Gene Kranz may be the most famous flight director in NASA's history. He directed the actual landing portion of the first mission to put men on the moon, Apollo 11, and led Mission Control in saving the crew of Apollo 13 after an oxygen tank exploded on the way to the lunar surface.
Now Kranz, 85, has completed another undertaking: the reopening of Mission Control at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.
The room where Kranz directed some of NASA's most historic missions, heralding U.S. exploration of space, was decommissioned in 1992. Since then, it had become a stop on guided tours of the space center but had fallen into disrepair. Kranz led a $5 million multiyear effort to restore Mission Control in time for the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing on July 20.
"I walked into that room last Monday for the first time when it was fully operational. And it was dynamite. Basically, I just, I won't say literally wept, but ... the emotional surge at that moment was incredible." Kranz said in an interview with NPR. "I walked down on the floor, and when we did the ribbon-cutting the last two days, believe it or not, I could hear the people talking in that room from 50 years ago. I could hear the controllers talking."
The room also brought back memories for Kranz of a shared sense of purpose.
"That group of people united in pursuit of a cause, and basically the result was greater than the sum of the parts. There was a chemistry that was formed," Kranz said.
Sandra Tetley, Johnson Space Center's historic preservation officer, worked with contractors to meticulously re-create the room, interviewing former flight controllers and collecting old photos. They scoured websites like eBay to find items from the Apollo era — such as cups, ashtrays and a coffee pot to fill the room.
"We even identified which was original paint, and which was not original paint, so we could make sure the original paint was left," Tetley said. "We hand-stamped all of the ceiling tiles so that the whole patterns would match."
Kranz, who was played by the actor Ed Harris in the 1995 movie Apollo 13, said the room's significance extends beyond historical items and artifacts. "[The room] also has a meaning related to the American psyche, that what America will dare, America will do," he said.
Kranz said he wants his early space missions to challenge America's youth to study science, engineering and technology, and for the restored room to provide inspiration for teachers and students.
"There's an awful lot of future out there, and what you got to do, is you go to out and grab it, wrestle it to the ground, accept the challenges, and then decide," Kranz said. "You've got the skills. You've got the knowledge. You've got the love, and you're capable of moving forward and making a great life for yourself."
Those were life lessons Kranz says he learned in Mission Control.
A previous version of this story misquoted former NASA flight director Gene Kranz as saying he "literally wept" when he walked into a restored Mission Control. He said he did not literally weep but that it was an emotional moment.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
NASA's Mission Control has been restored. This is the room in Houston, Texas, where government employees ran the Apollo 11 moon landing 50 years ago this summer. It's back in prime 1960s condition. NPR Shannon Van Sant reports.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
GENE KRANZ: OK, all flight controllers, go-no-go for landing.
SHANNON VAN SANT, BYLINE: This is the sound of Mission Control on July 20, 1969.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
KRANZ: Surging (ph). Go.
UNIDENTIFIED NASA EMPLOYEE: Copy.
KRANZ: Capcom, we're go for landing.
VAN SANT: And that voice belongs to Gene Kranz, flight director for the landing portion of Apollo 11's historic trip to the moon. Mission Control, the room where Kranz directed his team of flight controllers, had since fallen into disrepair. So the now 85-year-old former fighter pilot has led a $5 million multiyear effort to renovate and restore it.
KRANZ: I walked into that room last Monday for the first time when it was fully operational. And it was dynamite. Basically, I just - I won't say literally wept, but it was - there was - the emotional surge at that moment was incredible.
VAN SANT: The Mission Control room brings back memories for Kranz of his colleagues and their shared purpose.
KRANZ: That group of people united in pursuit of a cause, and, basically, the result was greater than the sum of the parts. There was a chemistry that was formed.
VAN SANT: NASA's historic preservation officer Sandra Tetley said she worked with contractors to restore every inch of the room.
SANDRA TETLEY: We even identified which was original paint and which was not original paint, and so we could make sure that the original paint was left. We handstamped all of the ceiling tiles so that the whole patterns would match.
VAN SANT: But Kranz says the Mission Control room's significance stretches beyond historical items and artifacts.
KRANZ: It also has a meaning related to the American psyche - that what America will dare, America will do.
VAN SANT: Kranz wants his early space missions to challenge America's youth to study science and technology. He says he wants the restored room to inspire teachers and students.
KRANZ: There is an awful lot of future out there. And what you got to do is you got to grab it, wrestle it to the ground, accept the challenges and then decide. You've got the skills. You've got the knowledge. You've got the love. And you're capable of moving forward and making a great life for yourself.
VAN SANT: Life lessons Kranz says he learned in Mission Control.
Shannon Van Sant, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.