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A Mission From Above


by James Ramos

NASA hero Gene Kranz describes how his legendary career was launched and powered by his Catholic faith

NASA Photo/Wikimedia Commons

NASA Photo/Wikimedia Commons

On Gene Kranz’s desk, next to military memorabilia, model fighter planes and a space shuttle mockup, sits a framed photo of three beaming religious sisters.

Long before Kranz, 85, became a NASA legend — the coolheaded flight director of the moon landing of Apollo 11 and the near catastrophe of Apollo 13 — these sisters set him on the path to Mission Control.

It was Sister Patricia, Sister Caroline and Sister Mark at Central Catholic High School in Toledo, Ohio, who helped Kranz receive a nomination to the Naval Academy. And, when he unfortunately failed his physical to enter the academy, it was the sisters who arranged his scholarship loan to aviation school in St. Louis.

“Without their help, my career would have ended right there,” said Kranz, a longtime member of Father Roach Council 3217 in Dickinson, Texas.

But it didn’t end there, of course. Kranz instead went on to work 34 years at NASA, where, sporting a headset, a flat-top haircut, and one of his signature vests, he launched men into space and brought them safely back to earth.

He is perhaps most renowned for the latter: Kranz led the engineers that guided the Apollo 13 mission home after it was crippled by an onboard explosion.

“Houston, we’ve had a problem here,” astronaut Jack Swigert reported from space April 14, 1970. For the next three nail-biting days, lead flight director Kranz and his team figured out how to fix that problem.

“We pulled off a miracle in Apollo 13. We never should have been able to solve all the problems we faced,” Kranz said. “But it was that culture of the people that would never surrender. They would find a way. … It was trust between the crew in the spacecraft and myself and my team.”

A day after the Apollo 13 crew landed, Kranz and his team, as well as the astronauts, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for their work.

Ron Howard’s 1995 film Apollo 13, starring Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinise and Ed Harris, breathed new life into the legend. Kranz was portrayed by Harris, who earned an Oscar nomination and won the Screen Actors Guild Award for best supporting actor.

Knight Carl Anderson and Gene Kranz

Supreme Knight Carl Anderson and Gene Kranz hold a vest that was given to Kranz by Marine Corps pilots at Naval Air Station Kingsville. The supreme knight visited Kranz in September 2017, following Hurricane Harvey, as local councils assisted with relief efforts. Photo by Rocky Kneten

“I think Ed Harris did a great job in portraying the challenge, intensity and complexity of not only my work, but of all the individual controllers on the team,” Kranz said. “It wasn’t about me; it was about the teams and the people in Mission Control. We truly believed that in our line of work, failure is never an option.”

Throughout his career, Kranz never forgot where he came from. He has approached his life and work with the perspective of his Catholic faith, which he says was shaped by various religious communities in Toledo, as well as at St. Louis University.

After his studies, Kranz joined the Air Force and got married. He served as a pilot in Korea before working at McDonnell Aircraft Corporation in New Mexico. Missing the close relationships he had known in the military, he joined the Knights of Columbus in 1959.

Kranz says he welcomed the brotherhood he found in the Order, adding, “The Knights’ code of charity, unity, fraternity and patriotism add to my life’s foundation.”

In 1960, he joined NASA, where he worked under its first flight director, Christopher Columbus Kraft Jr. He later served as flight director for the first manned lunar landing, in 1969, and would stay through 1994, retiring as NASA’s director of mission operations.

Over the years, Kranz has remained a proud member of the Knights of Columbus. His fellow council members conducted their own rescue mission, he said, after Hurricane Harvey devastated the Texas Gulf Coast in late August 2017. Thousands of homes, including his own, were severely flooded.

“They carried the ball,” Kranz said, in reference to the council’s recovery efforts. “They were heroic.”

Kranz may not be directing space flight these days, but he continues to share his inside view and experiences as a NASA flight director with audiences around the nation. His New York Times bestselling memoir, named for the legendary phrase attributed to him, Failure Is Not an Option: Mission Control From Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond, was published in 2000, and he is preparing to publish a second book on the topic of leadership. He also answers letters from around the world at his home in Dickinson, just miles away from the Johnson Space Center.

In recent years, Kranz has led an effort to restore Mission Control to its original state — right down to the carpet and wallpaper. The renovation is scheduled to be complete in late 2019.

Also on his schedule: an hour of eucharistic adoration every Sunday, inspired by his daughter, Carmen, one of his six children.

And before he ends his day, Kranz sits in his chair, finds his rosary, crucifix and prayer book and remembers to thank God for how all the stars have aligned for him.

“It’s interesting to go through life and find out all of these things fit together,” he observed, remembering the help of the sisters, his NASA journey and even how he met his wife, Marta.

“You feel that you’re in control of your life, but I’m not really in charge,” Kranz said. “There’s some master plan that, without knowing it, I have been following throughout my entire life.”

JAMES RAMOS is a staff writer for the Texas Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.