Gene Kranz: 'There is no equivocation. It was go or no go.'

Apollo 11 flight director sits down with KPRC 2 to remember moon landing

Rose-Ann Aragon reporting.

HOUSTON – The Apollo 11 lunar landing is a moment that changed history. Fifty years later, key leaders, such as Apollo 11 Lunar Landing Flight Director Gene Kranz, remember it as if it were yesterday.

KPRC 2's Rose-Ann Aragon sat down with Kranz.

Kranz is a former aerospace engineer and fighter pilot who made it his mission to work with the young controllers and help make them "steel-hard" professionals. The day they landed on the moon was a day that Kranz said he will never forget.

Rose-Ann Aragon (RA): It is truly an honor to meet you. Thank you for being here today. Tell us about your role in Apollo 11?

Gene Kranz (GK): I was a flight director in Mission Control. Flight directors go the job to take any actions necessary for crew safety and mission success. There is no equivocation. It was go or no go.

RA: Five decades after a huge moment in American history, I have to ask: What is this time of year like for you?

GK: I think, for a lot of us, it's an opportunity to savor the first lunar landing. My team, as soon as we hit the moon, said, "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed," we had to go for the next two hours. All the while the world's celebrating, the people behind me in the viewing room are celebrating. They are cheering, stomping their feet. Basically, we had to take a look at that spacecraft and make time-critical decisions. Two minutes: Are we "stay" or "no stay?" Eight minutes: "Stay" or "no stay?" Two hours: "Stay" or "no stay?" -- at which time, then, we would hand over to the next team, and we could join the rest of the world in celebration.

So it was a very dicey time, and I think we are really going to really relish it because we are getting on in the years, and we did the job. And we are proud of the work we did, and as a team, we hung tough.

RA: Tell me about that day. Talk about those moments you realized you're doing something that man has never done before.

GK: The real challenge was to keep your perspective and not get distracted. The descent was roughly about 12 minutes long, and it was a battle; it was a battle all the way there. We had problems with communications. I had mission roles that basically laid the burden upon me to say, "Do we have enough data to continue?" (At one moment) we have no crash recorder so, if we lose the spacecraft for some reason, we have to have enough information to know what happened so we can fix it and go back.

The descent to the moon

GK: About the time we got that sorted out, my trajectory team says (astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin) are going to be landing long. We've got a radio component of velocity error in there and we are moving towards our abort limit, but we'll watch it pretty close. From then on, it's now looking," Are we going to get the landing radar?" because the crew was descending to the moon with information we provided them from the ground, which could have been several thousand feet in error.

Nuisance program alarms blare

GK: If you're going to land on the moon, you've got to know what the altitude is down there, so we had to wait for the radar to come in. And, about that time that got sorted out, we started having problems with computer program alarms. This was, I think, the most difficult time because I think everybody recognized that this crew and the spacecraft -- that this crew is now in a spacecraft (in space) and the computer was basically out of time to do all the functions it had to do. So it shut all the less important (functions) and is now recovering the proper trajectory steering and guidance navigation control. We'd say, "Ah, we're through that," and then it would happen again and again. And now it's getting to the point where we are getting close to the ground and the crew has to start picking their landing point. They know that they landed long, and they have a computer that provides them information where they can look out through a grid on their window -- it's called a landing point designator -- and say, "Hey, this is where you're going to land."

Low on gas

GK: Now, I'm sure there are a lot of people driving with their fuel gauge in their car reading empty and that's basically when you get the report from the crew: low level. We know the crew has two minutes of fuel remaining and a 30% throttle setting. So, normally, in training, we would have landed by the time it got that low level. But now we are proceeding on down toward the surface and very soon one of my controllers is going to start counting down the seconds of fuel remaining.

60, 30 seconds

GK: You wait for that call. The room almost becomes totally silent at that time. I've got one controller that's got a stopwatch that's counting down that's starting to say 60 seconds and we are listening to that crew and they are still flying around trying to find a landing point. Then, Buzz is calling out whether he's moving up, down, left, right. He's calling out the information. It's really interesting. I didn't know this at the time, but there is a sheet of dust that's basically floating along the lunar surface that's making it difficult for the crew, Neil Armstrong, to decide he's moving, how fast he's moving. So, I have to find stationary objects, like big rocks down there. And that is now what he uses as his point of reference and there we hear "30 seconds." In Mission Control, we have handles on the television in there. You grab that handle and you're holding on for life on that thing there. 

Landing on the moon

GK: As we now got down about that time we would have said "15 seconds," we recognize the crew is going through engine shutdown. The emotion of that instant when you then hear the crew say "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed," I think we were all unprepared for it. I've been through the simulation. We've done the simulation many times and I think myself and my team were ready, but the people in the viewing room are what broke the code. They started stamping and cheering and everything else. And all of a sudden, the noise filters into the room and my controllers start to catch it, and I get angered, and I say, "Settle down!"  

No time to celebrate in Mission Control

GK: All of a sudden, the control team goes quiet. Understand, then we start going through the "stay" or "no stay" status, so we look at that spacecraft and, at two minutes, we give the crew: There a "stay" for T-1 (a carefully timed mission checkpoint). We go through another six minutes. We stay for T-2, and these times were selected as such that, if we had to get off the moon, the spacecraft, the lunar module ascent stage, could lift off and rendezvous with the command module.

Contingency plans

GK: In between times, the command module would have to do part of the maneuvering. Basically, these times are very critical. So it was only after we go to two hours I handed it over to the next team and we could begin our celebration

Celebrating 50 years later

GK: This was, this was, I think, a very precious time for everyone in the room because we'd like to do it over again, only joining the rest of the world celebrating the landing when we really did it, when we landed.

The team in Mission Control

GK: So, it was really sort of a dicey time but the response of the controller and the team was absolutely beautiful. These kids, most of them are 26 to 27 years old in there. They had been in Mission Control for three to four, maybe five, years and they are hardcore professionals in everything they did and I mean they are sharp, crisp. They are on top of the job. And I'm so darn proud of those kids, I could croak.

The talk before the mission

GK: The thing is that's interesting: I had the opportunity just before we started down to talk to my team. It was very -- I was probably the most emotional of the flight directors. And we had a private communications loop where I could talk to the controllers, and my final words to my controllers were, "I will stand behind every decision you will make. We came into this room a team and we will leave as a team." Then one of the controllers went and locked the doors and we would not leave that room and the doors would not be opened until we landed, we crashed or we aborted. And only one of those cases was good: we had to land.

RA: You also taught them two values which I think have helped shaped NASA today: Tough and --

GK: Tough and competent. Boy, you got those words. Well, thank you. It came from a point. Many of us went through the Apollo 1 fire where we lost Gus Grissom, Ed White, Roger B. Chaffee. I was the flight director of the previous day's test, and I did the morning test, and then I handed it over to Chris Kraft. I'd been through -- I'd lost pilots in my squadron (as a fighter pilot). I was familiar with death; we lost several people. Basically, I had to find some way to get my team back on track and get going, but we also had to accept the responsibility that we were not ready at that time. At any point during that countdown (for Apollo 1), any one of us could have said, "Whoa, stop." The crew could have done that. The program could have done that. The launch team could have done that. I could have done that. (We could have said) "We're not ready. We're not good enough. Things aren't right. It's time to turn this thing around."

Tough and competent

GK: I called my controllers in two days later and talked to them rather lengthily, rather private. It was to the point that we must accept responsibility for this failure, and we must never let it happen again. (I told them), "When you leave this room, you will write two words on the blackboard: 'tough' and 'competent,' and you will not erase those words until we have completed the Apollo program." And that became a sort of a rallying cry. Everybody thought, "Kranz does sort of silly things but, basically, when he does things, he means them." Tough and competent cleared over for a long time. They gave me a "tough and competent" jersey. Pretty soon, everyone was wearing it on their jacket, etc. But this was a time frame where I think we became hard, steel hard, in everything we needed to do to get our crew to the surface of the moon.

RA: The 50th anniversary -- you mentioned to me that it didn't feel like 50 years.

GK: No, it's really strange, I guess it goes with the aging process. I'm now 86. But I don't feel 86. I feel like I'm maybe 50 or so. It's the same standpoint of major events. Not only myself but my controllers were involved. We've celebrated this every year since the first time we landed on the moon, but this doesn't seem like it's the 50th year. It might be the eighth, the 10th, or maybe even the 20th year. And we look at each other and tell the same stories. We're a bit slower, but we lived in the age of what I call "our time." This was a time that I think was unique. Our nation was in motion. You know, you think about going to the moon but also the civil rights movement, the environmental movement and, basically, people were out. The Peace Corps -- the people would get out of their comfort zone, and they would march for what they would believe. And we just happened to be the marchers marching for the business of space.

Bosses in that era

GK: Also bosses -- I ought to say a few words about our leadership. Throughout the early space program, we had the most incredible leaders because they had the ultimate responsibility and accountability. I thank Chris Kraft for letting me be the landing flight director. It was a marvelous job. But he gave me the responsibility. Our bosses in those days were more about, "How can I help you? I don't want more briefings, I don't need any more explanations. Tell me what happened and let me figure out how to give you a hand." Leadership was incredible in those days.

Mission Control -- the room

GK: I mean, we smoked cigarettes, pipes, you know, cigars, in that room, right on down that line. That was the nature of the beast. It had its own uncanny atmosphere when you walked in. You knew you were in a different place. You also had the feeling when you walked in there that you knew the decisions were made in this place. You had a sense of history, of that room and setting America's first bait record, beating the Russians -- you know, capturing the high ground. I think that this entire process of restoration is going to be good for not only the people that were there but, basically, it's the opportunity that: What Americans will dare, that Americans can do.

The future

GK: I think it's essential in our nation to start getting this belief: We can dream big things and we can set out and do big things.