Kranz recounts Apollo 11 mission, issues call for young leaders

The first moon landing may have occurred a half-century ago, but Apollo 11 flight director Gene Kranz remembers the mission like it was yesterday. Just two days before the landmark event’s 50th anniversary, he shared personal recollections during a talk in Purdue University’s Loeb Playhouse, “Go/No-Go: The Untold Story of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing.”

Gene Kranz

Kranz studied aeronautical engineering at Parks College of St. Louis University before being commissioned in the U.S. Air Force. He launched a distinguished NASA career as an assistant flight director for Project Mercury, later becoming NASA’s division chief for flight control. He was appointed flight director of Apollo 11, tasked with overseeing the 1969 lunar landing.

“The flight director is responsible for taking any actions necessary for crew safety and mission success. … By the time we finish training, we know we are ready,” noted Kranz, who at 36 was the oldest member of Apollo 11’s mission control team. And as he worked alongside astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, he enjoyed a front-row view to history in the making.

Addressing a sold-out crowd in Loeb — in addition to those watching via livestream in two overflow rooms — Kranz shared fond memories of Armstrong, a Purdue alumnus who on July 20, 1969, became the first person to walk on the moon. That giant leap is the theme for Purdue’s Giant Leaps Sesquicentennial Campaign, which concludes this fall with an astronaut reunion during Homecoming weekend Oct. 11-13.

“Neil represented humility. He had a way of just capturing you, and you wanted to be like him. I think this is true of many good leaders,” Kranz said. “I found him to be a great, thoughtful individual; I never saw him raise his voice. He was humble and had the demeanor of a college professor.”

Hailed as one of the 20th century’s world-changing events, the Apollo 11 moon landing capped a monumental decade in space exploration. “It was a watershed period in America’s history,” Kranz said, giving much of the credit to President John F. Kennedy. During a 1961 congressional address soon after Russian Yuri Gagarin became the first person to reach space, Kennedy didn’t merely challenge the United States to match the Russians. He inspired America to beat them in landing a man on the moon and returning him safely home by decade’s end.

Kennedy’s words ushered in a golden era as the U.S. set multiple national space records. By the mid-’60s, NASA’s Gemini space program — which in 1965 launched its first crewed flight — became a transitional testing ground for the Apollo program.

Kranz described this heightened pursuit of space and the unknown characteristic of the 1960s as a time when Americans took bold steps to effect change. He noted the civil rights and environmental movements, as well as the creation of the Peace Corps as significant examples. Kranz, who retired from NASA in 1994, believes it will take similar drive to propel the next groundbreaking chapter in space exploration.

“The greatest challenge for the future is not what we’re going to do but developing the leadership to do it,” he said. “It’s easier to build the spacecraft than it is to build the team.” Making this Gene Kranzpossible, he stressed, will require effective communicators open to correction and willing to collaborate on important national issues.

It will take scholars like Geoffrey Andrews, a PhD aeronautics student who introduced Kranz to the audience. “It was a huge honor to spend time with him. I read his book, “Failure Is Not an Option,” when I was 10 or 12 years old, and he has been a hero of mine ever since,” Andrews said. “To me, he epitomizes the ideals of the Space Race: vision, leadership and unwavering determination to succeed. Those qualities are a huge inspiration to me as I start on my own career in the world of high-speed aerodynamics.”

The space program’s future also will require young people who establish bold goals — or as Kranz says, those willing to “Dream. Aim high. Never surrender.”

Scarlett Strong, a Harrison High School junior interested in science and engineering, attended Kranz’ talk at her father’s urging. “This was a once-in-a-lifetime event,” she said, adding that she was particularly inspired by “how calm and collected Kranz remained throughout the mission.”

Purdue faculty were equally impressed. “Clearly, Kranz advocates strong preparation, lots and lots of practice, and development of the confidence to make critical engineering judgements,” noted Kathleen Howell, the Hsu Lo Distinguished Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “He believed in his team on the ground and onboard both spacecraft; they all responded calmly under the most demanding circumstances. Although we all knew how the story ended, his personal account was incredibly impactful.”

Gene KranzAfter Apollo 11, Kranz received further acclaim in 1970 for his leadership in returning Apollo 13 to Earth. During that mission — intended to be the third lunar landing – an oxygen-tank rupture in the service module prompted those now-famous words from the crew, “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”

In response, mission control had to quickly execute a recovery plan and lead the team to safety. For this feat, Kranz earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom and later was portrayed by actor Ed Harris in the Oscar-winning blockbuster “Apollo 13.”

Yet as he reflected on a life marked by high achievement, Kranz seemed reticent to boast of personal success, simply stating, “I think anytime we bring a crew home safely, it’s our finest hour.”

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