Failure is Not An Option: Mission Control From Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond, by Gene Kranz

My Copy: 9781439148815 (image from

Anyone who’s a fan of (or has even seen) Apollo 13 probably remembers a guy with a crew cut and a white shirt and vest stomping out of a room yelling “Failure is not an option” during one of the many tense scenes.

That guy was Gene Kranz, played by great actor Ed Harris.

And that guy wrote a book about his years in mission control.

Failure is Not an Option has a ton of great information about the beginnings of the space program and what it was like to be a part of it. There is so much the general public hasn’t been made privy to, and so many more missions than are generally remembered.

That’s one of the best things about this book.

In essence, it’s part biography and part history of the space program. Gene Kranz was an Air Force pilot and looking for the next great opportunity just as the space race was ramping up. He became one of the early men behind the scenes, learning the ropes even as he knew he wasn’t going to be one of the men going into space.

Much of the history of space flight has focused on the men going into space far more than anyone else in the program. I think Hidden Figures was one of the first to really shed light that I’ve come across so far, though that’s at the very very start as well.

If there’s any bit of space history insight this book can really add to, I have to say it’s the Gemini program. Many people forget the tremendous chunk of missions that took place between Mercury and Apollo, that we went into space and then suddenly we were on the way to the moon. Gemini is where a lot of the “space activities” and “life in space” elements got figured out or changed around.

And where a helluva lot of problems and near catastrophes emerged.

I’m amazed how little I’ve found about Gemini previously, but Kranz gives us great information on crews, objectives, and what occurred on the missions. Some don’t seem particularly glamorous, and others seem to be tremendous leaps in the American space effort.

I love how Kranz really goes into the behind-the-scenes of the space programmers with Mission Control and it’s beginnings. You really get a feel for the (mostly) men he worked with and their personalities. I was amazed how much I enjoyed reading the sections where they’re essentially writing the American space program as they go. You get the idea how difficult and strange that must’ve been, as Kranz initially felt like he really wasn’t getting it, but then came into his own as the program and it’s crew came to become NASA.

I think Kranz does a good enough job telling the story. It can get a bit tech-heavy if you’re not used to it, but does a decent job of translating for the layperson if there’s a tricky or out-of-date concept he’s talking about.

I think Failure is Not an Option is a worthy read for those interested in the early history of space exploration and NASA in particular, and to get a better understanding of the job (mostly) away from the flash of the astronauts. In some respects, the beginnings of space flight seem a bit haphazard, but with thousands of capable people working together, NASA was born and flourished.

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