Gene Kranz

Recent photo of NASA's very own Gene Kranz.
Image via Wikipedia

Tonight Gene Kranz, the famed NASA mission controller played by Ed Harris in Apollo 13, came to speak at UT and I was able to make it. I went with low expectations because I didn’t know much about him other than what I had seen in the movie, and just wow. This man is awesome. The speech was really inspiring and gave me renewed pride in being an engineer and being an American. It was that kind of speech.

Before Kranz came out, one of the professors involved in bringing him to speak at UT introduced some of the students and people present in the audience, and he did one of the coolest things that I’ve seen at any speech. He had the veterans stand to be recognized, and then he asked the military members awaiting a commission stand and be recognized. I’m proud of America, and I’m proud of my service, and I think its awesome that he gave credit to the military’s future leaders.

Mr. Kranz spoke for over an hour, most of it spent walking us through his thoughts and decision process during the Apollo 13 mission. Based on what he said I believe that the movie is pretty accurate (I’ve seen it dozens of times). What really came through in his speech, that I hadn’t noticed in the movie, is the amount of trust and cooperation between the team members. He pointed out a couple of times when he made a decision in the interest of moving forward, that some of the other engineers disagreed with, but once Kranz announced the decision the whole team got on board and worked together for the benefit of the mission. The whole story is inspiring, but hearing it from the perspective of this man in particular is something that I won’t soon forget.

When he was done he got a standing ovation, which he was apparently uncomfortable with because he quickly had us sit back down for a question and answer session. This was my favorite part of the event, the questions were great and he had some very good answers. I don’t remember all of the questions, but here are the ones that struck me.

He was asked if he was pleased with his portrayal in movies. He said that he thought Ed Harris did a great job, and that the story line of Apollo 13 was pretty accurate, with one notable exception. In the scene just after they realize the extent of the problem a few of the engineers state that such and such can’t be done. In the movie Harris (playing Kranz) blows up and says something along the lines of “failure is not an option”. Tonight Kranz said that he would never blow up at anyone who was within his authority, he wouldn’t allow himself the luxury of emotion or losing his cool when leading his team. I thought that was particularly insightful.

Someone asked him what he thought of NASA’s decommissioning of the space shuttle and planned absence from spaceflight. He said he thinks this is a travesty because America needs awesome challenges to inspire and bring out the best in its people. Leaving a gap in the flight plan also means forgetting things that we’ve fought hard to learn.

When asked what he thought of privatized spaceflight, he said “its the greatest thing since canned beer.” There is nothing like advancing technology to stimulate the economy and capture the attention of the world.

My favorite response came when he was asked how he found or acquired the leadership skills to bring out the absolute best in his team. He said that he grew up in a time when his father’s generation fought in WWII. He and his peers were too young to go, but looked at his parent’s generation as heroes which challenged him to achieve something great. Then in the early days of supersonic flight men like John Stapp, Joe Kittinger and Chuck Yeager risked their lives for advances in aviation technology. During Project Mercury John Glenn climbed into an Atlas rocket, and at that time three of the first five of them had exploded on launch. Everyone at NASA had a clear understanding of the risks involved and chose to participate anyway because we saw the greatness within the goals. This brings a very clear focus that is difficult to achieve in any environment. Kranz said that he’s spent a lot of time ruminating over his career and isn’t able to point to any one thing that makes him a leader, but that he does recognize that he wanted to live up to the greatness that he saw in his father’s generation and believed that he could.

I just can’t express how awesome it was to hear Kranz speak. His involvement in Apollo 13 and NASA makes him an American icon, and his story is definitely inspiring. I was tempted to skip because I had homework to get done last night. I’m really glad that I didn’t.