The Kranz Dictum: A Timeless Lesson From a NASA Apollo Program Flight Director

This Saturday–July 20, 2019–will mark the 50th anniversary of mankind stepping foot on a non-Earth celestial body, a feat accomplished through the Apollo 11 mission. President Kennedy put forth the highly ambitious objective in 1961 to land an American on the moon before the end of the 1960s, made in the backdrop of the Soviets having recently beaten the United States into space with Yuri Gagarin being the first human to orbit our planet. Achieving that goal of landing man on the moon would take great mettle, effort, and sacrifice, but would become a resounding demonstration to the planet of what great feats America is capable of. Much of what we will hear about this week will be of the Apollo 11 astronauts particularly: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin (the two moonwalkers), and Michael Collins (who remained in lunar orbit). However, one of the unsung heroes and driving forces of the Apollo program who most people don’t know about was Gene Kranz, Flight Director of many of the program’s missions (the odd-numbered missions), including Apollo 11.

The Apollo program was created to succeed Project Gemini, which was designed to test human spaceflight in low Earth orbit and serve as a foundation for Apollo’s stated aim to eventually land man on the moon. However, the first mission in the program (Apollo 1) would be met with unthinkable tragedy when the mission’s three astronauts perished in a launch rehearsal test when a fire broke out in a pure oxygen environment of the flight capsule. Inquiries and investigations were conducted, and the consensus takeaway was that NASA had not sufficiently planned for contingencies, and flaws in the design of the vehicle contributed heavily in the astronauts’ deaths. On the Monday morning that followed the Apollo 1 disaster, Kranz assembled his team and told them the following, which would later be dubbed the “Kranz Dictum”:

Spaceflight will never tolerate carelessness, incapacity, and neglect. Somewhere, somehow, we screwed up. It could have been in design, build, or test. Whatever it was, we should have caught it. We were too gung ho about the schedule and we locked out all of the problems we saw each day in our work. Every element of the program was in trouble and so were we. The simulators were not working, Mission Control was behind in virtually every area, and the flight and test procedures changed daily. Nothing we did had any shelf life. Not one of us stood up and said, “Dammit, stop!” I don’t know what Thompson’s committee will find as the cause [of the disaster], but I know what I find. We are the cause! We were not ready! We did not do our job. We were rolling the dice, hoping that things would come together by launch day, when in our hearts we knew it would take a miracle. We were pushing the schedule and betting that the Cape would slip before we did.

From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: “Tough” and “Competent”. Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities. Every time we walk into Mission Control we will know what we stand for. Competent means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills. Mission Control will be perfect. When you leave this meeting today you will go to your office and the first thing you will do there is to write “Tough” and “Competent” on your blackboards. It will never be erased. Each day when you enter the room, these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee. These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control.

Kranz still is able to deliver a good portion of this speech by heart, as demonstrated by this excerpt from a NASA documentary aired several years ago. It’s an amazing demonstration of self-reflection and the realization that NASA’s standards would need to much higher if they were going to successfully get a crew out of low Earth orbit and back, much less landing men on the moon. I and many others, despite the tragic circumstances that were at the root of Kranz’s speech, have found inspiration in his words and his ultimatum of not tolerating anything less than excellence that he delivered to his team.

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