I met an American Idol this week. Actually, he is more of an American Icon: Gene Kranz. He was the Flight Director during the golden age of American space exploration that included all of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions. He led the flight control team for the first lunar mission when Neil Armstrong landed with just 17 seconds of fuel to spare. And it was he who heard the famous words uttered by Jim Lovell, Mission Commander of the ill-fated Apollo 13: Houston, we have a problem. And it was he whose determined leadership and team spirit provided the ultimate response: Failure is not an option.
Mr. Kranz and I shared breakfast together and talked like two old pilots are wont to do, using our hands as much as our mouths. We swapped stories. His were far more interesting than mine. There is no mission more interesting to debrief than Apollo 13. His story was succinct and captivating. If you are of my age, you probably remember it well from memory or from the movie of the same name so I won’t go into detail here.
What I want to talk about are his comments regarding spaceflight, our national will and our tolerance for risk and reward. Let me start by reading the wonderful inscription that Gene Kranz wrote for me in his book.
“Inspired by a brash, young and articulate President, we rose to the challenge and won the war for space.”
That brash, young and articulate President was John F. Kennedy. He said,
“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”
That war was fought by engineers who averaged 26 years of age; using a hundred “computers,” real people with slide rules and graph paper instead a laptop; designers who invented new alloys and developed new metallurgy to carry man into space; and intrepid explorers who all risked their lives and some who lost theirs in an effort to fulfill the destiny of mankind to seek new frontiers, this one in space.
President Kennedy committed us to meet not only the challenge of space but the “other things,” too. They were different times back in 1962. We were in Cold War with the Soviet Union; we were at the precipice of expanding the war in Vietnam; the Cuban Missile Crisis was just in front of us; and we had successfully led the planet from the rubble of a World War. We had the best and we had the brightest talent in the world upon whose shoulders we could support an entire nation and lead an entire world. There was a lot on our plate.
We met great challenges with the courage and confidence that springs from a determined national leadership, a strong national identity and a frontier spirit. Each challenge is measured in terms of risk versus reward. America was a risk taker and a reaper of great rewards.
I told Mr. Kranz that I became a Navy pilot in hopes of becoming an astronaut. He wondered aloud, “what will we become if our children can’t dream of being an astronaut?”
What has become of us? We are no longer risk takers. We have traded our frontier spirit for the living room couch. We shield our children from competition: no dodge ball; no tag; no losers. The richest among us no longer create things of value. The poorest among us no longer have to work.
In the absence of a manned space program, we are shutting down large chunks of our space infrastructure. We are discarding thousands of engineers and interrupting the steady stream of knowledge and experience that we toiled so long and hard to earn. We are abrogating the highest of high technology to other countries whose own sense of national identity calls for bold and brash leadership. We beat the Russians to the moon and now we hitch a ride into space from them.
These times call for brash leadership in America. If we are ever to reemerge as the preeminent power on this planet and resume our leadership of the free world, then we must stake our claim on new frontiers and new challenges that inspire a generation to work hard and to engage our very best talent in its successful pursuit. Lofty goals and high ambition must be met with the sweat of our brow with our shoulders to the wheel. America’s destiny has always been to lead.
Gene Kranz is no longer the brash, young and articulate man of 30-something who led mission control during its’ finest hour. But age has not diminished his message that bold leadership and accountability mitigate risk and leads to ultimate reward.
Are you listening Mr. President? America, we have a problem and failure is not an option.