The Path Less Traveled #23: NASA’s Apollo Era: Failure Is Not An Option


The Path Less Traveled #23: NASA’s Apollo Era: Failure Is Not An Option

Gene Kranz, flight director of NASA’s Mission Control in Houston, Texas from 1960 to 1974 had a birthday recently; August 17th, to be exact – 88 years old! He was the man who essentially made final decisions for all activities during NASA’s Apollo Era. I don’t know when in my childhood I first saw him on the History Channel, but there was something about his no-nonsense attitude that led me to admire him. In his autobiography Failure Is Not an Option, a credo of operations and character for Mission Control was detailed throughout the book. Not only were these character attributes great for aerospace mission control flight directors, but I believe for all of us. Today’s post will review these traits and how it applies to our outdoor lives.

Welcome to our recurring series of “The Path Less Traveled.” We want to take you along for our exploits in the wilderness while hiking, camping, exploring, and general adventuring in this series. This will include our small daily victories, foibles, tips, tricks, and reviews of gear we authentically appreciate and frequently utilize. While a well-worn trail can often be the pathway to a leisurely day, the paths less traveled can often spur on some of the greatest memories, misadventures, and fun we could imagine. Join us in the Comments as we share our travels, and hopefully, we can all come together for a greater appreciation of the outdoors.

Physical Photograph Owned By Author (Scanned)


“Being able to follow as well as lead, knowing that we must master ourselves before we can master our task.” – Gene Kranz, 2000

There was a staffing fracas during NASA’s Gemini III that led to non-mission related issues becoming a priority before the actual mission. Gene Kranz said this after the mission was successful: “If you remember only one thing from this debriefing, I want you to remember one word… discipline!” Controllers require judgment, cool heads, and they must read their team.”  – Gene Kranz, 2000

Having discipline is something that can either be learned, be beaten into us, come naturally to us, or a mix of all three. Knowing your skills and deficits when behind your iron sights really increases the stakes of whatever goals you are wanting to complete, whether that be putting down wild pigs or having the best score during a Cowboy Action match.

If you’re not the best, be humble enough to learn from those around you and hone your deficits out until they are no longer a handicap. If some things are unable to be ironed out, remain aware of them during your actions.

Great examples of discipline are checking/clearing your chamber when done with your firearm. Another great example of strong discipline is with practice and training. Discipline often pairs well with repeatability and consistency. You can’t deadlift more than your own body weight without a solid routine that has been practiced and honed, right Adam? 😉

Wild pigs near Kennedy Space Center. If Merritt Island would ever allow a hunting season, I’m telling you… We’d all have something to bring home! Photo credit: NASA / Ben Smegelsky


“There being no substitute for total preparation and complete dedication, for space will not tolerate the careless or the indifferent.”  – Gene Kranz, 2000

“Competent means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills.” – Gene Kranz, 2000

Nature’s a bitch to put it simply, and space is part of nature, am I right? Two is one, one is none; if you don’t pack your camping backpack, or SHTF tacticool plate carrier with all the necessary stuff, can you truly say you prepared well?


Hit the books, read more, prepare better. If you ever feel ill-equipped in an outdoor activity or social situation, make sure to increase your awareness, knowledge and confidence in practicing these actions. Last time I played tennis against a buddy who was much better than me and kicked my arse, I watched a few YouTube videos, improved my stance and talked a lot of smack. Ultimately, this threw off his ‘game’ and let me slip in enough points to win.

This thing was built and reached the moon on like less processing power and RAM than a Tamogatchi. FFS, if NASA could cram data into books thereunto their brains, maybe we should try a little harder at everything we do? Is this what Aim for the Moon came from? Physical Photograph owned by Author. (Scanned)


“Believing in ourselves as well as others, knowing that we must master fear and hesitation before we can succeed.” – Gene Kranz, 2000

Gene Kranz seems to place a strong emphasis on self-awareness and trust in his guiding principles for the foundation of NASA’s Mission Control. By being able to gauge one’s own status, trusting in one’s own abilities… This is vital for being able to make decisions without hesitation or fear by knowing our actions will be swift and the right ones.

Do you remember your confidence when you or your children first started riding their bike? How about with clipless pedals? Through repetition, practice and surety of one’s ability and actions, you gain the ability to trust yourself to pedal and/or click out of your pedals without it remaining a “conscious” effort that taxes your thought process to do so.

There are many aspects of our lives where having a higher level of confidence could improve our quality of life, no? What about the confidence that you’re fast enough to nab a turkey with the first shot? Seriously, I think turkey hunting at 20 yards is tougher than deer hunting at 200 yards. This is likely because I haven’t shot, but maybe 200 slugs in my life, but have put thousands of rounds on target past 100 yards.  That routine practice increases confidence, which allows one to pull the trigger milliseconds faster.

A wild turkey is seen at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Kennedy shares a boundary with the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Photo Credit: NASA / Bill White


“Realizing that it cannot be shifted to others, for it belongs to each of us; we must answer for what we do, or fail to do.” – Gene Kranz, 2000

One of my biggest pet peeves is when nature spots stop looking so… natural. Either ATVs causing major mud bogs in the middle of a hiking trail, or 12 pounds of (mostly) beer cans on a six-mile hike back to the car.

I think society in general feels less responsible than it did X-amount of years ago, but that may just be my inner boomer cranking it up to eleven on the get-off-my-lawn-o-meter. But for real, it is our responsibility to keep the things that we love preserved, and to fix the things that others flunk up, even if we weren’t the ones who ruined it in the first place. This should be a life lesson taught weekly to kids.


“From this day forward, NASA 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.” – Gene Kranz, 2000

“Taking a stand when we must; to try again, and again, even if it means following a more difficult path.” – Gene Kranz, 2000

Resiliency, even in the face of failure is essential in life. Just imagine if people gave up threading needles because they failed getting thread through the hole the first time. Imagine if you stopped trying to use a pottery wheel after the third or fourth collapse. Nothing beautiful would be made if we all ceased trying when things stopped being easy. Gene Kranz truly believed the words of Kennedy:

We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” – Kennedy, 1962


“Respecting and utilizing the ability of others, realizing that we work toward a common goal, for success depends on the efforts of all.” – Gene Kranz, 2000

We all had that class project where Billy never did his part. We griped at him and ended up doing it ourselves because it was easier than trying to drag him to the finish line, right? If you’re doing a team task and there are others better at the task than you, feel free to offer it to them to best utilize their skills and talents.

I recall once when doing a multi-person reloading press run of .30-06, I just didn’t like messing with primers, so I let someone else do that that had no problem in completing that task.

There was also a time when a female and I were biking until the steep grade was too muddy and squishy to continue going up. The terrain appeared to have been water logged and as slippery as a 50-gallon barrel of lube (seriously, go look at the reviews on Amazon…). To return home, it would have been about a 90-minute ride; whereas, getting past twenty feet of mud would save about an hour. We took turns helping each other hoof our cyclocross bikes about 75 feet up the hill, bracing against trees, etc. ten minutes of time taken, and it developed a level of trust between our teamwork.

Working toward a common goal provides great motivation for the right people. Be sure you circle yourself with those who can be relied upon.

Photo credit: NASA


“You must stand for something and your feelings must be strong and you must be willing to challenge yourself, to go through any obstacles or difficulties in order to achieve your objective”. – Gene Kranz. Sullenberger, Century, 2012

The OED definition of morale is “the confidence, enthusiasm, and discipline of a person or group at a particular time.” We’ve already reviewed confidence and discipline, so having the enthusiasm to act upon something increases morale. As Gene Kranz says, having a challenging objective to focus your energies on is vital in increasing morale.

Have you ever lost track of time while completing a very engaging task, or say… when going out kayaking? Your enthusiasm for the task removes your brain’s focus from yourself to the task at hand (along with time and self-awareness, slightly, science says), resulting in the challenging task still remaining engaging… but your feelings for it remain positive.

I recall a job where my skills and talents were not being utilized at all (nor were any coworker’s) and we all hated it there because there was no ultimate challenge, task, objective or plan. If we had been able to utilize our time on things we felt strongly for, I probably wouldn’t be writing here.

Photo Credit: NASA / Bill Ingalls

NASA’s Apollo Era Summary

In any activity you do, be honest with yourself and others. Be sure to stick to your word, even if it may become challenging. Trust those around you to do what they are good at, and respect other’s differences. Don’t take the easy road (Take the path less traveled???  😉) – it will not challenge you, and your enthusiasm for the task will suffer.

Failure is not an option.

Failure Is Not an Option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond Gene Kranz, Simon and Schuster, 2000
Sullenberger, III, C. B., & Century, D. (2012). Making a difference: Stories of vision and courage from America’s leaders. New York, NY: HarperCollins
Avatar Author ID 306 - 577561095

Want to mail me something? PO Box 2285 - Buckhannon, WV 26201

Read More