Apollo's Unseen Titan
July 17, 2009 | 6:00 am
July 17, 1969: Apollo Speeds on Its Incredible Quest.
Apollo's Unseen Titan
Without Gene Kranz to guide him, Neil Armstrong might never have landed on the moon. The obscure but fiery flight director made the crisis decisions that helped the American folk hero make history.
July 3, 1994
By ROBERT LEE HOTZ, TIMES SCIENCE WRITER
HOUSTON -- Of the sounds humanity has made on Earth, only a nuclear explosion is louder than the unthrottled thunder of the Saturn rockets that carried men to the moon.
On July 16, 1969, when a Saturn lifted the Apollo 11 capsule free of Earth on its historic journey to the moon, one man hundreds of miles from the launch pad in Florida felt its apocalyptic energy reverberate in his marrow: NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz, on the edge of his seat in the windowless "trench" of NASA's Mission Control in Houston.
Neil Armstrong, the Apollo 11 commander, was the first human to walk on the moon. Kranz was the man who guided him the last miles onto its dusty, pockmarked surface.
Of America's secular heroes, few stir the spirit as deeply as the astronauts who a generation ago left the first footsteps on the moon.
But few ever knew the names or the stories of the faceless, can-do engineers who directed them there safely.
If Armstrong--the Apollo astronaut whose features were masked by his mirrored helmet--was the public image of American space prowess, Kranz--the hard-charging flight director--was its private face.
Armstrong was a paragon of Protestant test pilot cool: terse, aloof, unknowable. He was a blue-eyed Eagle Scout with a hesitant, lopsided grin, so shy that there are almost no clear pictures of him standing on the moon's surface, only photographs of his footprints and his shadow. He declined to be interviewed for this story, as he declines almost all interview requests.
Kranz was unabashedly sentimental, a fierce agency loyalist who played Sousa marches in his office to pump up his adrenaline. He relished his in-house reputation as a relentless taskmaster who earned the nickname "General Savage."
Today--25 years after the moon landing--Armstrong is still a national folk hero. Kranz is virtually unknown outside an inner circle of NASA veterans.
What they share is the stuff of history--a journey given only once to the human race.
Both men were born in small Ohio towns barely 100 miles apart at the bottom of the Depression. Both were fighter pilots in the 1950s. They never met until they joined NASA. They never spoke directly during the moon mission. They almost never speak now.
They were never so close as when they were farthest apart--when Armstrong, 240,000 miles from Earth, was searching for a safe landing site only a few miles above the moon, with capsule emergency alarms flashing, the on-board computer on the verge of a breakdown, and only scant minutes left before the landing fuel ran out.
For those 13 minutes of the lunar descent, half a billion people held their breath.
The efforts of 300,000 technicians, the labor of eight years at a cost of $25 billion, a Cold War rivalry, and a murdered President's promise hung in the balance.
When Armstrong set the lunar lander down safely, the national victory was so complete that for decades the Soviet government would officially deny that there had even been a race to the moon.
It was Kranz--in a locked control room with a dozen young engineers relaying data buzzing in the earphones of his headset--who decided to override the alarms and give Armstrong the chance to land the spacecraft on the moon.
Gene Kranz had a style all his own.
There was the frown, of course. Human nature gave him that. His voice had a flat Midwestern edge that, even at its friendliest, retained a hard edge of reflexive command.
Then there was that blond bristle of a crew cut, shaved so close you could see the muscles tighten at the back of his skull when he concentrated. He owed the style to the Air Force and the close trim to a barber in Clear Lake, Tex.
"I was the most emotional of the flight directors," Kranz, 61, said in a recent interview. "Space really got me all honked up."
Kranz has the kind of mind that seems happiest when it is running a dozen trains of thought along parallel tracks--the sort of fellow, friends say, who relaxes by working on a full-scale aerobatic biplane in his garage, pruning prize roses and baking bread all in one afternoon.
As the flight director for the Apollo 11 landing--and head of NASA's entire flight control operations branch--he made $21,432 a year. That was enough to raise six children. Five work in the space program.
But it was the vests his wife made that set him off from everybody else in mission operations.
Before each mission, Marta Kranz scoured the fabric shops of Houston for a bold swatch of material to sew into one of his special flight vests. They became as much a part of the early space program as splashdown cigars and ticker tape parades.
Today, Kranz still has 15 vests in an upstairs closet of the modest home the couple moved to when NASA set up operations in Houston.
He proudly lays them out on the sofa for a visitor: Paisley brocades. Silver and gold lame. Carnival stripes. Velvet.
The simplest--a plain white silk twill vest yellowed now to ivory--is what he wore for Apollo 11.
White was the color reserved for the leader of the White Flight, as his flight director's shift was known within mission operations.
White Flight was in charge of the lunar landing.
When Kranz retired this year, NASA also retired the color.
As a boy in Toledo, Ohio, Kranz never cared much about rocket ships or spaceflight. But as a military pilot in the Pacific in 1957, he was impressed by the way the launch of the Russian Sputnik galvanized people around the world.
A few years after he was discharged--working as a test engineer at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico--he saw an ad in Aviation Week magazine. The government wanted engineers for a fledgling space task group being organized at the federal flight research facility in Langley, Va.
He didn't hesitate.
"I just felt that space was the next thing coming in aviation," he said. "It was higher, faster. It had the risk."
Before he knew exactly what was happening, he found himself on a plane headed for Cape Canaveral, Fla., with orders to prepare for the first unmanned test of the Mercury Redstone rocket that would later carry the first American--Alan B. Shepard--into space.
"They said, 'Go down to the Cape and write us a countdown.' They put me on an airplane. I had never written a countdown," Kranz said, referring to the complex engineering procedures that lead up to a rocket launch. "I landed at Patrick Air Force Base and didn't even know which way the Cape was.
"There was a guy there in a Chevy Malibu with a surfboard in the back. He says: 'What are you looking for?' I said: 'I got to go out to the Cape.' He said: 'Hop in.' So boom, off we go. I didn't even bother to ask who he was.
"About two-thirds of the way out there I found out it was Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper. That was my introduction to the original seven astronauts," he said.
When the moment for liftoff came, the Redstone rocket died on the launch pad.
That was his introduction to spaceflight.
When Kranz signed up for the space race, he was 27 years old. NASA was still in the making. There was no organized civilian space program to speak of.
There was no such thing as Mission Control. People like Kranz, his mentor--a short, icy engineer named Christopher Columbus Kraft, the agency's first flight director--and operations chief Walt Williams built it from the raw material of their own personalities and engineering styles.
At the apex of the structure they created through trial and error stood the flight director--a single person with absolute authority over operations during a space mission.
He had ultimate control when a manned space capsule was in orbit--and ultimate responsibility if a technical mishap resulted in the death of an astronaut crew.
In the end, it was the flight director's decision to abort a mission--or to proceed in the face of engineering uncertainty.
"The Flight Director may, after analysis of the flight, take any necessary action required for the successful completion of the mission," the mission rules stated.
Any error was unforgivable.
And in the 1960s and early 1970s--the years of Apollo--Gene Kranz thought there was no better job in the world.
Kranz became so obsessed with the engineering discipline of mission operations that in the months before Apollo 11 he filled a brown notebook 3 1/2 inches thick with personal notes on how to orchestrate every second of the flight.
"You have to be intensely aware of . . . pulling this ballet together that involved everybody doing the right thing at the right time under a constantly changing set of circumstances," he said.
But any misgivings, confusion or uncertainty he kept under control and out of view.
"No way can you ever, ever, ever evidence confusion, concern, lack of understanding," he said. "You have to be in charge. You are the guy. You have to be cooler than cool, smarter than smart.
"I did everything by the numbers. I had checklists upon checklists. If I wasn't ahead of everybody on my team, I didn't feel I was doing my job.
"I was constantly testing myself: What am I going to do if. . . ?"
In the process, something of Gene Kranz became a permanent part of manned spaceflight.
At the Johnson Space Center in Houston, the Mission Control room Kranz and his colleagues used for Apollo has changed only slightly since 1969.
Today, as NASA juggles space shuttle missions and prepares to operate a manned space station, its vocabulary and work habits mimic the obsessive attention to detail and studious nonchalance of flight operations engineers like Kranz and his Apollo colleagues.
During a recent technical rehearsal of an upcoming shuttle flight, loose-leaf binders and foam coffee cups littered the beige and gray flight consoles. The half-light from computer monitors provided much of the illumination.
The faces were young and, in the shadows, energized.
Sprawling at their consoles, the new generation of NASA engineers flirted with simulated disasters.
They were rehearsing landing emergencies with the crew of the upcoming shuttle mission.
They handled each crisis in cryptic murmurs, a language of nods, glances and engineering acronyms. The movements were exaggeratedly casual, the tension so internalized as to be invisible. The calmer things appeared, the worse they must be.
Milt Heflin, lead flight director for the shuttle mission expected to begin Wednesday, watched the exercise from an unused console, patched into the conversations by a frayed headset cable.
Heflin, selected as a flight director by Kranz 11 years ago, called the job "one of the last bastions of common sense." He has handled 19 shuttle flights, including the Hubble Space Telescope repair mission in December--hailed as the most complex space operation since the moon landings.
At the time of the Apollo 11 mission, Heflin was a junior NASA technician fresh out of college. Kranz was 36 and had, for the purposes of flight operations, become common sense personified.
With just 10 minutes remaining before Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were scheduled to swing back around from behind the moon and begin their descent to the lunar surface, Kranz did the one thing no flight director was allowed to do.
He went off the loop.
NASA was so concerned with capturing every aspect of the Apollo missions that all communications--every "loop"--in the control room were to be officially monitored and recorded. History wanted to listen.
But Kranz had set up a private circuit where he could talk to his flight controllers out of official earshot, and now he called them together for a confidential "pulse check."
Stephen G. Bales, then a 26-year-old, $7,000-a-year engineer from Iowa, manned the guidance console for the lunar descent. Twenty-five years later, he sat down at the same gray console and recalled Kranz's words as best he could:
"We are getting ready to do something no one else has ever done. You are trained. You are prepared. We will do well. No matter how it turns out, when we walk out of this room, I will walk out with you. . . ."
Kranz ordered the doors of Mission Control locked. "Battle short," he sang out curtly, ordering the circuit breakers locked down so no power failure could interfere with the landing operation.
Then, aboard the Eagle, as the lunar lander was named, Armstrong and Aldrin emerged from the radio silence caused by orbiting behind the moon. Alone aboard the orbiting command capsule, astronaut Michael Collins waited for them to start the descent.
Then the problems started.
Communications were unusually distorted and static-filled. Could they get enough data to allow the flight to continue?
Go, Kranz ordered.
Then static drowned out all critical data for 30 seconds.
When the signals picked up again, radar readings revealed the craft was moving too fast. If it continued to accelerate, it might overshoot the landing zone and Kranz would have to order an abort, Bales recalled.
Kranz stood at the flight director's console, his palms so damp they left perfect prints on his notebook when he leaned forward. Whispering in his ears were a dozen voices from six communications loops and the air-to-ground communications channel.
Then, on board the spacecraft, a power meter failed. No sooner had the ground team responded to that problem than a computer program alarm flashed in the capsule and on the meters in Mission Control. That signaled that the on-board computer was getting overloaded.
"I hear a very innocuous call from the crew: A program alarm," Kranz recalled. "About that time, Steve Bales echoes it. Then it echoes in the back room. Program alarm. Program alarm. Program alarm."
Would they have to abort?
Sitting at the guidance console he occupied when the alarm came through, Bales remembers his controlled panic. "I was still almost in overflow from the first problem. I could not remember what I was supposed to do for the life of me for a second." The alarm kept on.
"We're go on that alarm?" Kranz said, asking if he could let the landing proceed.
Bales hesitated. Voices on four or five loops dissected the problem in a knowledgeable gabble in his ear. Within seconds, he determined, the problem could be safely ignored.
Kranz grunted acknowledgment. The descent would continue.
The computer alarm went off again. "We're go," Bales told Kranz, more confidently. Again the alarm came. Again.
"Hang tight, everybody," Kranz said over the flight director's loop.
"Eagle, you're looking great. You're go," said capsule communicator Charles Duke, relaying Kranz's assent. Duke was the only one in Mission Control allowed to talk directly to the crew in flight.
Once given the go-ahead, Armstrong proceeded as planned and took manual control at 2,000 feet.
His flying skills were so formidable that three times--nursing a crippled jet onto the deck of the carrier Essex, at the controls of an X-15, and then in a Gemini space capsule--he turned near-disaster into triumph.
Aboard the lunar lander, he steered the craft back and forth, seeking a safe spot in the boulder-strewn landscape.
In Houston, a flight controller announced on the loop how much longer the lander could fly as descent fuel levels dropped.
Sixty seconds left.
Through the static, Aldrin reported seeing dust from the surface, blown up by the engine exhaust.
"OK, engine stop," Aldrin radioed.
When he realized the spacecraft had touched down, Kranz froze.
"Houston, Tranquillity Base here," Armstrong radioed. "The Eagle has landed."
It was 3:18 p.m. Houston time, July 20, 1969.
The muffled cheers and applause from the spectators rumbled through the double-paned glass observation windows into the control room.
Kranz couldn't talk or will himself to move. "The reality hit. It stopped being a simulation in that moment and started being a real event," Kranz said.
Elation was the one thing he had not rehearsed.
To break the spell, Kranz slammed his arm down on his console as hard as he could. The pain allowed him to breathe again.
"I want quiet in this room," he ordered. The mission clock was running.
Two days later he was shaving and noticed his forearm was black and blue from wrist to elbow.
Armstrong resigned from NASA within 18 months of his return to Earth and withdrew into the privacy of a small farm outside Lebanon, Ohio, shunning publicity. There would be no autobiography, political campaigns or commercial endorsements.
Until 1979, Armstrong taught aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati, then confined his public activities to a few corporate boards and chairmanship of AIL Systems, a small high-technology engineering firm on Long Island.
Kranz gave the rest of his working life to Mission Control.
In 1970, when an on-board explosion threatened the lives of the Apollo 13 astronauts halfway to the moon, Kranz was at the flight director's console and helped save them.
In 1986, Kranz--still in the mission director's chair--had no way to avert disaster as an explosion destroyed the space shuttle Challenger.
And last winter, as space shuttle astronauts repaired the Hubble Space Telescope, Kranz oversaw the entire Mission Operations Directorate from the same chair.
He retired in March.
The third-floor control room, from which he orchestrated the moon landing, is on the National Register of Historic Places. NASA plans to make it a museum exhibit.
Kranz, reflecting on Armstrong's distaste for public attention or adulation, pronounced his own judgment on the Apollo 11 astronaut and, in doing so, unconsciously announced his own epitaph:
"He wanted to do something, rather than be something," Kranz said. "And he did it."