Apollo 1 never flew. The first crewed mission of the U.S. Apollo Space Program experienced a pre-launch cabin fire at Cape Kennedy on Jan. 27, 1967, killing all three astronauts.
Six years earlier, President John F. Kennedy shared his vision that the U.S. would land a man on the moon and return him safely to the Earth. Yet with the failure of Apollo 1, our nation was now suddenly aware that no peace time project would ever be so difficult or dangerous to accomplish.
The Monday following the Apollo 1 disaster, NASA Chief Flight Director Gene Kranz called a meeting of the flight control team.
“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. 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, and 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.”
Gerry Griffin, a flight controller hired by Kranz, was at this meeting.
“Kranz’s message resonated throughout Mission Control; from that point, by golly, there was an attitude we are going to lick this thing and, eventually, we did,” Griffin said.
When NASA began to plan flight operations, no human had yet flown in space. In fact, the task before them was vast, requiring attention to myriad different flight management disciplines.
Early on, the leader of the NASA Space Task Force tasked his young associate, Chris Kraft, saying, “Chris, you come up with a basic mission plan, you know, the bottom-line stuff on how we fly a man from a launch pad into space and back … and it would be good if you kept him alive.”
Kraft became the Father of Mission Control. He originated the concept and development of a team of highly skilled engineers and scientists; each one an expert working in the Control Center. Then he pioneered the idea of the flight director, the person who would coordinate the team of specialists and make real-time decisions about the conduct of the mission.
Kraft became the first and only flight director for Project Mercury, the first U.S. program to launch a human into space.
In retrospect, Kraft was the personification of a NASA flight director and people of Mission Control. He was in his 30s when he created Mission Control, and he hired others in their 20s and early 30s.
“The country gave the Apollo Flight Operations’ keys to Kraft and his young people and said ‘go to the moon,’ so we did,” Griffin said.
Along the way, there were important lessons learned. One such lesson was the Mercury Flight of John Glenn that proved to be a test for both Mission Control and for Kraft.
Griffin calls it “a single event that decisively shaped Flight Operations.”
The first orbital flight by an American unfolded normally — until Glenn began his second orbit. At that point, Kraft’s System’s Controller reported an indicator suggesting that the capsule’s landing bag, which was meant to deploy upon splashdown, might have deployed early. A loose heat shield could cause the capsule to burn-up during re-entry.
After consulting with his flight controllers, Kraft became convinced that the indicator was false and that no action was needed. However, his superiors felt differently. They overruled Kraft, telling him to instruct Glenn to leave the capsule’s retrorocket package on during re-entry.
Kraft, however, felt that this was an unacceptable risk.
“I was aghast,” he remembered. “If any of three retrorockets had solid fuel remaining, an explosion could rip everything apart.”
That experience taught Kraft that the flight director had to be absolutely in control of every aspect of each actual mission while in space.
“My flight controllers and I were a lot closer to the systems and to events than anyone in top management. From now on, I swore, they’d pay hell before they overruled any decision I made.”
Kranz, his assistant on the mission, considered Glenn’s flight “the turning point in the evolution of flight director.”
Kranz was 31 years old at the time of Glenn’s first orbital flight, and he recruited a cadre of young individuals working with him in Mission Control, including Griffin, who reported to NASA at age 29 and served as a flight director for all the Apollo manned missions.
Former Flight Directors Griffin and Tommy Holloway will be speakers at the upcoming “Tribute to Apollo 11,” presented by the Dynamic Learning Institute on July 11 at the Cailloux Theatre.
Griffin and Holloway both went to work for NASA at what was to become The Johnson Space Center when it was a vast cow pasture south of Houston quickly being transformed into the epicenter of human spaceflight.
Griffin, a graduate of Texas A&M, is an aeronautical engineer who served in the U.S. Air Force and was hired by Kranz to work in Mission Control in 1964.
Ultimately, Griffin succeeded Kraft as the director of the Johnson Space Center in 1982.
Holloway, a graduate of The University of Arkansas, is a mechanical engineer hired out of college in 1963 to work in Flight Crew Operations during Gemini and Apollo. He served as flight activities officer in the Mission Control Center for Apollo and became a flight director for the Space Shuttle Program.
Ultimately, his leadership helped set the standards of safety and success for the Space Shuttle and International Space Station programs, which he directed.
Both Griffin and Holloway contributed to an evolving culture of success, a culture rooted in the vision of Kraft and embraced by a team of young adults.
They were young men who were inexperienced enough to not be influenced by traditions, yet wise enough to take advantage of the cadre of very bright people available to support them.
These young pioneers of Flight Control persisted with toughness and competence to create the legend that the film “Apollo 13” made famous: “Failure is not an option.”
Today, that legend endures because of the character attributes that this world-famous phrase embodies.
Yet, when “Apollo 13” scriptwriters came down to interview Mission Control, they asked Flight Director Jerry Bostick, “What are the people in Mission Control really like? Weren’t there times when everybody or at least a few people, just panicked?”
Bostick’s answer was, “No, when bad things happened, we just calmly laid out all the options, and failure was not one of them. We never panicked, and we never gave up on finding a solution.”
Screenwriter Bill Broyles soon wanted to leave, and Bostick assumed that he was bored with the interview. Only months later, when Bostick and Griffin were consulting on the “Apollo 13” film, did they learn that when the writers got in their car to leave, they started screaming, “That’s it! That’s the tagline for the ‘Apollo 13’ movie: ‘Failure is not an option.’”
DLI Chairman Jeff Anderson is servant pastor of SERV Kerrville, a nonprofit collaborating with community partners to empower lifelong learning.