Failure Is Not an Option: Mission Control From Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond

Failure Is Not an Option: Mission Control From Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond book cover courtesy of Simon & Schuster

Failure Is Not an Option: Mission Control From Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond
Paperback, $18.00
Simon & Schuster, 2009

In the middle of another astronaut memoir (I’m not snitching) I was shocked and appalled by the low-grade misogyny, sexism, and gross conduct revealed in the book. It was utterly disheartening, but also taught me that (male) astronauts are still human, prone to the same debased tendencies and perhaps should not be held to a higher standard than anyone else solely because they can reach the highest heights. I was sad. I couldn’t finish the book, I couldn’t learn about the mission trainings, the studying, the mishaps and lessons learned, but instead was forced into remembering the good ones: those model men and women who demonstrated grace under pressure, grit, and exemplary behavior. Then I recalled Gene Kranz.

You might recognize that name from the Apollo 13 movie; Ed Harris plays him. Ed Harris in Kranz’s signature white vest was nominated for an Oscar for that role, a portrayal that is one of many: Kranz is a hero to Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and others, and is featured in their memoirs and anecdotes. Kranz’s memoir, Failure Is Not an Option, recounts historical moments experienced in mission control.

For nearly thirty years, Kranz worked at NASA for the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, and most famously was a Flight Director for the “White Team” on the Apollo 13 moon-landing mission. While there, he literally (not exaggerating) wrote the book on flight control procedures, and instilled a regimented and controlled work environment as the manned space flight program began to expand. He instituted mission procedures such as “Go/No-Go”, and cultivated the mentality that Flight Control should be an errorless and competent place. This dedication to his job, the mission, and achievement remains unparalleled.

The writing is sometimes a bit too technical, and laced with NASA’s characteristic alphabet soup, but it never bogs you down. The content is engaging, and Kranz’s stern, no-nonsense voice delivers the facts with very little emotion behind it. The entire book is fascinating, compelling, and at its core is a tale about adventure and exploring the unknown.

While this book recounts historical feats and provides a behind-the-scenes look, what I think is best conveyed is exceptional leadership. In the face of problems, issues, hurdles, and setbacks never experienced before, Kranz tackles them with remarkable ease and exceptional critical thinking, to set [replace “unimaginable”] precedents.

Read this for an eyewitness account of history, but also read this for the unrivaled problem solving, dedication, and discipline. Even though “Failure is not an option” is misattributed to Kranz, it’s the perfect summation of his life’s work, and a goal we can endeavor to achieve.