all odd-numbered missions.