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When NASA soared with eagles

Gene Kranz recalls the agency's finest hours for a History Channel film.

August 23, 2003|Dana Calvo | Special to The Times

HOUSTON — When the shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas on Feb. 1, killing all seven crew members, it was just one more blow for a space program that had once been the envy of the world.

On Sunday, though, the History Channel will broadcast an original documentary about a much happier time, when 26-year-old cowboys with slide rules and pocket protectors had the power to issue a "go" or "no go" seconds before a launch.

"Failure Is Not an Option" is based on the book by that title by retired NASA flight director Gene Kranz, portrayed by Ed Harris in "Apollo 13" as the cigar-loving, vest-wearing leader of Mission Control who uttered that phrase as his can-do crew worked to bring the moon mission crew home alive. But in the wake of the Columbia disaster and years of dwindling public interest in space exploration, the two-hour film feels more Hollywood than history; "Failure" is so riveting and moving that it's difficult to reconcile the drama and maverick spirit of the old space agency with the beleaguered NASA of today.

"When we started, people would put their food down, get up and watch the launch," Kranz said on a recent morning from his home near Johnson Space Center, south of Houston.

Kranz turns 70 this week and, physically, he is somewhere between retirement and his prime; he wears white sneakers with Velcro straps, but he's still got his flat-top crew cut, and he still clicks a ballpoint pen furiously when he's concentrating. (When he ran Mission Control, he destroyed about three government-issued pens per shift.)

Kranz was a technical advisor on "Failure," and his viewpoint anchors the majority of the interviews. Featuring live footage shot in the control room during the 1960s and interviews with several of the key engineers who worked the Mercury and Apollo missions, the film moves at a cliffhanger pace.

A former Air Force pilot, Kranz was selected for the NASA program in the fall of 1960. Because he had most recently been a flight test engineer at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico dealing with flight systems, NASA initially assigned him to write flight instructions for the Mercury flight controllers. Kranz said there were no rules to follow, so he made it up as he went along.

By the time the Gemini program rolled around, he'd moved up to flight director.

"I think Gene made it feel urgent because he's so intense," said Rushmore DeNooyer, who produced the documentary. DeNooyer and Kirk Wolfinger -- his partner is founding Lone Wolf Pictures in South Portland, Maine -- deliberately avoided focusing on the astronauts. Instead, they dug into the culture of the engineer's life and succeeded in making a number-cruncher's job seem as exciting as a stuntman's.

They also examined the anatomy of Mission Control, a brief but necessary explanation that effectively shatters the monotony of an austere room swarming with engineers in headsets. The men in the first row, the "trench," were in charge of all the calculations necessary for navigation. The second row, "systems," monitored every system on the spacecraft, from engines to oxygen to computers. And the third row was mission command, which oversaw, consulted and ultimately made every decision.

"Actually, there were intense rivalries in that room," DeNooyer said. "The front row was very arrogant. The second row was important in their own different way. It was an entire world in there."

Wolfinger has specialized in space program documentaries, including one for PBS as well as the Turner network, and he thought he'd "said it all."

"The challenge was to find a fresh story and some fresh perspective. The other daunting challenge was to make a riveting film about engineers who sat in their seats. How many ways could we shoot guys in white shirts, thin black ties and horn-rimmed glasses? They aren't exactly what comes to mind when you think about matinee idol. I mean, how many ways could we shoot a slide rule?" he asked. "It was finding the human beings in these guys."

In "Failure," the now-retired engineers speak with vitality and passion about the projects they worked on 35 years ago. They still recite the inspiring philosophy-cum-pep talks that Kranz delivered to them. They still get choked up when talking about Christmas Eve 1968, when astronauts William Anders, Jim Lovell and Frank Borman began reading from Genesis as Apollo 8 emerged from behind the moon into full view of the cobalt blue Earth.

One of the finest moments of the film occurs as the engineers recall the fire on Apollo 1 in January 1967, which killed astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. The engineers' loss of innocence is apparent on their weathered faces and in their gravelly voices.

And of course, they can still rattle off the acronym concentrate that passed for language in Mission Control. As one of them says, "There were acronyms for acronyms."

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