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The inspiring story of Apollo 13 makes even the most successful of engineers exclaim “we're not worthy.” Jim recently encountered his childhood hero Gene Krantz.

I got to meet two of my heroes. Through the kindness of Freescale (née Motorola) I found myself in Austin attending that company's Smart Networks Developers' Conference. The keynote speaker was Gene Krantz, NASA's mission controller in Houston during all the odd-numbered Apollo missions, including the Apollo 11 moon landing, the near-disastrous Apollo 13, and the final Apollo 17 mission. If you've watched the movie version of Apollo 13 Gene was the Ed Harris character with the stern demeanor, the crew cut, and the lucky white vest his wife made for him.

Krantz was a no-nonsense speaker, as you might imagine. He somehow managed to look the whole audience straight in the eye and tell all 1,000+ of us that “failure is not an option.” He and his team at Mission Control rescued three astronauts stranded farther from home than any people have ever been, before or since. Remarkably, a key part of the strategy was to send them farther away, around the dark side of the moon (and out of radio contact), in order to conserve fuel and buy time.

Gene described the mission's early details. Everything was going smoothly; better, in fact, than many previous launches. As the astronauts were just about to go to sleep and coast toward the moon, the entire ground crew was startled with the chilling words, “Houston, we have a problem.”

Like a replay of history, we in the audience heard these same words come over the sound system, but they didn't come from Gene's mouth. In a clever bit of stagecraft, astronaut Fred Haise had been hiding just offstage waiting for his cue. Now Haise and Krantz were reunited (not for the first time, I'm sure) to recount what the Apollo 13 flight was like from both perspectives.

The movie famously shows the ground team cobbling together air filters from bits of flotsam found on the spacecraft. Systems were shut down to conserve battery power. The astronauts shifted first from one spacecraft (the lunar lander) to the other to make use of all the available oxygen and energy. The capsule and the three astronauts got miserably cold in the void of space, but here Haise said the movie departed from reality. “I don't care how cold it gets,” said the former Air Force captain, “I wasn't going to hug a Navy flier.”

The story of Apollo 13 is one of fortitude, endurance, and skill under pressure. These men were dealing with an embedded system—several, in fact—that had failed for no apparent reason. No one at Mission Control had built this system, but they understood it well. In the ultimate case of remote debugging, they determined what worked, what didn't work, and what could be made to work in the time allowed. There were no recriminations because no one yet knew what caused the failure, so there was no one to blame. More important, they wouldn't have cared. Solving the problems—and there were many—under pressure and with limited resources made that team great. Under Krantz's leadership, Mission Control guided the most complex machine ever created up to that time all the way from the moon to earth and down to its landing site in the ocean. That's what great engineering can be.

Reader Response

Aiming High in big high-tech institutions makes me ask; What's the difference between someone like Microsoft and NASA? Microsoft's failures come from within, whereas NASA deals with the lowest bidder. Which is worse? I suppose NASA can switch vendors, but the self arrogance of Microsoft will continue to make it user unfriendly.

Steve King
Engineer
Kaman Aerospace EODC

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