NASA Legend Gene Kranz Shares Lessons in Leadership

Author: Curt Wagner       

Gene Kranz

NASA icon Gene Kranz recounts the day of the Apollo 11 lunar landing to attendees at Convening Leaders in San Francisco. (Jacob Slater Photography)

Recalling the day of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, NASA’s Gene Kranz on Tuesday told Convening Leaders attendees it was “the toughest day I ever spent in mission control,” and through his recounting of that day, offered attendees a lesson in leadership.

“A job as flight director is to take the actions necessary for crew safety and mission success,” Kranz said. “My line of work there is neither ambiguity or a higher authority. It is go, or no go. And I am accountable for the mission.”

Kranz spent 37 years at NASA, including as flight director for Apollo 11, the first landing on the moon on July 20, 1969, and also for Apollo 13, the third moon landing attempt that spawned the quote, “Houston, we have a problem.”

Kranz, who at age 36 was the oldest member of mission control in 1969 when the average age of his controllers was 27, told the audience that he and his team had to remain calm, alert, and focused during the mission, which is now considered one of the greatest feats in human history.

Even after the onlookers in mission control — politicians, media, and other NASA employees — erupted in cheers when Neil Armstrong reported, “the Eagle has landed,” Kranz and the rest of his team knew their job wasn’t over yet.

They had just three chances to lift off from the moon’s surface if something went wrong, and everyone in mission control had to stay alert to any issues.

“I felt like I was the conductor of a great symphony, getting ready for the grand finale,” Kranz said.

Kranz showed the Convening Leaders crowd a video, shot on 16MM film and found only when the mission control room was restored for the 50th anniversary celebration, of the final minutes of the landing on the moon countdown. Just like that day in 1969 in the control room, the PCMA crowd applauded when the lunar module landed successfully on the lunar surface.

Kranz said that with the success of the Apollo 11 mission, he felt he had fulfilled the pledge NASA had made to President John F. Kennedy, who had challenged the U.S. to go to the moon, and astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffe, who died as part of the ill-fated Apollo 1 mission.

The mission control team was finally able to celebrate, Kranz said, and he thought of the words of President Theodore Roosevelt, which he paraphrased: “The triumph of high achievement, and when we fail, at least we fail while daring greatly, so that our place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”