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TV Review: 'Failure' looks at the men behind the astronauts

Sunday, August 24, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Friends who work as engineers sometimes ask me why Hollywood ignores their work. Hollywood's answer is that what engineers do isn't dramatic enough to sustain a movie, let alone a TV series.

 
 

"Failure Is Not an Option"

When: 9 tonight on History Channel.

Narrator: Scott Glenn.

But to every rule there are exceptions, as History Channel's "Failure Is Not an Option" proves.

This gripping, emotional account of the glory days of the American manned-flight space program casts its gaze not on the oft-celebrated astronauts, but on the more anonymous engineers in Mission Control.

Based on the book of the same title by flight controller Gene Kranz, the two-hour documentary hits on some of the expected crisis points in NASA's history -- the Apollo I launch pad fire, the "Houston, we have a problem" explosion aboard Apollo 13 -- but it gives greater detail about what the people who populated Mission Control did.

HBO's excellent miniseries "From the Earth to the Moon" looked in on these men -- and they appeared to be exclusively male -- but "Failure Is Not an Option" sticks strictly to the work of NASA's pocket protector-wearing engineers, whom it calls "the unsung heroes of the race to the moon."

Mission Control creator Christopher Columbus Kraft, Kranz's mentor who first understood much of the work for a successful space flight would be done on the ground, is among those interviewed. "Failure" explains the stations within Mission Control, from the mathematicians who oversaw navigation in "the trench" to the techies of "systems" who watched over the vehicle to the flight controller, who is compared to an orchestra's conductor.

What's most noticeable about these pioneers, besides their white shirts, skinny ties and eyeglasses, is how young they were. Few had doctorates or even master's degrees; many were the first generation in their families to attend college. But all were adaptable and quick to solve problems.

Issues of safety involving a spacecraft's heat shield, damage to which is believed to have brought about the demise of the Columbia and its crew early this year, date back to Mercury 6, John Glenn's first orbital mission. An indicator said the capsule's heat shield was damaged, but Kraft believed it was a false alarm. He was right.

Kranz, who was played by Ed Harris in the film "Apollo 13," said that during his early tenure in the space program, NASA managers fostered a sense of trust, integrity, high values and open communication that may be lacking today. In a phone interview earlier this month from his home south of Houston, Kranz said political appointments throughout the '90s eroded trust within NASA and communication ceased.

Another change from the '60s to today is a lack of willingness on the part of Americans to take risks. Kranz said the early NASA engineer ranks comprised of many Midwesterners, people from farming and ranching families who were accustomed to being on their own.

"They were used to having to solve problems," Kranz said, and America was a country on the move, with civil rights and Vietnam motivating people to take a stand. "With a nation in motion, people are doing things. You're not a spectator. Today we are really not in motion. We tend to watch things happen rather than make things happen. We're looking at reality TV rather than getting out and mixing it up in the community."

Kranz worries that, as a nation, America has lost its zeal for exploration and needs to set goals both for its space program and for other advances in technology. Then today's engineers might follow in the footsteps of Kranz's Mission Control crew.

"Every person that goes through [Mission Control] develops a high aptitude technologically, emotionally, and they can assemble pieces and make for great program managers," Kranz said. "You develop a set of leadership skills there, you establish the components of trust within your team through personal integrity. What you say you are going to do, you go out and do. People have a natural willingness to follow you if you've demonstrated you're trustworthy."

"Failure Is Not an Option" benefits from superior computer animation to depict some events in space. Cheesy or tacky re-enactments -- Kranz as a child, the Apollo I fire -- are kept to a minimum.

The film conjures goose bumps and a lump in the throat, not just because it instills a sense of national pride, but, more importantly, because it shows the amazing achievements that can result from unbridled human ambition.


You can reach Rob Owen at 412-263-2582 orrowen@post-gazette.com . Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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