50 years ago today, as Apollo 11 completed its Trans Lunar Injection burn to accelerate and position into a Free Return Trajectory on the way to the moon, it’s worth remembering how long and fragile the early chain of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo operations were and how, if the culture had not changed at NASA, the mission to put a man on the moon by the end of that decade, would have failed.
The Apollo 1 fire, of Friday 27 January 1967 was the wake-up call for NASA. The fire took the lives of Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee.
The fire put NASA and its plans for Apollo into disarray. It was a disaster that proved to NASA that the Apollo project was off the rails and would never succeed unless the leadership and culture changed.
NASA needed new and stronger leadership – and it got it in the form of Gene Kranz who as an early Flight Director, stepped up, took control, reset the values and culture and set NASA and Apollo on its new trajectory to resilience and success.
Gene Kranz’s speech to the traumatised controllers at Houston the following Monday is the most iconic leadership speech I have ever read. It is simple, powerful and emotional. It forged the foundations for NASA to learn, adapt, retry and succeed.
I reprint the following from FLY! – the Elements of Resilience, Chapter 7 “Leadership: Lead, Follow or Get Out of the Way” at pages 188-190.
</FLY! page 188 ….>
Gene’s confidence and certainty were evidence of a fierce will that arose in response to a tragedy that had happened three years earlier. On Friday 27 January 1967, Command Pilot Virgil ‘Gus’ Grissom, Senior Pilot Edward White and Pilot Roger Chaffee, the crew of Apollo 1, perished in a fire during a launch rehearsal test. Their Command Module split at the seams 14 seconds after horrified ground crews heard Chaffee’s first cries over the radio.
Space travel was always going to be difficult, but these astronauts didn’t die far from Earth from something like a meteor impact. They died as the result of a sequence of electrical failures while the spacecraft was parked on the launch pad. In the lead-up to this terrible accident the Command Module had accumulated 20,000 logged failures and Gus Grissom was so frustrated with quality control that he placed a lemon on top of the Module after one inspection. Apollo Program Director Major General Sam Phillips had written a report critical of Mission Control, noting ‘the software is not written and the computers are not working’.
NASA responded to the deadly fire by pulling down the shutters. Operations were frozen, outgoing calls were stopped and media communications were severed. Gene wrote later, ‘Everyone drifted through a mindless fog of war. No-one knew what to do. There were many rumours, few facts. Senior leadership was absent. Someone had to take control.’ He stepped up and proceeded to do just that.
Gene gathered the Houston teams together on the following Monday morning where he delivered what is now referred to as ‘the Kranz Dictum’:
Spaceflight will never tolerate carelessness, incapacity, and neglect.
Somewhere, somehow, we screwed up. It could have been in design, build, or test. Whatever it was, we should have caught it. We were too gung-ho about the schedule and we locked out all of the problems we saw each day in our work. Every element of the program was in trouble and so were we. The simulators were not working, Mission Control was behind in virtually every area, and the flight and test procedures changed daily. Nothing we did had any shelf life.
Not one of us stood up and said, ‘Dammit, STOP!’
I don’t know what [the investigative] committee will find as the cause, but I know what I find. We are the cause! We were not ready! We did not do our job. We were rolling the dice, hoping that things would come together by launch day, when in our hearts, we knew it would take a miracle. We were pushing the schedule and betting that the Cape would slip before we did.
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 in our skills.
Mission Control will be perfect. 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.
Remember the ultimate truth of leadership: the leader does not set the culture, the leader IS the culture. Gene Kranz’s Dictum created a new culture at NASA which enabled it to advance and excel. He instilled the need for discipline, competence, confidence, responsibility, toughness, teamwork and trust.
Gene did not eliminate failure, because that is impossible. But he led a resilient culture that recovered from failures and stopped them from becoming catastrophes. Unfortunately, NASA would have to relearn these lessons decades later, during the Space Shuttle program, but Gene Kranz’s approach remains the gold standard of leadership and resilience.
<… /FLY! page 190>
The Kranz Dictum set the values and culture at NASA that everyone adopted at NASA. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins (Apollo 11) and Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise (Apollo 13) were astronauts that exemplified intrepid and resilient spirit.
Failure is Not an Option
I recommend Gene Kranz’s book “Failure is not an option“. In it he details the Foundations Values of Mission Control and the efforts to rebuild NASA’s culture after Apollo 1:
I hope that you, like me, are enjoying and enthralled by the replay of the Apollo 11 story on its 5oth anniversary this week.
This is a story of success, failure and ultimately resilience in the face of astronomical risks.
There is no better example of leadership and resilience than Gene Kranz and every one of the 400,000 people at NASA during those Apollo years.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if today’s leaders and people could unite and plan-execute a mission like Apollo to further the resilience of humanity and Earth.