Monday, January 30, 2012

Failure is not an option – Gene Kranz

Two lines have become immortal in the history of spaceflight and mission control. One is, of course, “Houston, The Eagle has landed.” And the second one, “Houston, We have a problem.

The common factor linking these two events was Eugene F Kranz, the flight director on duty when Apollo-11 landed on the moon, and when Apollo-13 ran into life-threatening problems.

But this book is not just about successful landing of Eagle at Tranquility Base, or about the heroic effort to rescue the lives of three astronauts from the jaws of death. It offers a deep, intense insight into the lives and times of people who remained on the ground yet helped the entire nation achieve its dream of landing a man on the moon. This book is about Mission Control.

Beginning with the first manned flight of Alan Shepard aboard Freedom 7, Kranz narrates the story of all Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions, covering each flight with considerable detail. We read about the first few disastrous failures, the “four-inch flight”, the string of successes in Mercury and Gemini programs, and the tragic death of Apollo-1 astronauts on the launch pad. We read about the sweat and blood poured by the thousands of people into bringing the space program back on track. We read about the deep thought and meticulous planning that went into each mission. Most importantly, we read about the people who made all this happen.
Obviously, the first lunar landing and the Apollo-13 mission are the highlight of this book. As Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin descend to the lunar surface, Kranz captures the tense moments vividly; and more than once, I had to keep the book aside and take a few breaths to be able to read further. In case of Apollo-13, we are all aware of the major catastrophe (explosion in the Service Module); but there were a number of other equally hazardous problems (lack of water, high-level of CO2), each of which could have resulted in crew loss. 

The best part of this book is that nowhere does Kranz try to hog the limelight. He gives credit where it’s due, heaping praise on each member of his “White Team”. He shares funny lines, hilarious anecdotes and interesting trivia which are known only to those in the inner circles.
More than being just a highly readable book on the history of lunar spaceflight, this book compels us to introspect where we stand with respect to these people. Of course, not all of us can be in the mission control; but each one of us can perform our duties based on the founding principles outlined in this book: Tough, Competent and Disciplined.

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