Eugene Francis Kranz was born on August 17, 1933, in Toledo, Ohio, to Leo and Margaret Kranz, the only son and the youngest of their three children. As a youth during WWII, the soldiers, sailors, and airmen were Gene’s heroes. He followed the war, built model airplanes, and dreamt of becoming a fighter pilot.
Following high school, Gene earned a BS in Aeronautical Engineering from Saint Louis University’s Parks Air College, graduating in 1954. A month shy of age 21, he received a commission in the U. S. Air Force. While waiting for a pilot training slot, he worked in flight test data reduction at the McDonnell Aircraft Company in St. Louis.
In April 1955, Gene began his primary flight training at Spence Air Base in Moutrie, Georgia, and earned his wings in 1956, at the top of his class.
Gene’s initial assignment was Fighter Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base, flying the F-100 Super Sabre with Colonel Gabreski’s 354th Fighter Day Wing.
Kranz was married to Marta Cadena, on April 27, 1957. Over the next nine years they would have six children. Three months after their wedding, Gene received orders to the 58th Fighter-Bomber Wing at K55 Osan, Korea, flying F-86 Sabres.
Following his Korean tour, Gene moved to Air Reserve status and became a civilian flight test engineer for McDonnell Aircraft, developing the Quail Decoy Missile system for the B-47 and B-52 aircraft.
As the Quail program wrapped up, Kranz responded to a magazine ad indicating that NASA was seeking engineers for Project Mercury.
He was hired sight unseen and, two weeks after reporting to NASA Langley Research Center, Gene was selected by NASA’s first flight director, Christopher Kraft, to work in flight operations.
At Cape Canaveral, he wrote the “Go/No-go” countdown and mission procedures for Atlas and Mercury launches.
Gene was assigned as the Procedures Officer for all early Mercury missions. Following John Glenn’s Mercury 6 mission, Gene was promoted to Assistant Flight Director for the remaining Project Mercury and the first three Gemini flights.
In 1965, he was promoted to Flight Director for Gemini.
On January 27, 1967, tragedy struck the space program when astronauts Chaffee, Grissom, and White died in the Apollo 1 launch pad fire. Soon after, Gene addressed his team, defining his will to honesty, purpose and perfection – the qualities of excellence for those in Mission Control. Named the Chief of the Flight Control Division, Kranz was involved in the planning, procedures, training, and conduct of mission operations by the Apollo teams.
With the increased division leadership responsibilities, he continued his Flight Director role but supporting only the odd numbered Apollo missions. These included Apollo 11, when on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to step on the lunar surface.
In April of 1970, the crew of Apollo 13 – Fred Haise, James Lovell and Jack Swigert – were on their way to the moon when a life-threatening oxygen tank explosion crippled their spacecraft.
Kranz and his mission control team led the urgent and complex planning and procedures effort that led to the safe recovery of its crew. For their heroic efforts, the astronauts, mission control teams, and supporting personnel were recognized by President Nixon with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
In 1974, Gene was promoted to Deputy Director of NASA Mission Operations and became its Director in 1983. As Director, he was responsible for more than 6,000 employees with an annual budget of approximately $700 million.
Following the successful Shuttle mission of STS-61 to repair the Hubble Space Telescope, Gene retired in March 1994.
Throughout his Flight Director career, Gene was easily recognized for his flattop haircut and white mission vests, designed and sewn for each mission by his wife Marta. His Apollo 13 vest is now in the Smithsonian. The 1995 Hollywood docu-drama, Apollo 13, in which actor Ed Harris portrays Gene, remains popular today.
Retirement did not end Gene’s involvement in aviation. He constructed an acrobatic bi-plane and flew as the flight engineer for a B-17 Flying Fortress at airshows. His autobiography, “Failure Is Not An Option,” was published in 2000.
Today, Gene speaks on the space program, leadership and teamwork to dozens of corporate, military, civic, and youth groups annually.
Gene Kranz is a 2015 enshrinee of the National Aviation Hall of Fame.