Commuter Bookclub – Failure is Not an Option (Gene Kranz)

I spend a lot of time in the car. For people like me there are a couple of things that keep us sane. Good books are one of them.

Welcome to The Commuter Bookclub!

This week we’re getting a history of the U.S. Space Program through the Apollo days from Failure is Not an Option by Gene Kranz.

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It’s good to know what you’re getting into:

  • Release date: 2000 (2011 for the Audiobook).
  • Length: 4.5 train commutes, 9 driving commutes, or 18 hours and 17 minutes.
  • Narrator: Danny Campbell


Preparing for space, the hard way…

This book is a bit like spaceflight itself; hard to make it through all of the preparation but there’s a significant payoff at the end.

This is the autobiography of Gene Kranz; even a space nerd like myself who grew up during the Shuttle era may only know of Kranz as “that guy that Ed Harris played in Apollo 13 who wore the white vest.” This is a huge disservice to one of the people responsible for the fact that the U.S. didn’t lose any astronauts in space while heading to the Moon.

First, let me issue a bit of a warning here: this book is for those of you who enjoy acronyms and engineering details. The flights that Gene worked on are gone over in detail, down to the smell of the burned coffee in the control room and the (I presume, at least) overpowering cigarette smoke that must have permeated the walls. We hear about the nuts and bolts of the missions from Mercury, through Gemini, and then into the Apollo years. If you can’t name all of the Mercury astronauts off the top of your head (in flight order: Shepherd, Grissom, Glenn, Carpenter, Schirra, Cooper…Deke Slayton didn’t fly during the Mercury program, but looms large in the space program thereafter), then you may need to take set aside three or four hours tonight (while not commuting) and work your way through The Right Stuff. It’s a primer on most everything you’ll need to know about American space flight up until 1965. This is roughly where this book starts to really shine.


The slog…

Okay, I alluded to it above. I’ll repeat it here. The first six hours of the book are a little hard to get through. I actually put this aside for a month or two when I first listened to it simply because it wasn’t pulling me in as much as I would have liked. A part of this is the narration; the book feels like it needs a good ghost writing polish, and the narrator seems to be doing things in one take. This leads to many (many…) slightly awkward phrases that end up sounding incredibly stilted coming out of the narrators mouth. It’s almost like the narrator was assuming that the audience would be listening to it at 1.5x speed. I never actually tried this out myself, but it might be worth doing during the front half. So be prepared.

…and the savor.

The payoff, of course, is the story of Apollo. We hear about the tragedy of the Apollo 1 fire from those staring at the launch pad, the audacity of the Apollo 7 mission to orbit the Moon, and of course the wonder of the Apollo 11 landing. The thing that really got me, though, is how close to disaster each of those missions came. We hear of the fast decision making that went on in Mission Control during each of those flights to diagnose problems and come up with solutions. Taken in this light, the fact that we only had the Apollo 13 disaster and the fact that we didn’t lose any astronauts in flight during Apollo seems almost beyond belief.

It’s worth noting here that the writing during the Apollo missions has a bit of a lift, as well. The language must have been taken directly from the mission logs and Kranz’s personal notes, since Kranz routinely drifts into the present tense during this section of the book. This is entirely acceptable and I’m glad that an enterprising editor didn’t go back and correct everything. It seems to be a relatively unconscious choice by the author, but it thrusts you into the thick of the story in a way that a memoir sometimes doesn’t.

The end of Apollo and mourning the Space Program.

The bittersweet end of Apollo in Kranz’s eyes also leaves a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. There’s an afterward that Kranz wrote in 1999, lamenting the loss of the explorer spirit in the space program. From that historical vantage point, with the Space Shuttle still in service for another decade, Kranz already wonders whether the American presence in space will continue. Or whether or not we will lead in that sphere. It’s been a long time since it felt like we were really leading the world in space.

Now, of course, the baton is being passed from NASA to the private space agencies, but that’s another story.

Want more? You can find all of the Commuter Book Club posts or find out more info about The Commuter Bookclub, including the store.


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