Failure Is Not an Option: Mission Control From Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond, by Gene Kranz, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2000, $26.

The phrase “Failure is not an option” entered the American lexicon through the tremendous popularity of the film Apollo 13, but it has been Gene Kranz’s personal philosophy from the time he entered the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) until the present day. In this sometimes painfully honest account, Kranz tells the nuts-and-bolts story of his life as a flight director on some of the most important manned space missions in American history.

It takes an insider like Kranz to reveal just how primitive the earliest American efforts to put a man in space really were. From the first successful launch of a chimpanzee into space in January 1961 to the remarkable Apollo 17, the last (to the present) visit of humans to the moon, the spacecraft were controlled by systems of minimal computer power. Fortunately, neither the American public nor the members of the space program perceived the limitations of the equipment and procedures at the time.

Kranz, who was vital to the manned space flight mission for more than 30 years, writes of the technical requirements of the mission in a hard-edged style that reflects his thinking and his manner. He is dispassionate as he deals with the tremendous uncertainties of the time, when risks were taken on a scale that would be impossible today.

When he writes of his fellow workers, though, Kranz shows a compassionate side, taking care to point out the achievements of his colleagues. He pays tribute to such luminaries as Chris Kraft, Glynn Lunney, John Hodge and others, and his assessment of their capabilities is surely valid.

Yet Kranz does not gloss over the fact that there was rarely a close personal relationship between the people in mission control and the astronauts in space. They were apparently professionals who depended upon each other but did not choose to mix socially.

Kranz reveals that one of the great miracles of the space program was its ability to survive tragic losses, shifting technology and seemingly ever-changing management. It was the dedication of the relatively small circle of insiders, mission controllers and astronauts that kept the programs on track.

As interesting as Kranz’s accounts are of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, the most valuable part of his book may be in the relatively short list of recommendations he makes in his epilogue. There he suggests that the change in NASA and in the makeup of the aerospace industry have placed the future of space exploration in jeopardy. Kranz calls for those formerly associated with the space program to band together to place space exploration on the national agenda. Second, he recommends a revitalization of NASA, citing its change from a disciplined team with a clear goal into just another federal bureaucracy. Essential for this revitalization would be a new administrator, one with the qualities of the great James Webb, whose political and management skills made NASA into a powerhouse able to put a man on the moon. Third, he describes the need for a long-range plan for space, citing the 1986 report “Pioneering the Space Frontier” as a place to start. Finally, he demands that the U.S. Congress become fully engaged in the space program, as it once was.

Kranz’s list of recommendations is relatively short, but it is clear that all the things he recommended made it possible for the space program to succeed in the early days. It also shows exactly why the program is in trouble today.

As a flight director, Gene Kranz called things as he saw them. He does the same as an author in this highly readable, very valuable book.

Walter J. Boyne