Failure Is Not An Option – Gene Kranz

Title: Failure is Not An Option
Author: Gene Kranz
ISBN: 0425179877
Pages: 416
Release Date: May 8, 2001
Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoirs
Rating: ***** (out of 5)

From the dust jacket:

In 1957, the Russians launched Sputnik and the ensuing space race. Three years later, Gene Kranz left his aircraft testing job to join NASA and champion the American cause. What he found was an embryonic department run by whiz kids (such as himself), sharp engineers and technicians who had to create the Mercury mission rules and procedure from the ground up. As he says, “Since there were no books written on the actual methodology of space flight, we had to write them as we went along.”

Kranz was part of the mission control team that, in January 1961, launched a chimpanzee into space and successfully retrieved him, and made Alan Shepard the first American in space in May 1961. Just two months later they launched Gus Grissom for a space orbit, John Glenn orbited Earth three times in February 1962, and in May of 1963 Gordon Cooper completed the final Project Mercury launch with 22 Earth orbits. And through them all, and the many Apollo missions that followed, Gene Kranz was one of the integral inside men–one of those who bore the responsibility for the Apollo 1 tragedy, and the leader of the “tiger team” that saved the Apollo 13 astronauts.

Moviegoers know Gene Kranz through Ed Harris’s Oscar-nominated portrayal of him in Apollo 13, but Kranz provides a more detailed insider’s perspective in his book Failure Is Not an Option. You see NASA through his eyes, from its primitive days when he first joined up, through the 1993 shuttle mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope, his last mission control project. His memoir, however, is not high literature. Kranz has many accomplishments and honors to his credit, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, but this is his first book, and he’s not a polished author. There are, perhaps, more behind-the-scenes details and more paragraphs devoted to what Cape Canaveral looked like than the general public demands. If, however, you have a long-standing fascination with aeronautics, if you watched Apollo 13 and wanted more, Failure Is Not an Option will fill the bill.

I have an insatiable interest in NASA and the space program, so I try to read as many books as I can (and as many books as I have time for) on the subject. Bearing that in mind, I was very excited to read Gene Kranz’s memoir of his time in Mission Control from Project Mercury to the end of Apollo. I was in no way disappointed with this captivating read.

Most of the books about the space program are either biographies/memoirs of the astronauts or an overall history of NASA. Gene Kranz gives us a different perspective – that of those left behind on the ground. These were the guys who had to figure out what to do when things went wrong, the people who carried the lives of the astronauts in their hands. Gene takes this responsibility seriously, candidly speaking of strengths and weaknesses within the institutional framework of NASA.

Kranz’ handling of the crisis moments are the most riveting – specifically, the fire of Apollo 1 and the crippled Apollo 13 voyage (made famous by the movie that starred Tom Hanks.) The reader gets a behind the scenes look at these crises, as well as the missions we don’t hear about as often– the Gemini missions, without which landing on the moon would never have been possible, and the post-Apollo 13 missions. Kranz also gives his opinions on other astronauts and personalities within NASA. He never hesitates to be honest, which is refreshing in a book such as this. One of my personal favorite parts of this memoir is when Kranz discusses Gus Grissom and his Liberty Bell 7 flight, specifically, that Gus did NOT blow the hatch early (for more information on this, see the movie The Right Stuff – or read the book by Tom Wolfe).

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Admittedly, it is not the best quality of writing – the sentences are choppy and the words don’t flow as smoothly as they could. But that can be easily forgiven because it makes it all the more apparent that Kranz did indeed write this remarkable novel himself.

Generally speaking, the lack of public interest in the exploration of space bothers me to a great degree. I’m not spoiling for a fight or desirous of debating where our tax dollars should be spent, but in my opinion, we have no choice but to see what’s out there. Exploration is in our nature as humans; by exploring the vastness of the heavens, we learn more about ourselves. As readers, we understand the pull of the imagination – we tend to be the thinkers and dreamers who choose to explore the worlds through the words of another. But I think it is equally important reach for the stars physically, as well as mentally. I’m one of those few who believes we still have much to learn by returning to the Moon, going to Mars, and moving beyond. And that’s why I think it is so important for people to read books such as Kranz’s memoir. It is reminiscent of a time when space travel was new and exciting, rather than the humdrum routine it has become. As a country, we have lost our way in the exploration of space – here’s hoping that we find our way again.

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