In 1967, the Apollo space program suffered a catastrophic launchpad fire at Cape Canaveral. All three astronauts onboard were killed. Three days later, Gene Kranz, Chief Flight Director, gave a short, yet profound speech to his devastated team at mission control. It later became known as the "Kranz Dictum". I used his speech as the centerpiece for a presentation I gave at the Chicago Aviation Expo on Saturday, January 25th, 2020.
“Space flight will never tolerate carelessness, incapacity, and neglect. Somewhere, somehow, we screwed up. It could have been in design, build, or test. Whatever it was, we should have caught it. We were too gung-ho about the schedule and we locked out all of the problems we saw each day in our work.
Every element of the program was in trouble and so were we. The simulators were not working, Mission Control was behind in virtually every area, and the flight test procedures were changed daily. Nothing we did had any shelf life. Not one of us stood up and said, ‘damn it, stop!’ I don’t know what Thompson’s committee will find as the cause, but I know what I find. We are the cause! We were not ready! We did not do our job. We were rolling the dice, hoping that things would come together by launch day, when our hearts knew it would take a miracle. We were pushing the schedule and betting the Cape would slip before we did.
From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: Tough and Competent. Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities. Every time we walk into Mission Control, we will know what we stand for. Competent means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills. Mission control will be perfect.
When you leave this meeting today you will go to your office and the first thing you will do there is write ‘Tough and Competent’ on your blackboards. It will never be erased. Each day when you enter the room these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White and Chaffee. These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control.”
The mission control workforce was young - average age of 28 years old. Everyone was under extreme pressure. Their work had become sloppy. As a result, astronauts perished. Kranz took full responsibility for his team and vowed to transition the hurried engineering culture at NASA into a well-oiled machine. His efforts were successful. NASA's transformed safety culture proved itself up years later when the Apollo 13 astronauts came back alive.
Our community of aviators grows younger each day. More than ever before, we need to incorporate NASA's “Tough and Competent” philosophy into our aviation pursuits. Tough in our training - without compromise; Competent in our skill, knowledge, and decision making - taking nothing for granted. Write it on your blackboard and strive to fly the perfect flight!