Aeronautics & Astronautics

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Leadership Moments from NASA


“Houston, Tranquility Base, the Eagle has landed.” July 20th, 1969 — a day that will stand forever in history. With the advent of television, more people were watching the NASA lunar landing than any other event in history. It had been eight years since President John F. Kennedy proclaimed that NASA would send humans to the Moon and return them safely to Earth before the end of the decade. “Not because it is easy, but because it is hard.” With that proclamation began one of the most incredible stories of leadership, teamwork and risk management in history. It takes courage and a relentless commitment to excellence to achieve the impossible. Even with today’s space exploration capabilities many wonder how NASA was able to accomplish seemingly impossible feat, successfully achieving Kennedy’s goal less than nine years later. It wasn’t easy.

Many who dreamt of exploring space believed that it would be impossible. The televised Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions and the many articles in the LIFE and National Geographic magazines captured the imagination of the young and old. It was clear that there were risks associated with space exploration. In January 1967, the crew of Apollo 1 perished. Not in space but on the launchpad, in a fire lasting ninety seconds. The crew trapped inside the Apollo capsule had no chance for survival and NASA suffered the first loss of a spaceflight crew. When asked about risk in December 1966, Commander Gus Grissom responded, “You sort of have to put that out of your mind. There's always a possibility that you can have a catastrophic failure, of course; this can happen on any flight; it can happen on the last one as well as the first one. So, you just plan as best you can to take care of all these eventualities, and you get a well-trained crew and you go fly.” A month later he, Roger Chaffee and Ed White would perish in the tragic fire.

Space exploration is the story of people working together through triumph and tragedy. Gene Krantz, now famous as the lead flight director during Apollo 13, responded to the Apollo fire by calling a meeting of his staff in Mission Control three days after the accident. Not mincing words, he said “We were too ‘gung-ho’ about the schedule and we blocked out all of the problems we saw each day in our work. Every element of the program was in trouble and so were we.” With a steely gaze and crewcut, Kranz, an aerospace engineer and former fighter pilot, embodied the NASA culture. “From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: Tough and Competent.” He said, looking each team member in the eye. “Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities…. Competent means we will never take anything for granted…. Mission Control will be perfect. When you leave this meeting today you will go to your office and the first thing you will do there is to write Tough and Competent on your blackboards. It will never be erased. Each day when you enter the room, these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee. These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control.” The team left the meeting and refocused their efforts on the most significant achievement in history, sending humans to the Moon.


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For All Humankind

For All Humankind

The Untold Stories of How the Moon Landing Inspired the World (For Fans of Lost Moon, Apollo, Moon Shot, or Landing Eagle)
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