cover image Failure Is Not an Option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond

Failure Is Not an Option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond

Gene Kranz. Simon & Schuster, $27 (416pp) ISBN 978-0-7432-0079-0

When the heroic American astronauts of the '60s and '70s inquired, ""Houston, do you read?"" it was often Kranz's team who answered from the ground. Veteran NASA flight controller Kranz (portrayed by Ed Harris in the film Apollo 13) has written a personable memoir, one that follows his and NASA's careers from the start of the space race through ""the last lunar strike,"" Apollo 17 (1972-1973). Kranz's story opens in the world of the first U.S. space scientists, of exploding Mercury-Atlas rockets, flaming escape towers and ""the first rule of flight control"": ""If you don't know what to do, don't do anything!"" Its climax is Apollo 13, with Kranz serving as ""lead flight director"" and helping to save the trapped astronauts' lives. His account of that barely averted disaster evokes the adrenalized mood of the flight controllers and the technical problems (""gimbal lock,"" oxygen status, return trajectories) that had to be solved for the astronauts to survive. Elsewhere in these often-gripping pages we learn of the quarrels that almost derailed Gemini 9A's spacewalk; ""the best leaders the program ever had,"" among them George Mueller, who revived NASA after a 1966 launchpad fire; the forest of internal acronyms and argot (""Go-NoGo,"" ""all-up,"" EVA, the Trench, CSM, GNC, FIDO, RETRO, GUIDO); and the combination of teamwork and expertise that made the moon landings possible. Plenty of books (and several films) have already tried to depict the space program's excitement; few of their creators had the first-person experience or the attention to detail Kranz has, whose role as flight control ""White"" his readers will admire or even wish to emulate. Eight b&w photos. (Apr.)