Houston, we have a problem.
That had to be Gene Kranz’s first thought when he walked through the famed Mission Control room at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, in August 2017. Once the heart and mind of space exploration during the Apollo program, the room was in a sad state of disrepair. The consoles from which Kranz and his team once controlled spacecraft thousands of miles away were missing buttons. The carpet was held together with yellow duct tape.
To see what he considered sacred space in such a state of disrepair had to be wrenching for Kranz, the flight director who brought the Apollo 11 and 13 crews safely home.
But today, the Mission Control room is a much different scene. The Mission Control room has been restored to its former glory just in time to mark the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s mission to put a man on the moon. And Kranz, now 85, was vital to the restoration mission, just as he was vital to all those Apollo missions decades ago. He helped raise the $5 million necessary to make it happen.
Consoles have been rebuilt. Artifacts stripped from the room over the years have been recovered from resale on places like eBay. Period coffee mugs, soft drink cans, ashtrays rest on the desks, and even discarded cigarette butts were recovered from inside and between consoles and placed in the ashtrays.
Once again, Mission Control is pulsing with life, meaning, and vitality, and it has a new purpose: to tell the story of one of the most pivotal periods in space exploration and inspire new generations to keep pushing the boundaries.
“This was the start of not only space revolution but the technology revolution within our nation,” Kranz said in an interview with CBS News. “And I think as people come in here, they have to recognize this is where it all began.”
It takes moxie to get a crew safely to the moon and back, and Gene Kranz has it. Here’s how:
Moxie leverages past failures for future success.
Kranz is best remembered for leading the team that brought the Apollo 13 astronauts home safely. But that might not have been possible if Kranz had not learned the lessons of the Apollo 1 disaster so well.
Three astronauts were killed on January 27, 1967, when a launch rehearsal test went awry. The Monday morning after the tragedy, Kranz pulled together a meeting of his flight control team. First, he took responsibility for the failure, citing an eagerness to meet schedules, a willingness to overlook warning signs, and a reluctance to call out problems. Then, he mapped a clear vision for overcoming those failures:
“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 our skills. Mission Control will be perfect,” he told those gathered. “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.”
His words became known as the “Kranz Dictum,” continuing to guide NASA’s work today. “Tough” and “competent” were the guiding principles that the flight control crew used to successfully land the Apollo 11 mission on the moon years later, and they were the principles that brought the crew of Apollo 13 home safely.
In the face of failure, it’s overwhelmingly tempting to deny or deflect. Kranz did none of that; he owned it. It takes moxie to learn from failure, and Kranz has it.
Moxie sees possibilities.
The Apollo 13 mission was dramatically portrayed in the 1995 movie “Apollo 13.” The Apollo 13 mission was nearly a disaster when an oxygen tank aboard the spacecraft exploded two days into the mission, crippling the service module. The three astronauts aboard could have been stranded in space, tens of thousands of miles from home, but Kranz and mission control crews worked doggedly to find a way to get them home. The crew successfully returned to earth on April 17, 1970, through determination and ingenuity, six days after they first launched.
One of the challenges the flight control crew faced was rising CO2 levels in the module. Unfortunately, the cabin’s filters were not designed for the increased demand created by the initial emergency, and crews on the ground had to scramble to figure out a solution and keep the team from asphyxiating. Filters from another system onboard the craft were available but were square rather than round.
In an iconic scene from the movie, Kranz issues a challenge: figure out a way to make a square filter fit in a round hole. Limiting themselves to just the objects they know the astronauts have on hand, engineers on the ground kludge together a contraption that will get the job done and keep the astronauts breathing until they can be brought back safely.
It’s easy to trace a direct line back to the “tough” and “competent” of the Kranz Dictum. Kranz and his team pay no attention to what objects are designed to do. They instead choose to see them for their potential and refuse to quit until the possibility is reached and the problem is solved.
“I don’t care what anything is designed to do,” Kranz says. “I care what it can do.”
There’s powerful moxie in that thinking. It unleashes incredible creativity. What if you applied that thinking to your own life?
Moxie inspires the next generation.
Kranz stayed with the Apollo program through the 17th mission. He was then promoted to Deputy Director of NASA Mission Operations in 1974, becoming Director in 1983. He retired from NASA in 1994, but his mission didn’t end. He became a highly sought-after motivational speaker, taking his Kranz Dictum worldwide. He often makes his presentations wearing a white vest similar to what he was wearing during the Apollo 13 mission. The original vest was made for him by his wife and is now on display in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
He also authored the NYT bestseller Failure is Not an Option, based on a line from the Apollo 13 movie that has come to be associated with him and the philosophy he champions.
Kranz hopes the United States will regain its passion and commitment for space exploration.
“In many ways, we have the young people; we have the talent, we have the imagination, we have the technology. But I don’t believe we have the leadership and the willingness to accept the risk, to achieve great goals,” Kranz said in 2000. “I believe we need a long-term national commitment to exploring the universe. And I believe this is an essential investment in the future of our nation – and our beautiful but environmentally challenged planet.”
Moxie doesn’t have an expiration date.
How does Kranz inspire you?