Teamwork, trust key to NASA's early success

  • 23-Oct-2008 04:09 EDT
Gene Kranz, former Director of Mission Operations at NASA, recounts the perils of the Apollo 13 mission during his Tuesday morning keynote address at Convergence 2008.

Teamwork is a critical element in all NASA flights, but never was it more important than when Apollo 13 came perilously close to disaster in April of 1970. Former Director of Mission Operations Gene Kranz described his personal development as NASA became the representation of American engineering and ingenuity, detailing the harrowing Apollo 13 mission during his Tuesday, Oct. 21, presentation at the recent Convergence 2008 show.­

An aeronautical engineer who became a test pilot, Kranz joined NASA in 1960, working at Cape Canaveral on Project Mercury. That’s where the staff became a team, establishing a drive for excellence and learning the difference between “I” and “we.”

“We worked to develop chemistry,” he said. “It’s a force amplifier that leads to communication that is virtually intuitive, to know when someone has a problem and needs help or needs a little more time.”

The U.S. had only 20 minutes of space flight experience when John Kennedy outlined plans to land a man on the moon. At that time, the Mercury program had no computers, and ground controllers learned Morse code for backup communication.

The 75-year-old Kranz briskly described various problems with flights, noting that before Apollo 13, team members “were hoping for a change, that this flight would go smoothly.” That hope ended when the crew was only 50,000 miles from the moon and Jim Lovell uttered the famous line, “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”

Kranz told his ground crew that “failure is not an option.” He detailed the many steps taken to assure a safe return, personalizing the heroism of ground staff and astronauts who survived near freezing temperatures with little food or water.

At one point, a typhoon prompted a change in landing areas and the trajectory team said the flight path needed adjustment. After tense minutes during re-entry, all the hardened test pilots and engineers cried when they heard that naval personnel had spotted the spacecraft’s parachutes.

“It’s difficult to describe the relationship between ground and mission. It was one of absolute trust. Without absolute trust, we never would have finished the mission successfully,” Kranz said before receiving his third standing ovation.

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