NASA Johnson Space Center
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Roy Neal
Houston, TX – 19 March 1998
by way of openers, how did a jet jockey like you wind up being a Flight
Director way back when?
Kranz: I was
in the flight test business. I was doing some flight test engineering
in the early jet bombers out of Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico.
[We were] in the process of developing the Decline missiles and the
various offensive systems they have. I happened to open the Aviation
Week magazine and there was an advertisement in there that said they
were forming a Space Task Group [STG]. I sort of put that up in the
corner of the desk, and every day I’d come into work I’d
look at that. The Space Task Group; just the words sort of captured
my imagination. Finally I took it home to the wife and I said, “Marta,
what do you think about making a change? Getting out of the aircraft
business, maybe going into the space business?” And she said,
“Well, where are we going to go?” She was very good about
this. I said, “Well, they’ve got options at the Cape [Cape
Canaveral, Florida] and at [Hampton] Virginia.” And she said,
“Oh, go to Virginia; they’ve got good schools there. You’ve
got to get your education, and I know the government will pay you
to go to school. So, let’s go to Virginia.” It was that
year was that?
was in 1960.
Neal: So there
you were, back in 1960, and you applied, answering the ad, and you
came over to the brand new organization known as NASA [National Aeronautics
and Space Administration]. What happened next?
I was very disappointed. We drove in to Virginia—I was used
to the high desert out in New Mexico—and we drove into Virginia
in one of these Fall dreary, wet days. The town just didn’t
have the appearance of the desert, and I was just really sort of down
in the mouth, and then I went to report into work the following Monday
and nobody seemed to know what was going on. You know, you didn’t
feel the discipline, the structure, those kinds of things. It was
just an aura of confusion in the Space Task Group.
I got pointed out to a set of offices and went in and to meet a bunch
of guys—Chris [Christopher C.] Kraft [Jr.], John [D.] Hodge,
Paul [L.] Havenstein, Sig [Sigurd A.] Sjoberg—and none of them
even seemed to have the time to talk. It was Hodge who finally said,
“Well, let’s just sit down here; and we’re glad
to see you.” But the first few weeks were very difficult for
me because I’d come in from a military structure into a civilian
organization, and I just seemed to be the odd man out there.
I think the real turn¬around came about two weeks after I’d
been on board. I knew nothing about the space business, and Kraft
came up and he said, “We’re getting ready to launch the
Mercury-Redstone 1 [MR-1]. I want you to go down to the Cape and write
me a countdown and some mission rules. When that job’s done,
give me a call and we’ll come down and launch it.” And
I said, “Uh, uh, uh okay.” Having been in the military,
I saluted and I packed up my gear, and climbed on the airplane. We
had a whole bunch of rickety old Martins and Convairs—East Coast
Airlines used to go back and forth between Langley [Research Center,
Hampton, Virginia] and the Cape.
I ended up down at the Cape, and I didn’t even know in which
direction to go. I ended up at Patrick Air Force Base. I didn’t
even know which direction the Cape was from Patrick. While I was walking
around the ramp at Patrick, feeling very confused, up drives a guy
in a Chevy convertible with a surf¬board in the back. And he obviously
looks at me and realizes I don’t have the slightest clue; I’m
the new guy in the block. And he said, “Where are you going?”
I said, “I’m going out to the Cape.” And he said,
“Climb aboard. We’ll drive out there. I’m going
out there, too.” About halfway through Cocoa Beach, the guy
introduced himself, “Hey, by the way, I’m Gordo [L. Gordon]
Cooper [Jr.].” This was sort of my introduction to the space
program, and it was that, catch-as-catch-can throughout the entire
It was just really—you just wanted to get time to take a big
gulp of fresh air in your lungs before you dove back in again. And
you just never had that chance. It was constantly go, go, go, go;
drive, drive, drive, drive, drive. That was probably the most rapid
year of my entire life.
the sound of it, you started at a fairly high level in the original
hierarchy though, since they wanted you to do a countdown and write
mission rules right off the top.
Well, the process of doing the countdown was funny. I got out to Mercury
Control [Center], and there was a young engineer that I think I owe
my early career to; a guy by the name of Paul Johnson. Paul Johnson
was one of the employees of Western Electric, and Kraft must’ve
called him, or somebody called him, and said, “There’s
a guy by the name of Kranz reporting him in; show him the ropes.”
Although Paul was about my age, maybe a little bit younger, he knew
his way around the Cape. He seemed to know everybody. He seemed to
know everything. When I arrived in Mercury Control he was sitting
writing the job descriptions for all of the people that would work
there. I had been tagged as a guy called “Procedures.”
Well, Procedures is sort of a gadabout. He’s the only guy in
Mercury Control who really didn’t have a job. His job was to
listen to what was going on and write the messages that would go out
on the teletypes that would brief the network on the mission. So you
sort of had to learn to anticipate what everybody was going to ask
for, what they were going to do. I had to know the telemetry, the
command. I had to know what the mission was about. I had to be able
to anticipate everybody’s call. So it was interesting sitting
back, almost like one of the guys from the Press. You know, writing
the story as it’s going on, only trying to stay just a few minutes
ahead of the story, so that hopefully my teletype messages would get
to the remote sites before the spacecraft did, so the people at the
sites would know what was going on.
Anyway, Paul Johnson was one of the philosophers, one of the people
who put all the pieces together. He introduced me to what a countdown
was. And I thought, “Hell, a countdown can’t be too difficult.
It’s just a set of procedures that makes sure everything’s
ready before you go to launch something.” That was the easy
part. The mission rules, I had no concept what they were. In aircraft
flight test, we had a set of go/no-go criteria we used for instrumentation
and for the aircraft before we took off. But in flight you just relied
upon the pilot and his procedures to make the decision about what
to do if things went wrong. So all of my mission rules talked about
what happened before we launched. None of them talked about what happens
if things go wrong after we launch.
Well, the Mercury-Redstone was where I broke into the Control Center
business, and I’d never seen a launch. I’d never seen
a rocket launch. I’d fired some [rockets] off airplanes, but
these are little piddling things compared to these great, big things
that were out on the launch pad. We were in the Mercury Control Center,
and the clock finally got down to zero after so many holds and false
starts and all that kind of stuff, and all of a sudden you hear this
liftoff, and there are only two TVs in Mercury Control. One was at
the Capcom’s [capsule communicator] console; the other one was
over at Kraft’s console. I was sitting right next to Kraft’s
console. So it seemed everybody in the room developed a really long
stretched neck, because they wanted to see this rocket launch in these
TVs. I was looking at it, and this thing just took off and just went
straight off. I mean, it just moved out faster than anything anybody
ever expected. And Kraft, you know, was sort of surprised. Everybody
was sort of taken aback by this thing.
Then this camera came back down, and the Redstone rocket was still
on the launch pad. Now out of the top of this thing here you get all
of the chaff, the tin foil they use for tracking, and then comes the
drogue parachute and the main parachute, and the dye markers and all
this. The parachute’s hanging off to the side, and very slowly
this thing starts to inflate. Everyone was wondering, “Is this
going to pull this whole rocket over on the launch pad?” We
had no command control, no communications about it, etc. Then was
when I wished I’d done some thinking about this mission rule
business. Because now it’s time for them.
By the way [laughs], the Redstone engineer started speaking in German
to the block-house during this particular activity. Kraft is frustrated
as all hell because nobody’s talking to him. The people from
Marshall [Space Flight Center] are talking to the blockhouse, but
nobody’s talking to Kraft! So he goes over and grabs a hold
of the booster engineer by the back of his neck and says, “Will
you please talk to me, and talk to me in English?” The guy wasn’t
used to this kind of a chain of command. He was responsible to the
Marshall chain of command, not to the one that existed in Mercury
Control in those days. So we sat and went through a lot of interesting
One of the first options was to get somebody to try to plug the umbilical
back in; but it had been pyrotechnically separated, and there was
just no way they could reinstall the umbilical. Plus the fact it was
pretty hazardous out there on the launch pad at that time, because
this rocket was still pressurized. It was ready to go. Then they went
through a long search for a cherry-picker in the Cape, and they were
going to get some pruning shears and cut the risers off of the parachutes.
They decided that wasn’t a good plan. So for the next plan—and
I think this came in from the blockhouse—somebody started talking
about shooting holes in the tanks with a high-powered rifle. But they
said, “No. This whole structure is going to collapse. We don’t
know what’s going to happen after that.” Pretty soon the
first rule of Flight Control was written: “If you don’t
know what to do, don’t do nothing.”
So we just sat there and waited until the batteries died. In fact,
we left. The blockhouse people stayed and waited until the batteries
died; and then all the relays, by design, returned to a safe position.
The rocket vented. It was now safe to approach the rocket. So we hadn’t
lost anything except a lot of our innocence. And it separated very
quickly over the next several months. But that was my first introduction
to the fine art of space rocketry and mission control. I came back
somewhat chastened, humbled, and I now figured out where I fit in.
I was going to have to be the guy who stayed ahead of what was happening
in the mission; and, being a military fighter pilot, I decided I hadn’t
been flying Kraft’s wing very well. I was going to become his
wing man and make sure that I covered his tail for everything he was
Neal: So you
carved a niche for yourself, as it were. You finally figured out what
you were going to do within the framework of the early days of the
Mercury Program. What title did they give you?
it was still Procedures. Over the length of the Mercury Program, Kraft
moved from Procedures into Assistant Flight Director, because I think
he sensed the need for somebody to crosscheck what was going on. Somebody
he could turn to and say, “Does that sound right?” I think
Kraft and I, and myself and the people that I called Assistant Flight
Directors, were the only two who operated in this particular mode
all the way through the early space program. Because I always liked
somebody looking over my shoulder; somebody protecting my tail. And
I think Kraft was pretty much of the same nature.
The business of flight directing, the business of growing up, was
really prone to error in those early days. It was principally a judgment
call. There was very little technology. We had very limited information
on the spacecraft and the systems. In fact, I was surprised, working
the Mercury Program, that I had less information in Mercury Control
than I had as a flight test engineer working out at Holloman. It seemed
that almost they had taken a step back from a standpoint of the technology
of command and control when we moved into the Mercury Program. It
was only in Gemini that we had what I’d say was a big step forward
in the kinds of tools that we used in the Control Center environment.
let’s take a look at that. Let’s take a look at it from
the perspective, first, of Mercury, when you developed the requirement
for such guidance and control and how you gradually phased it in with
Gemini and, of course, that brings us to Houston [Texas] as well.
So, could you phase that for us just a bit?
actually, the Mercury spacecraft had about 70 telemetered pieces of
information. Most of the information that came down in telemetry was
associated with clocks and accelerometers. We had measurements from
a standpoint of the control stick position. But from a standpoint
of the life support on board the spacecraft, we had oxygen pressure,
we had temperatures, we had a very rudimentary set of information;
and virtually every piece of information that we had on the ground
was also displayed on board the spacecraft. There wasn’t anything
new. There wasn’t anything unique that Mission Control could
bring to the Mercury picture, assisting the crew in space, other than
access to the designers, the testers, the people in the plant, and
maybe putting the trends together. So what the crew was seeing, we
were seeing on board the spacecraft in Mercury.
It was only as we moved into Gemini that we recognized the need to
move deeper into the spacecraft system. Part of this came about as
a result of the John [H.] Glenn [Jr.] mission. Because in John Glenn,
we were stuck with a very difficult decision. Did his heatshield deploy
or did it not? We had a single telemetry measurement that indicated
that the heatshield had come loose from the spacecraft. Now, if we
believed that measurement and the heatshield had come loose, we had
one set of decisions that involved sticking our neck out [by] retaining
the retrorocket package attached during the entry phase. We didn’t
know whether it would damage the heatshield. We didn’t know
whether we had sufficient attitude control authority. So if the heatshield
had come loose and we believed that measurement, we’d go that
direction. But if the heatshield had not come loose, that measurement
was wrong and we wouldn’t do anything different. So it was a
very difficult decision for Kraft in Mercury Control.
I remember this one very clearly, because the engineers would come
and say, “Nah, the heatshield can’t have come loose!”
And Chris would look at them, and he’d say, “Well, how
about this measurement we’re seeing? What’s the worst
thing that would happen if it had come loose?” And they’d
always end up in a position that says, “Well, maybe John Glenn
isn’t going to make it home.” “Well then, what are
we going to do about it?” So, because of Kraft, this entire
business of ground control, I think, really came into being on the
Mercury-Atlas 5 [MA-5, Enos], when we made the decision to come down
an orbit early. And because of Mercury-Atlas 6 [MA-6], with John Glenn,
when we had the heatshield deploy problem. So the business of being
able to look deeper into the systems really came about as a result
of some very difficult decisions we made with inadequate information
By the time we moved into Gemini, we now had several hundred measurements
in this thing. We could look within the guts of the system and see
the things that the astronauts couldn’t see on board the spacecraft.
We had data at a much higher sample rate; we now went to the point
where, instead of getting 1 sample a second we’d get 8 and 10
samples per second. So we could look at the characteristic signature
of the systems on board the spacecraft. And we got to know what a
proper operating fan looked like and an improper operating fan looked
like, just from the signature of the system. We started doing pretty
good detective work, looking into the systems, and we were able to
stay ahead of the problems and, to a great extent, prevent their occurrence.
Or if they did occur, we were able to very quickly identify the source
cause and what we were going to do about it. So the technology of
flight operations made a very rapid leap forward from Mercury, where
we had only three computers working for the entire manned space effort.
We had two [computers] up at Goddard [Space Flight Center] to process
our radar tracking information, [and] one out at Bermuda with a team
there, because we’d launch eastward.
Well, by the time we moved into Gemini we now had computers in Mission
Control. And this was the big breakthrough. The only problem was,
none of us had ever worked with computers before! So this is when
the young people started coming into the program. We went out to the
colleges and universities of our nation and brought in the young people
who were working with computers in laboratories. To try to find people
with computer experience, we’d go to the Army Missile Command
at Fort Bliss in Texas, because the Army was using computers in their
ground-to-air missile program. And, boy, soon as the Army would discharge
somebody with computer experience we’d just gobble them up put
them on the Gemini team! So computers really started making our job
not only easier; they allowed us to stay ahead.
You know, the spacecraft moves 5 miles a second; and with this guy
moving 5 miles a second, your thought process has to come to grips
with this incredible change in dimension. In aircraft flight tests,
we were moving the airplanes 5 miles a minute. And in just one stroke,
we moved that so far forward that our thought process just wasn’t
adequate in Mercury. With computers, we now started getting ahead
of the game. So the real breakthrough, I think, occurred between Mercury
was the time, too, that this Control Center—the Manned Spacecraft
Center, as it was then—was fired up and control moved from the
Cape to Houston. Was that a good move in your book, by the way?
came from a flight test [background] and I always believed that you
ought to be where the hardware is. I think many of the engineers felt
this was not the right thing to do. But, looking at it with the longer
perspective several years later and looking at the very rapid growth,
not only in the space program but in the need for bringing young people
into the program, I believe one of the early decisions to locate Centers
near sources of young people—what you call “feeder universities”—was
really a right decision. Marshall [Space Flight Center] had its sources.
They have a whole bunch of great universities in the Georgia-Alabama-Louisiana
complex there. Here within Texas you’ve got [Texas] A&M
[University], you’ve got the University of Texas. And we picked
up young people from Purdue [University], Notre Dame [University],
and [University of] Wisconsin. Three of my Flight Directors were from
small colleges in Oklahoma. So basically, we had a source of young
people, and that was really the fuel for this space fire that Kennedy
had built. I think that the location here in Houston didn’t
seem to make sense to me in the early years. But by the time we started
the search for the raw talent we needed to go to the Moon, this was
the right decision because we could go to universities and we’d
bring in entire graduating classes.
was more to it than that, too, in as much as you were able to put
the computer complex here, bringing it home as it were. You were able
to build a Mission Control Room that was really operational.
We had a marvelous linkage between the Mercury and the Gemini Program;
and the Control Center was—One of the English engineers—he
was actually a Welshman—who came down from AVRO [A. V. Roe Aircraft
Inc., Ontario], Canada, was Tec [Tecwyn] Roberts; and he was our first
Flight Dynamics Officer. Tec Roberts was one of the few people who
really understood the potential of the computer and its application
at Mission Control. So at the midpoint of the Mercury Program, Tec
Roberts was replaced by Glynn [S.] Lunney because the technology just
in these few months had now allowed us to start remoting data from
Bermuda, so we didn’t need a team out in that site anymore.
So we could focus the talent that was in the Bermuda team, combine
them with the talent that was in the team out in Mercury Control at
the Cape, and then send Tec Roberts off to build the next Mission
Roberts basically had the responsibility to bring the system on line;
and it was a marvelous thing. Here we move from a system with virtually
no computing capability, totally analog, only two systems console
with couple dozen meters, and two TVs to now where—miracle of
miracles!—we had TVs on all the consoles. We could look at our
data on television. All of the computers we had were large, centralized
systems at that time because the desktop-systems, small computers
we use nowadays just did not exist. But, the systems that we used
now allowed us to process data, to string the data together. So we
had in Gemini the merging of two worlds. We had this new world of
the Mission Control Center, Houston, but it was still tied to the
old world of the network. Because worldwide communications didn’t
exist at that time, we still got tracking information by low-speed
teletype, and we got summary messages. If you can think about this,
the controllers would sit down, they’d write down what was happening
to maybe 30 parameters on board the spacecraft, they’d pencil
this out, it’d be put in on a teletype network, and it’d
then be sent in to Houston, where it would be processed, digested,
by the computers here, and put on our displays. So we were really
marrying the old technology of Mercury and the remote sites with the
new technology of the Control Center. Now the challenge was to build
the worldwide communications which would allow us to get the data
directly without human intervention out at the remote sites. So this
became the challenge of the Gemini Program. And it was really essential
to the next big step, which was to move into Apollo.
know, that’s remarkable because I’d never really thought
that what was taking place behind the scenes was as important as what
was happening out in space during the Gemini Program.
yeah. Yeah. Another takeoff on this goes back to these young people
at the universities. Because most of us coming out of Mercury had
grown up in flight test. We were classical engineers. We weren’t
aware of cryogenics. We weren’t aware of fuel cells. Bi-propellant
rocket systems were sort of new in the block to us. Computers were
entirely new; something we were unprepared for. So the older folks
had the challenge of learning these new technologies and adapting
the technologies of Mission Control to systems we didn’t fully
understand; systems that had just emerged from laboratories. So then
we had these new, young kids coming in who understood all about cryogenics
and computers, and it was this marvelous merger of the cultures of
the young and old that really gave us this youthful exuberance.
You know, these were the Kennedy years. These were the Camelot years.
And for a period of time, you believed that this Camelot really existed.
And it did exist! It was just a magical time. And it was magic for
a variety of other reasons: We were working with what I’d consider
a very enlightened Congress, a Congress that was used to risk. They
were used to technology. The Cold War was very real, so you had that
support. You had a professional media. You had dedicated reporters,
journalists, tracking the space program. So, to put it bluntly, they
were harder than hell to work with; but they were fair. They were
objective. They didn’t make the story; they reported the story.
It was just that you had a chemistry between all of the players that
was great to grow up in.
that period, let’s talk about flights that you remember directly;
flights that perhaps you were flight directing. We’ll start
with the Gemini period and then we’ll go directly from that
the unmanned missions, Gemini II and Gemini I, there was nothing,
nothing to it. It was just an unmanned test of the Martin booster
really. Gemini II was memorable for a different reason because at
launch all the lights in—We were launching still out of the
Control Center at the Cape at this time, and at launch all of the
reporters in the room turned on all the lights so they could view
the control team in there. As soon as they put the power in the system,
everything went black! We had a blackout there. And our only job in
this mission was to send a series of backup commands. Well, I had
a whole bunch of stop watches I had to work, and with the lights out
I couldn’t read from the stop watches out to the controllers,
and with the lights out they couldn’t send the right commands!
So this taught us to keep the media and all the lighting and all the
equipment they bring in to the Control Center completely isolated
from building power.
Gemini III was interesting because this was a key mission in establishing
the culture of the Flight Control team. We still had the control teams
going out to the remote sites. And, basically I had the responsibilities
now for sending the teams out. We sent very capable, very strong individuals
with Mercury experience, and we understood the business of Flight
Control. At the same time, Deke [Donald K.] Slayton would send astronauts
out at the very last moment to all of the sites that were generally
good locations to go to—Bermuda and Hawaii and California and
Australia. I had a control team in Australia, led by a gentleman by
the name of Dan Hunter. Hunter was a very strong, feisty individual
who liked to take total charge, total command control. Well, out to
the same site arrives [Charles C.] Pete Conrad. And Pete Conrad has
Deke Slayton’s mandate that he’s going to be in charge
of the site. So we had two very strong individuals vying for control
as to who was going to be charge of the Australian site.
At this time, we’re in the process of transferring control from
the Cape up to Houston. So Kraft and I were down at the Cape and we
were rooming together. We’d spend enormous amounts of time down
there, as you know; so basically we had a small efficiency apartment:
two bedrooms, a nice sort of lounge area, and a little breakfast area.
About 2 o’clock in the morning we heard pounding on the door!
Somebody was raising a racket. We heard somebody say, “Chris,
we’ve got problems we’ve got to work out!” Well,
I got up and by this time Kraft and Slayton were nose-to-nose in this
area there. And Slayton is saying that there’s a battle that
had developed out at the remote site between Conrad and Hunter.
We agreed the next day to write a TWX [teletype wire transmission]
out to try to clarify the situation as to who was really in charge.
And we wrote the TWX up, and I sent it out to my Capcom, and with
the whole world listening. Hunter comes up and he says, “You
know, that doesn’t do the job. That is probably the most weasel-ly
encrafted” (Kraft was the principle author) “. . . that
was probably the most weasel-ly worded message I have ever seen. When
I get back to Houston, I’m going to frame it and I’m going
to hang it in my toilet.” Well, the whole world was now listening.
And Kraft, you know, Kraft was just madder than hell at this thing
here. And the control team had sort of taken up sides. It was us versus
Well, that evening we went over to a party at the Lifehouse, and you
know the mood, the temperament of the control team had not improved
any. I saw one of my controllers, John Llwellyn, who was now getting
ready to mix it up with Alan [B.] Shepard [Jr.] until finally I—I
had the responsibility for these guys—just decided we would
quit the party. This bad mood sort of carried all the way down into
the area where we parked the cars. But finally we got everybody separated
and home without any major to-do. Well, this carried over into the
mission. This same basic antagonism between crew and ground really
left sort of a bad taste in everybody’s mouth.
So when the control teams came back, I got them all over into the
auditorium here in building 30 and said, “You know, this must
never happen again. I mean, this is absolutely inadequate. We’re
going to screw up. We’re not going to do our job.” We
created the first star in the badge we wear, which is discipline.
“Okay. You’re always going to remain focused on your mission.
You will never lose sight of what our job is out there, no matter
what happens in this thing.” This became first of the four stars
in our badge: discipline, morale, toughness, and competence. But anyway,
we’re getting ahead of the story. So, Gemini III stood out as
a result of that.
Gemini IV was to me probably one of the most exciting of the missions.
Prior to [Gemini] III we were trying to set our own space records.
We wanted to be the first to have an extravehicular operation; put
a man out in space, free from the spacecraft. I got tagged to work
with the team here at Johnson [then the Manned Spacecraft Center]
in building that [Extravehicular Activity] EVA plan. And we were very
imaginative; we called it Plan X. We’d finish our work here
during the day; we’d go home, we’d eat, and then all the
Plan X people would come back in and we’d work generally from
about 6 or 7 in the evening until 1 or 2 in the morning, building
the equipment, validating it in the altitude chamber, developing mission
rules, etc., etc., etc.
And this was to me very exciting because I was one of those who believed
in the space race. I wanted to beat the Russians. I didn’t like
Russians. I’d seen their airplanes over in Korea; I’d
seen them over the Formosa Straits. And, to put it bluntly, it was
a battle for the minds and the hearts of the free world. So, space
was not just something romantic to me. It was the battleground with
the Soviet Union at that time. I really wanted to set this first space
record. Well, the unfortunate thing is, the Russians had already accomplished
extravehicular operations. But, the neat thing about this was, we
now knew when they had this enormous lead on us to begin with that
this lead was now down to mere months. When they were doing their
EVA, we were within striking distance of that EVA. So work on the
EVA was really it. And when Ed [Edward H.] White [II] stepped outside
the spacecraft—So there were two things about Gemini IV: That
was my first flight as a Flight Director; and secondly, I was one
of the key members of Plan X. And I was just proud as all hell that
we’d closed this gap with the Russians. So that was Gemini IV.
Neal: It also
was the time that Mission Control in Houston came into being.
one from here.
a good point. Gemini V was interesting for an entirely different reason.
Kraft is a very perceptive individual. In growing his Flight Directors,
it’s sort of like he had to kick them out of the nest. It’s
sort of like a bird that has to learn to fly. Well, [with] Gemini
V we had a variety of cryogenic problems shortly after we had launched.
And I was following Kraft in the shift. And the pressure—cryogenic
pressure—was below the minimum inlet pressure to the fuel cell
at this time; and we really didn’t know whether the fuel cells
would keep working.
I was waiting the replacement of Kraft to get on shift, and in the
Flight Director business, you keep a log. At the end of each shift,
the previous shift Flight Director sort of summarizes the status of
the system and gives a sense of direction. Well, Kraft had neither
summarized status nor given a sense of direction. And I wanted to
know what the hell he wanted to do with this mission, because we were
now going 16 orbits where it was not obvious that, if these fuel cells
shut down, we would be able to get around to appropriate deorbit point
the next day. So I wanted sort of a game plan from Kraft. Well, Kraft
wasn’t about to give me one. I said, “Chris, what do you
want me to do?” And in a very disgusted [fashion], he gets up,
looks at me, and says, “You’re the Flight Director. It’s
your shift. You make up your mind.” And this was, to me, the
day that—from then on, it was a question of trusting my own
judgment, making my own calls, using all the resources available.
But I think I needed that nudge from Kraft; that was really essential
there. And Kraft had a way to do this. I mean, he was very direct,
but he was a damn good teacher. And it was exactly that. Every teacher
knows there comes a point, like a pilot when I was taught to fly.
The guy sitting in the back seat one day decides it’s time for
[you] to solo. So he gets out of the back seat, and you’re on
your own. Well, I think every teacher realizes that there comes a
point where the student has a capability to do it. And part of the
process of saying, “Okay, I’m going to get out of the
back seat” is to leave you with the confidence that you’re
going to pull it off. Kraft was exactly that kind of person. I mean,
just great. That was Gemini V.
Gemini VII/VI was interesting just from a standpoint of a gutsy management
decision. It was when the Agena went in the drink, and we were left
with needing to stay on schedule and demonstrating our ability to
run with two spacecraft. I think stealing the page from the Russians
of launching two spacecraft out of the same launch complex in close
proximity to each other was the grand stroke. And I think that, to
me, the decision to do that and the way that launch team responded
was more edifying than the fact that we rendezvoused. I mean, I just
liked the way that we seemed capable of taking adversity and turning
it to our advantage in those days. We could take dire circumstances
and find some way to find some sunshine in it. There’s a sunrise
every day. And to just grab these situations that seemed as setbacks
and turn them to your advantage was one of those things. It created
a feeling within the team that there is no surrender. We will never
surrender to anything. We’re going to look at it and, son of
a gun, we’re going to find a way out of this thing! We’re
going to stay on track. And it wasn’t buying into major risk;
it was just using your brain to find options and alternatives and
then having the guts to select that one which seemed the best and
then go do it. I always liken the Gemini VII/VI option to what it
must’ve been like to be in Patton’s Third Army, when you
were actually marching east and all of a sudden you just wheel this
entire army and turn it 90 degrees and go up to relieve Bastogne.
You know, this is a modern-day history to me. I like Pattons and MacArthurs
and Chesty Pullers, and Moshe Dyans. This was the equivalent in the
’60s of the stuff that the great leaders did back in the ’40s.
it remarkable that, after the experience of VII/VI, you had Gemini
us about that one.
Gemini VIII was interesting. We were now to the point where operations
reached its peak from a standpoint of manning in the early Gemini
Program. So now we’re moving into late Gemini. Still got a lot
of work to do to get the knowledge necessary to go to the Moon, but
we’ve now got to start separating teams to start working on
the upcoming Apollo Program. We’ve got to get on top of the
spacecraft, support the designer, you know that type of stuff. Well,
in Gemini VIII I think I made, and we made, a bad decision. We decided
that, from now on, we were going to two-shift all remaining missions
so we could move teams over to Apollo. So for Gemini VIII, we were
two-shifting, myself and Hodge. Hodge was launching and I replaced
him after completion of the rendezvous and docking. That was the game
plan. And we’d two-shift all remaining missions. Well, we got
rendezvoused, we got docked, and everything looked like it was going
by the numbers. And then—a little bit of history on the Agena
We had lost the Agena on the Gemini VII/VI mission. There was a general
lack of trust between Lockheed Company and the Air Force people and
NASA on the Agena operations. Every time I’d go out to a meeting
at Lockheed, they’d put a tape recorder out on the table so
they’d know exactly what I said. And it was not one of the best—It
wasn’t the kind of professional relationship I was used to when
I was in the Air Force and also when I was working with McDonnell
[Aircraft Corporation] on the spacecraft.
Well, this trust carried over into some of testing down at the Cape.
The tests just weren’t performed well. We had an Agena—I
think it was 5000 . . . or 2001 or 5001—that we used as one
of our test vehicles that never seemed to perform well. There was
just not a good taste. Bottom line was, we really did not trust this
target vehicle as a Flight Control team and I think from a crew standpoint.
So now you dock with this thing that you’re sort of ginchy about.
And as the spacecraft passed over Africa and ended up in Zanzibar,
passing across Zanzibar, we had uplinked a command load to the spacecraft,
and, again, [the mission protocols were still emerging and we were
still learning about them at Mission Control]. We left the crew with
an incomplete transmission as the spacecraft passed by. We said, “We’ve
had some problems validating the command load we just uplinked. But
we think . . .” and that was the end of the transmission.
Now the crew goes across the hill, and on board the spacecraft they’re
noticing their eight balls in the spacecraft are not showing the attitude
they’re supposed to be in. They’re offset. And the crew
very rapidly takes control and moves this guy back in. Again they
offset. So they’re saying, “Hmm, we could have some attitude
control peculiarity. Some jet somewhere is firing. It’s probably
on the Agena, so let’s shut off the Agena attitude control.”
Well, now it moved from a steady-state offset case to the point where
the spacecraft started rolling. The crew is now thinking, “Well,
gee, something’s wrong out there in the Agena. We turned off
the attitude control. Something’s stuck on. The thruster’s
stuck on somewhere. Let’s undock from this spacecraft.”
Well, when they undocked from that spacecraft, all hell really broke
loose, and this relatively slow but accelerating roll rate now sort
of accelerated very rapidly to the point where they were on the verge
of losing consciousness. Now here’s where the command pilot—Two
things happened here that, really, I find remarkable. First thing
is: Dave Scott, when they undocked, had the presence of mind to send
a command over to the Agena that would allow us to exercise ground
command of the Agena. Instead of thinking survival, Scott sends the
command that’s now going to let us troubleshoot the Agena. At
the same time, Neil Armstrong comes up with the idea, “We’ve
got a hung-up thruster. It’s now obviously on our spacecraft.
Let’s pull all of the circuit breakers in this thing until we
figure out how we’re going to get it.” Well, the crew
finally regained control of this; but in the process of doing this
they had used a lot of their reentry fuel.
I got the job of bringing the crew back home because Hodge was at
the very end of his 12-hour shift. And it was a lot of work that had
to be done to get the spacecraft, to get recovery forces set up, [to]
get the recovery procedures in place, etc. The bottom line was that,
in debriefing the mission, we looked at a lot of the mistakes that
we’d made. The first thing was this teaming business just wasn’t
good. When you’ve got crises that show up in spaceflight, you’d
damn well better have as fresh a team as you can have in place to
start addressing them. The second thing is, if you don’t trust
a spacecraft, don’t fly. But the third thing is, and it’s
something that I think applies very much to this Russian International
Space Station we’re flying, when two spacecraft are docked together,
you treat them as an integrated system. We did not have integrated
troubleshooting procedures available to this crew. We had procedures
for an undocked Agena and an undocked Gemini, but we never had procedures
that we had developed for integrated troubleshooting procedures for
the configuration when these guys were parked.
So this was this entire process of growing up and learning in Flight
Control because we had this learning curve that was so steep that
every time we flew a mission, we learned something. Sometimes, like
on Gemini VIII, we were just lucky. And luck’s got no business
in spaceflight. So we had to eliminate the luck component. We now
looked differently, and the Gemini VIII was good from a standpoint
of downstream missions, because we had so many missions we would fly
docked, that we now started thinking integrated. When two spacecraft
are tied together, you don’t have two electrical systems; you’ve
got one. You’ve got basically two docked manned spacecraft,
but you’ve got one life support system because the atmosphere’s
mixing air. So we started thinking integrated here. But the core was,
if you don’t trust it, don’t fly. Think integrated. And
then, let’s go back in and think about how we assure that we’ve
got as fresh teams as possible available in case we’ve got problems.
So that was Gemini.
Gemini IX was the first time I really had a big-time flap during a
mission with NASA management, because again we had lost the Agena.
We came up with this angry alligator, the ATDA [augmented target docking
adapter]. We tended to suspect the shroud had not released on that
guy, and when we got the crew in place—yea verily, that was
it! Now, I was probably the most knowledgeable of the Agena and Agena
systems for a variety of reasons. I lived right across the street
from the controller who ran the Branch, but it was also the unmanned
stuff that we were flying had a lot of similarities to the types [of]
experiences, the kinds of things that I had flown when I was back
in my flight test days at Holloman. The other thing was that the responsibility
for the system to a great extent came out of our Branch.
So, as I got to know the Agena, I was dead set—Let me start
off. At the time that was Lead Flight Director in that thing, I launched
the thing, the crew got up there, we had done the rendezvouses, we
had said, “Gee, there’s no way we can dock with this thing
today. Let’s go back and think about it tomorrow.” So
we sent [the crew] on this stand-off rendezvous, where they’d
come in and close, this time from the top, the following day. So that
was the position and I also had an EVA we had to do that mission.
So I had set a series of decisions that, “We’ll finish
the rendezvouses tomorrow, then we’ll separate again and do
the EVA the subsequent day.”
I went off, went home, got showered, came back, and—we had sleeping
quarters in the Mission Control at that time. I came back in to the
sleeping quarters, all set to go to bed, and I find a big NASA management
meeting up there. George [E.] Mueller and Chuck [Charles W.] Mathews
and Deke Slayton and Chris Kraft and Sig Sjoberg and all these people
are in there, and what they’re going to do is: they’re
going to perform an EVA the next day to cut the lanyards on this shroud
that’s hung up. Well, they asked me for what my opinion was,
and I told them. I said, “There’s a hell of a lot of energy
still stored in that shroud. And the only way you’re going to
approach this, if you’re going to do an EVA, is you’re
going to have to do it. You’ve got a spacecraft that’s
got an attitude control problem. You’re going to have to station-keep
but not be able to dock with the other spacecraft. You’re going
to send a guy . . . This is crazy! This is a (quote, unquote) . .
. This is a dangerous and unnecessary stunt. You’re going to
Well, the long and short of it was after debate they didn’t
want my—They weren’t interested in my input at this time.
They had listened to it, but they decided they were going to go ahead
with the EVA. And I said, “This is the wrong thing.” They
said, “Do it.” This was the first time in my—This
was a new experience for me, to be directed to do something that I
didn’t believe in. It also sort of tested the Flight Director’s
mandate; that is, is he really in charge of this mission or not kind
of thing. So anyway I went through this—You know, you get mad.
It’s a bit of an ego problem saying, “No, no, no!”
And Kraft saying, “Yes, yes, yes!” And I said, “Okay,
goddamn it, Chris, this is going to be the last time I ever fly here!
You know, this is dumb. I’ve been involved in this business
before. You don’t risk lives for no gain.”
Well, the bottom line was, the next day they voiced this information
up to the crew. They’d finished the rendezvous, and the crew,
I think, sort of came to the same conclusion I had. “This is
dumb.” But they were able to put it nicely. They said, “You
know, we’re pretty tired up here. We’re pretty bushed”
(I think were the exact words they used) “We don’t think
this is a good idea.” So I was saved from having to take my
early retirement from NASA. That was IX. Then I went over to work
the Apollo Program, and Glynn Lunney and Cliff Charles [Clifford E.
Charlesworth] covered the final [Gemini] 10, 11, and 12. I would come
back in and do nightshift for them. So that takes us up through the
I think it’s time that we really rolled on into Apollo.
Neal: As we
move on into Apollo, well Apollo 7, Glynn’s problem-child .
[I’d like to] go back to Apollo 1.
let’s do it.
myself, Kraft, and Hodge were the three Flight Directors who were
tagged to do Apollo 1. At this time the, Chris was the Director of
Flight Operations, so he basically had management responsibilities.
And it was obvious that he was becoming one of the dominant figures
for basically not only assembling the mission but basically articulating
the mission forward, establishing policies, and then carrying these
policies forward to the conclusion. The Mission Planning Analysis
Division, run by Johnny Mayer and Carl Huss, did all of the trajectory
design work. But what was maybe even more important, they did the
conceptual design. They started to look at the elements in the spacecrafts,
the pieces they had to work with, and they started conceptualizing
this entire program plan for Apollo. And, Kraft then would carry this
message forward into the arenas up in Washington where Marshall Space
Flight Center had some very great flight design capabilities. They
had great people there. So Kraft was, to a great extent carrying the
experience that we had had in Mission Control coupled with the flight
design to build the best family of options for the mission. So he
was pretty much tied up articulating and carrying the program for
Hodge was Division Chief for Flight Control. And he had the responsibilities
for all of us. He had the Mission Control, he had the spacecraft system
responsibilities, the real-time trajectory people, the training, etc.
So he had a pretty good job. And I got tagged as Hodge’s Deputy
during this period of time. I moved from Branch Chief up to Deputy
Division Chief at that time. So the status, moving from ’66
to ’67 at the time of the Apollo 1 fire, was all of us were
pretty busy with management responsibilities. When I came off Gemini,
I was, I won’t say frankly appalled, but I was really shocked
by how far we had yet to go before we could pull together a coherent
Apollo operation with the same quality that we were now experiencing
in the Gemini operation. And this was particularly true in our relationships
with [North American] Rockwell. Rockwell is a very good contractor,
but they hadn’t been flying in space before. All of our experience
had been with McDonnell. And Rockwell was used to building fighter
airplanes, rolling them out of the factories, etc., and they weren’t
about to listen to anybody that wasn’t a test pilot. Okay? And
so the astronauts were able to influence, to a great extent, Rockwell;
and we had virtually no influence, you know, out at Rockwell on the
In fact, with McDonnell [we employed] one of my flight test experiences;
namely that “The people on the ground got to know the aircraft
we’re flying.” Well, I carried this into the Mercury and
Gemini Programs, and we finally got McDonnell to agree where basically
we had a small detachment of McDonnell people; and they got us the
blueprints, the drawings, the wire bundle assemblies. We built our
own schematics. We built our own documentation. Well this wasn’t
believed credible by North American [Rockwell]. They were the only
ones who understood how to fly the spacecraft. They’re the only
ones. So it was almost a battle over how we were going to run this
program. And we got into this, “Well, I can’t give you
any guarantees.” So this was sort of the status when I moved
from the Gemini [Program] into the Apollo Program. So we had just
a long ways to go.
Now in the middle of this thing, we’re trying to run a test
of Apollo spacecraft. And this friction in January, I think, led to
the disaster that we had with the pad fire. The fact is that we really
weren’t ready to do the job, and yet we were moving on. And
this is again one of the times in my lifetime in Mission Control,
and this is where the “tough and competent” part came
into our motto. We were sitting there that day, running the test.
I had done the shift prior to Hodge before the fire, and things weren’t
right that day, and I knew they weren’t right. And yet I continued
on. I think everybody that was working that test knew things weren’t
right. We weren’t ready! But nobody stood up and assumed the
accountability and said, “We’re not ready. It’s
time to regroup.” And I think this was one of the very tough
lessons that came out of Apollo 1, that we said, “From now on,
we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. It
is up to us! It is up to every individual within this program, to
make things right.” And I think that the Apollo 1 fire was really
the key to the successes now we had downstream, because it created
not only a different working environment; it developed a firmness
of mind that I think was essential to making the right decisions.
They were still risky decisions, but pick the right path when you
came to that fork in the road.
Neal: It has
been said that the Apollo Program could not have gone very far ahead
without Apollo 1.
I think that’s what you’re saying.
Apollo 1’s lessons were learned. And in a remarkably short time
they were ready to fly again.
when fly they did, they had quite a crew, didn’t they?
Let’s say I’m doing a book. I’d pick the headline
from one of the newspapers that talked about “the grumpy commander.”
And this is really it. Because we grew up with Wally Schirra. Wally’s
in fact—to this day, I get the controllers together, and we’ve
all mellowed a bit. We all look back now with a bit longer perspective.
[Schirra] really wasn’t on us as bad as it seemed, etc., etc.,
etc. And Wally—if I would run a poll of Flight Controllers,
in Mercury and Gemini, they would put Schirra right at the top of
the list. They think he was the finest of the test pilots; they think
he was the finest guy to work with. We liked his attitude. And I think
that was one of the things that was such a shock to us during the
Apollo 7 mission.
This badge that we have right here [points to his lapel], it’s
got the sigma from Schirra’s spacecraft, Sigma-7. This badge
pulls together the history of everything that we learned in Mercury,
Gemini, Apollo, and it ties it together for the future generation.
But this pulling together of the team represented by Wally Schirra
in naming his spacecraft Sigma-7, I think he was the first of the
astronauts who really recognized the changing nature of the role between
space crew and ground crew. And I think that Schirra had a feel for
it well before any of the other astronauts ever came on line with
this same feeling. So it was . . . working with Schirra, it was—take
where we are right now. We’re in mid-’68 and we’ve
got roughly 18 months to fulfill this lunar landing within the decade.
We’ve got one flight to test the command and service module;
we’ve got another flight to test the lunar module; and then
we’ve got to be ready to go to the Moon. So it means that you’re
going to pack a heck of a lot into each one of these missions. And
I think that the ground team really had focused on, “Get as
much of this mission out.” Remember, we had flown the 201, 202,
501, 502; we had flown the Apollo 5, the LM-1 mission; so the ground
team was pretty doggoned proficient in the command and service module,
launch operations, those kinds of things. So we were in some ways
operating at a higher plateau than the crew was when they flew their
first mission. So you had almost this experience incompatibility.
We were going for broke and using every second we had. And this didn’t
fit Schirra’s frame of mind when he came up with this head cold
that he had. This showed up right from the very first part of the
mission. Bottom line was, even with a grumpy commander, we got the
job done as a team. The job got done. We qualified the command and
service module. And now we were ready to go into Apollo 8.
that was some decision, wasn’t it?
that was. It was interesting. And I have a different twist on how
this thing got started. I’ve researched it pretty thoroughly,
and I’ve talked it over with some of the flight designers and
[looked at it] from the flight dynamics aspect. Most of the people
give the credit for Apollo 8 really getting kicked off by a decision
in August where George [M.] Low came down and said, “Hey, you
know, I think, in order to keep this program on track—we’ve
got problems in the lunar module; it’s behind schedule, it’s
overweight, there are software problems there—I think that we’ve
got to go to the Moon.”
Well, if I go back into the March/April timeframe, Kraft at one of
the staff meetings was concerned about the same types of things. And
we had what we called an E-mission. It was one where we were just
taking and putting a very large (it was a 4,000-mile orbit) mission
into this package. And this was going to test the command and service
module and lunar module, but in a very high elliptic orbit. I don’t
think anybody in the program thought that made much sense, but it
was there. So Kraft started playing games with this mission. He kept
saying, “Well, Johnny, how big could we make that orbit?”
And Johnny Mayer’d say, “Hell, we could make it so big
we’d go around the Moon if we wanted to!” And Kraft said,
“Gee, we ought to develop some kind of an alternate for this
E-mission.” He said, “Johnny, I . . .” (and I’ve
got the notes from the staff meetings that proceeded from then on)
“Johnny, why don’t you look at it?” So that was
in the April timeframe.
Come May, Johnny Mayer and—Mayer loved to have work for his
conceptual flight planners. You know, the conceptual flight planners
were sort of like the mobile strike force; they were sort of the eggheads
in a very eggheady division. But boy, the one thing they could do
is figure out how to do difficult and complex things in a trajectory
sense. In May, they now came back in and provided a series of briefings.
And in these briefings now, this 4,000-mile orbit had grown to encompass
the Moon! But it still had a CSM [command and service module] and
LM [lunar module] in it.
So now comes June. Kraft says, “Look, what happens if the LM
can’t make it? What do we get out of it?” And the obvious
one, “Well, gee we figure out whether all of our navigation
works, our tracking works, and all these kinds of things.” The
bottom line of this thing was, I really think it was either Kraft
planted the seed very strongly in George Low’s mind or George
Low had some good mission staff engineers that knew what the mission
planners were doing. And I think if you really think about it, that’s
a very short turnaround to come up with such a monumental decision,
to have all the data on the table ready to go. Okay. This data had
originated before. So anyway, I think it started back in the staff
meeting with Kraft, but to me that was again indicative of the kinds
of leadership where they take a look.
Everybody says it was a risky decision. It was a risky decision because
[it was] only the second mission. But if you take a look at balancing
the risk across all the missions, it really reduced risk for the downstream
missions, because now we knew we could navigate out there. We could
track out there. We knew the S-IVB worked. So this entire process
of making risk-gain decisions was very skillfully done. George Mueller’s
part of this thing here, because Mueller never relented on his all-up
(you know, this all-up concept he had). We had this disastrous Apollo
1 fire and a lot of people wanted to go back in and start taking baby
steps again, but baby steps weren’t going to get you to the
Moon in the next two years. And Mueller says, “No, we’ll
all-up.” Very high gain if it works, but if it doesn’t
work you got a lot of very expensive space junk. So it was. When you’re
working from the top down with gutsy decisions there, you can make
gutsy decisions at lower level. It [was a] spectacular mission.
Neal: So it
all went together?
“In the beginning” came back to Earth on Christmas Eve.
after that it was time for—
thing. You know, the thing that there’s some—the beauty
of the thing for me is, I was Division Chief at this time. And I came
to the point where running the Division and flight directing, I couldn’t
do everything. Well, as it was, I was lucky because if I had been
a Flight Director working on Apollo 8, I couldn’t do my job.
I was so absolutely mesmerized as that spacecraft went around the
Moon. It was—I was just—and then the crew starting reading
from the book of Genesis. I mean, I was so emotionally tied into that
thing, I couldn’t have made a decision if I needed to.
Neal: In a
peculiar way it was great that that was the crew that followed Apollo
Neal: On [Apollo]
7, Wally had his problems. And on [Apollo] 8 they made up for them
of course, all of that was wonderful scene-setting. You had achieved
Neal: We knew
that could be done. But you still had that LM to check out, and you
had an engineer like [James A.] McDivitt to fly a mission for you.
was one of my favorite of the Apollo crews for a variety of different
ones. [All the] crewmen we had ever worked with through Mercury and
Gemini were almost clones of Slayton. Whatever Slayton said, they
did. McDivitt was the first one that broke this mold. Slayton and
Kraft were very strong, powerful individuals, both with powerful organizations.
Slayton continued with this test pilot attitude [and said], “Boy,
controlling the procedures that we have on board the spacecraft is
my job because it’s those procedures that have got to be perfect.
They’ve got to be right!”
Well, to put it bluntly, these procedures were built by their contractors.
And their contractors generally came out of, I won’t say the
Tech Service Divisions, but basically they weren’t engineers
writing the damn procedures. It was their service divisions who were
writing the procedures. So they’d try these procedures in the
simulators. The crew would burn up enormous amounts of simulated time
making these procedures right, but they still had flaws in them.
My guys studied the systems from the ground up. We built the schematics.
We’d write the mission rules, mission strategy. So we had this
argument going on between the two players. It was so petty that Slayton
would never give a flight set of procedures to the controllers on
console. So we were always wondering what the crew was carrying on
board the spacecraft. When it came time to execute something, we had
our set and their set. Well, McDivitt looked at this and said, “This
is ridiculous!” So McDivitt got a hold of his crew procedures
people, broke ranks with Slayton, and made sure that every controller,
including the Flight Director, had a set of the on-board crew procedures.
And from that day on, we never had a problem. But it took McDivitt
to break this mold in here. And it was a very important one. Because
if you go into what happened on the subsequent missions, [Apollo]
10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, this collaboration between the two elements
was essential. And McDivitt was the guy who started it.