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The Events

Gene Kranz
STS-59
AC-73

Gene Kranz

  Photo Credits: Mine
Admission ticket to Gene Kranz retirement party
Gene Kranz's autograph on the back of the admission ticket.
Admission ticket to Kranz's retirement party Gene Kranz's autograph on the back of the ticket

Gene Kranz is best known as a steely eyed missile man from the 1960s.  He was a flight director in mission control and is remembered for wearing his trademark white vest.

Kranz is a special human being and a man who exudes integrity.  It would be difficult to find a more caring individual. 

On Friday, February 25th, 1994, my friend Mark Shelton and I drove down to Houston for Gene Kranz’s retirement party from NASA.  The party that evening was held at the Gilruth Center on the JSC campus.

Mark had arranged for us to get tickets to this event by phoning Kranz’s secretary. He arranged for us to stop by her office and purchase two $10 tickets for the Kranz retirement party.

We met the secretary at her office and she told us that there would be no charge for the tickets.  Since we had driven so far just to be there the tickets were complimentary. The secretary then informed us that Mr. Kranz wanted to see us in his office.  That was a shocking development.

Kranz gleefully welcomed Mark and I into his office. We had a great conversation that must have lasted on the order of 20 minutes. During that time, Kranz told us some interesting stories. 

One story that he told us was about the early days of Mercury and Gemini.  NASA was afraid that the communists in South America would try to blow up the NASA tracking ships that were based off the South American coast.

To protect against communist incursions, Kranz would requisition a case of grenades for defense of the ships during the space missions.  The procedure was that every so often someone would go out on deck with a grenade.  They would pull its pin and drop the grenade over the side of the ship.  The shock from the explosion would take out any communist scuba divers that might be swimming in the vicinity.

Kranz said that plan worked fine until the crews on the ships figured out that grenades were a good way to go fishing.  He said after that revelation, the number of grenades used during a mission went way up. 

We also got in to an amazingly frank political discussion with Mr. Kranz. Things were not looking good for the space station.   Kranz’s opinion was that President Clinton was driving it into the ground with his political agenda with the Russians.  It was really sad to hear this. I believe that these politics were impetus behind Kranz’s decision to retire.

On a more cheerful note, Mr. Kranz was retiring to a life of flying.  He was planning to build a biplane and fly it.  He was also a member of a museum that flies World War II aircraft.  Kranz was a member of a B-17 crew.  In 1993 he flew on the air show tour with the B-17 crew.

Kranz’s office was decorated with ample reminders of the glory days of Apollo’s exploration of the moon.  He even showed us one of the vests that his wife had made for him to wear in Mission Control.

While we were seated in the office Kranz noticed that I was carrying a small portfolio.  He asked me what was in it.  I told him some photos of the space program.  He then said “Would you like me to sign one for you?”  Sheepishly, I responded that I did not have any appropriate photos.  The photos that I had were really applicable to only specific astronauts.  Kranz smiled.

Mark and I left his office.  We were shocked that common people like us could have a private audience with a historical figure of this stature.  Not only that, but it was on one of the very last days that he worked at NASA.

The retirement party was later in the evening at the Gilruth center.  That is a facility on the JSC campus that is commonly used for NASA employee events.

Kranz certainly stood out in the crowd at the event.  He was wearing the red, white, and blue vest that he wore during the last manned landing on the moon.  The vest no longer would button up, but Kranz still looked sharp in it.

A few people at the party were selected to say a few words about Kranz. Chris Kraft in particular had a very interesting anecdote to tell about Kranz.  Kraft told a story about the early days of Space Exploration when they were all still located at the Cape.

He said that in the early days of launching rockets, nobody had any idea what they were doing.  They just improvised and made it up as they went. They knew plenty about flying airplanes, but rockets were a different beast.

One day they were going to launch an unmanned Mercury Redstone.  Upon ignition of the rocket engine, a big cloud of smoke obscured the vehicle.  They were amazed to see something shoot out of the cloud at a tremendous rate of speed.  It traveled much faster than the rocket should have.  In a moment they realized that this was not the rocket at all. It was only the escape tower.

A pair of umbilical cords at the bottom of the rocket was not precisely the same length.  That caused one cord to pull out sooner than the other. This caused the Redstone to shut down since the control system thought that an error had occurred. The rocket settled back down on the pad and remained standing. 

A few seconds after the escape tower jettisoned, barometric sensors activated the parachute recovery system. The parachutes popped out like a Champaign cork in mock celebration.

Now they had a real problem. There was a Redstone full of fuel with parachutes billowing in the wind.  To make matters worse the retrorockets on the Mercury capsule were armed.  In essence, this was a very large bomb.  They frantically tried to figure out to safe the situation.

As he got to this part of the story, Kraft paused to look directly over at Kranz.  Still looking at Kranz, Kraft continued, “and then some guy even came up with the bright idea of getting a high powered rifle and shooting a hole in the fuel tank! He thought this would relieve the pressure.” 

Needles to say they didn't follow Kranz’s recommendation.  In the end, one of the McDonnell Vice Presidents volunteered to go up the tower. He opened the hatch, and turned off the switch to disarm the retro rockets.

Steve Bales recounted the events leading to his “Go Flight” calls on the alarms during the Apollo 11 landing.  He said that he really had no pressure making that call.  Before the landing attempt, Kranz gathered everyone on the team, looked them straight in the eye and told them that he was behind them 100%.  No matter what decisions they made, he supported them.

As Bales, told this, I looked over at Gene Kranz.  That steely eyed missile man had tears in his eyes.  He seemed close to crying.  From that display of emotion, you could tell how much the people on Kranz’s team meant to him.

Later, I introduced myself to Steve Bales. I had him sign a book about Apollo that I had brought to the event.

Kranz was presented with a few mementos to remember his days at NASA. On memento in particular that stood out was a flown tile from the first flight of space shuttle Columbia.

Astronauts that we noticed attending this retirement celebration included: Paul Weitz, Joe Kerwin, Gene Cernan, Bryan O’Conner, Dave Walker, Dave Leestma, and Jim Newman.

At around 8:00 PM, Mark and I decided that it was time to start our journey back home.  We still had a 5 plus hour drive ahead of us.  We approached Mr. Kranz to wish him luck and say good-bye.  He sincerely thanked us for making such a long journey to attend his retirement party.  In brotherhood, Kranz slapped us on our backs.


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UPDATED : February 1, 2007
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