Fifty years later, NASA flight director Gene Kranz describes his instrumental role in the Apollo 11 mission
Where were you when men first landed on the moon? If you’re old enough to have heard Neil Armstrong announce, “The Eagle has landed,” you probably remember.
Gene Kranz certainly remembers. He was at his console at NASA’s Mission Control Center in Houston — Buzz Aldrin’s voice in his ear and fuel levels on his mind as Armstrong piloted the Eagle closer and closer to the lunar surface. As flight director, Kranz was the final authority on every decision of the moon landing.
Kranz had many memorable moments in his storied NASA career, including his work to save the astronauts of Apollo 13 (featured in the March 2019 issue of Columbia). Through tragedy and triumph, the longtime Knight of Columbus said a prayer to the Holy Spirit before every shift in mission control.
Now a member of Father Roach Council 3217 in Dickinson, Texas, he recently spoke with Columbia staff in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission. Here, he recounts the dramatic hours of July 20, 1969.
I got up very early in the morning; it was still dark when I left. I had gone to Mass the day before and obtained a blessing, as I did before every mission. I arrived at Mission Control and noticed there was a security guard in the parking lot. I parked my car, and he came up and said, “Are we gonna land today, Mister Kranz?” And all of a sudden, it just hit me: “Today is landing day.”
Walking into Mission Control, there’s normally a bunch of people going in and out, a lot of chattering. But it was almost totally silent. I went up to the third floor, where the control center was, and another guard was there.
The security was different, but then I walked into the room and it was just like previous missions. The atmosphere in the room gets you — everybody smoking cigars, cigarettes, pipes. The room has got a color, reflective of the map that covers the whole front of the room. When we’re in earth orbit, it’s a map of the earth. We were in lunar orbit, so you could see all the craters on the moon.
As my team and I picked up the shift, the crew was moving into the lunar module and starting its power up. We had roughly three revolutions before we start going down to the moon.
Now, before we started down, I gave my team a speech. They were 26 years old on average, and we were doing something that had never been done before. I told them, “I will stand behind every decision you will make. We came into this room as a team and we will leave as a team.” And then we locked the control room doors; no one would enter or leave until we’d either landed, crashed or aborted the landing.
On the spacecraft’s third pass around the front of the moon, we pass the information up for the DOI — Descent Orbit Injection maneuver. This will lower the lunar module’s orbit from about 50 nautical miles to roughly 50,000 feet, the altitude from which we will start the actual descent. We give them the “Go” for the DOI, which they do on the backside of the moon.
When they come around to the front side of the moon, we immediately recognize we are not where we expected to be, trajectory-wise. We don’t know why, but we’re further downrange, which means we’re going to be landing long. There’s a scurry among my controllers to take a look at what the landing site would be, and we find a lot of craters and rocks.
As we move toward my “Go/No Go” for powered descent, communications are very ratty, very difficult. As we’re counting down, I’m thinking, “Do I have enough information to continue? Yes or no?”
We finally get to the point where it looks like the data telemetry is good, voice communication is good. I give the “Go” for the startup power for the descent — and we immediately lose data. This goes on for almost 10 minutes. Data is lost, we get it back, lost, get it back.
It’s hard for my controllers to do their job. And I have to make the decision: are we really going to do the descent on this orbit? I decide yes — we’re going to make it! If there is some kind of problem we can’t solve, we’ll abort five minutes into the descent. The engine starts.
As we’re waiting for data from the lunar module landing radar to come in, we start having a series of computer program alarms, telling us that the computer is running out of time to perform all the functions. We continue to fight the alarms, and we get the landing radar data. I poll my team, and they all give me a “Go” to continue the descent.
And now the crew for the first time is looking out to where they’re going to be landing. When we get down close, it’s like driving a car when your gas gauge reads empty. The descent fuel is in a cylindrical tank with a rounded bottom. When it gets down to the rounded bottom, we get a “low level” indicator. And then one of the controllers starts a series of stopwatches. We have 120 seconds of fuel at a 30% throttle setting. From now on, we’re watching fuel — not a quantity measurement, but a pure time measurement.
We know Neil’s trying to find a suitable landing site. He’s descending quite rapidly at about 100 feet per second and moving laterally, looking for a point where he feels he can land. But he has a problem as he gets close to the surface — the surface of the moon is dust and it’s blowing with him. It’s like driving in a snowstorm with the wind behind you — you don’t think you’re moving. So Neil has to pick out a large boulder or rock and use that as a reference.
He’s also worried about running out of fuel. We give him a call: “60 seconds of fuel remaining.” And then we’re just listening; everybody’s quiet now in Mission Control. We give him another call: “30 seconds of fuel remaining.” And about the time that we would say “15,” we recognize the crew has just touched down on the surface.
There are about 100 people in the viewing room behind us, and they started celebrating. You can hear it coming through the walls and the glass: stomping, applause, cheering. Everybody in my team has a chill. The whole world is celebrating — but we are not.
We have to make sure it’s safe to remain on the surface. I go through three “Stay/No Stay” decisions: one at two minutes, one at eight minutes and one at two hours. At the end of two hours, the spacecraft can power down. And now my team can start celebrating that we just landed on the moon.
At the time, I really did not think too much about the impact of the mission. As soon as we finished, we started the preparation for the next mission.
I think I’ve had my greatest reflection in the last five years. We were really operating right on the boundaries of all of our knowledge. And the key was teamwork. No matter what happened, the team had to hang together, and I was their chief.
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