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Failure Is Not An Option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond (2000) by Gene Kranz. Simon & Schuster, New York.

Gene Kranz was a high level operations manager from the beginning activities and numerous failures of the space program in the early 1960's to the triumphs and tragedies of the Apollo launches of the late 1960's and early 1970's. He was trained by the original mission controller par excellence, Chris Kraft, the voice of the early days of the Mercury launches that led to the first successful U.S. manned space flight (1961) by Alan Shepard, and the first successful manned orbit of the Earth (1961) by a U.S. astronaut, John Glenn. Many of us who grew up during this era remember the periods of excitement, national pride and many tragedies which accompanied these extensive space launches. Kranz began his career in the U.S. Air Force as a fighter pilot in the Korean War and subsequently became a flight test engineer. In 1960, he entered the space program at Cape Canaveral, Florida. This was the initial effort by civilian and military government agencies to catch up with the Soviets after their surprising space flights. It was a time when Americans were shocked by the Soviet space program beginning with the successful orbit of Sputnik in the fall of 1957. The U.S. government, under the leadership of President Dwight Eisenhower, started gearing up to challenge the Soviet space program and eventually triumph. Kranz began his work at Cape Canaveral in 1960 with pioneering astronauts such as John Glenn, Alan Shepard and Virgil I. (Gus) Grissom. The first assignment given to him by his boss, Chris Kraft, was to write the operating procedures for the Mercury flight controllers -- the engineers and technicians who supervised each step from lift-off to space orbit to reentry into the Earth's atmosphere, and the final splash-down.

Later, Kranz was flight director for the first successful moon landing of Apollo 11 (summer of 1969), and for the harrowing Apollo 13 flight (spring of 1970) in which three astronauts were saved from certain death. During Apollo 13, he engaged his team's maximum technical abilities and fortitude by successfully returning the flight crew to Earth after their space capsule developed severe technical problems. "Failure does not exist in the lexicon of a flight controller. The universal characteristic of a controller is that he will never give up until has had an answer or another option. By the time someone graduated to the front consoles either he was ready -- or he was gone before he got there." (Kranz, p. 307).

This book teaches gifted students important lessons about cooperative learning and functioning successfully under stressful conditions. For example, Kranz described his first emergency experience (1960) while testing a Redstone rocket attached to a Mercury space capsule. The rocket fired but did not leave the launch pad except for a few seconds (the notorious "Four-Inch Flight"). Then the space capsule, functioning as if in a recovery phase, deployed its parachute. Chris Kraft cajoled and intimidated his engineers and rocket specialists into innovating an immediate solution to the dangerous problem of how to shut off the rocket engines. The solution: Leave the rocket alone for a day until the booster depressurized and batteries ran down. "That is the first rule of flight control. If you don't know what to do, don't do anything!" (Chris Kraft, p. 32).

The American space program was the penultimate laboratory for cooperative learning during the 1960's and early 1970's. This is why Kranz's statement in the Epilogue is relevant for today's educators of the gifted and their students: "The success of the early American space program was a tribute to the leadership of a politically adept NASA Administrator and a relatively small number of engineers, scientists, and project managers who formed and led NASA in the early years. This team, with the technologies it created, reached for and attained a goal that many of its peers thought impossible. A clear goal, a powerful mandate, and a unified team allowed the United States to move from a distant second in space into a preeminent position during my tenure at Mission Control." (Kranz, p. 381).

It is unfortunate that the enthusiasm generated by the early space efforts of thirty or more years ago has been lost. "Thirty years later I feel a sense of frustration that the causes that advanced us so rapidly in the 1950s and 1960s seem to have vanished from the national consciousness. We have become a nation of spectators, unwilling to take risks or act on strong beliefs. Since I grew up in the world of manned space exploration, I am particularly frustrated that we have abandoned the frontier that was opened in the 1960s. . . ." (Kranz, p. 382).

Why is there so little enthusiasm and support for conducting further space explorations to Mars and beyond? Will those gifted students of today who are enrolled in high powered science and mathematics programs become the new space exploration leaders? This book teaches the important lesson that American society responds best when there are serious challenges such as the American-Soviet space race, and World War II. Since there are no similar challenges today, America has entered a long period of intellectual and political hibernation. Books such as this one can help gifted students learn what it was like when this nation was awake and active beyond current interests in stock options, dot com companies and the latest presidential scandals.

October Sky: A Memoir (1998) by Homer H. Hickam, Jr. Dell Publishing, New York. Originally published as Rocket Boys.

The Soviet's launch of Sputnik in the fall of 1957 awakened Homer Hickam's interest in rocket science. During this time, Homer was a sophomore at Big Creek High School with a mediocre record in science and mathematics. He grew up in a town considered unlikely to produce a rocket engineer who would eventually work for NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) as one of its top rocket designers. Coalwood, West Virginia was a miners' town that had few aspirations for its youth except to work in the coal mines or enlist in the military after graduating from high school. But Homer founded the "Big Creek Missile Agency" (BCMA) with some of his teenage cronies, including one bookish nerd and several friends who liked the excitement of blasting off small to medium sized handmade rockets. Their rocket work almost ended when one of their launches set down close to the coal mine managed by Homer's father. Just like the Cape Canaveral space program, the rocket boys had many failures before their grand successes. Each failure taught them important lessons for achieving future successes. The ultimate triumph was when Homer and his team won gold and silver medals at the National Science Fair competitions, and celebrated by inviting the entire town to watch the launch of their last batch of Auk rockets, numbers XXVI-XXXI. This is a refreshing story about a family, coal mining town and teachers that supported the rocketry of five teenage boys. In lamenting the shutting down of Coalwood, Hickam says: "Yet I believe for those of us who keep it in their hearts, Coalwood still lives. The miners still trudge up the old path to the tipple, and the people bustle in and out of the Big Store and gather on the church steps after Sunday services. The fences still buzz with news and gossip, and the mountains and hollows echo with the joyful clamor of childhood adventures. The halls and classrooms of the old schools still hum with the excitement of youth, and the football fields yet roar with celebration on cold fall Friday nights. Even now, Coalwood endures, and no one, nor careless industry or overzealous government, can ever completely destroy it -- not while we who once lived there may recall our life among its places, or especially remember rockets that once leapt into the air, propelled not by physics but by the vibrant love of an honorable people, and the instruction of a dear teacher, and the dreams of boys." (p. 428). G G G

Compendiums and the Facts Game by Michael E. Walters

Center for the Study of the Humanities in the Schools

"Shortly before his death, Hans Christian Andersen was asked about the march for his funeral by the man commissioned to write it. 'Make the beat keep time with little steps,' he is said to have replied, 'as most of the people who walk after me will be children.' " From The Mammoth Book of 1000 Great Lives (1996, p. 9) by Jonathan Law, Editor.

The final jackpot question recently asked on a popular TV quiz show illustrates the concept that for the gifted, there is no category known in "educational babble" as rote learning. For them, all facts are contained within a context I describe as the facts game. The "million dollar question" was about the name of a landlocked country completely located within another country. One of the four choices was Lesotho. In order to obtain the proper answer, it is not a matter of rote memory but rather a facts game compelled by meaning. During the period of apartheid government in the former racist Union of South Africa, there was an attempt to create pseudo-independent black African enclaves. After the collapse of the racist regime, Lesotho and Botswana were the only two enclaves to remain independent countries. Therefore, it is not rote memory but the facts concerning the recent history of this part of Africa which enable one to know the answer to this question.

Compendiums are a wonderful resource for the gifted in their construction of facts games, and two excellent examples have been published in the last four years by Carroll & Graf of New York City. They are The Mammoth Book of 1000 Great Lives (1996) edited by Jonathan Law, and The Mammoth Book of Private Lives (1999) edited by Jon E. Lewis. The first book is not only an array of brief biographies but also numerous facts games (enclosed in graphics boxes) scattered throughout the pages. These are quotations or anecdotes about individuals who have been described, e.g., the anecdotal reference to Hans Christian Andersen quoted at the beginning of this essay. The second book is a collection of letters written by famous individuals throughout history. These letters represent facts permeated with meaning because they place historical facts within the context of individuals' lives and periods of time. The letters range from ancient Rome (e.g., Cicero) to the contemporary example of Monica Lewinsky's e-mail to Linda Tripp. Other examples are Einstein's letter to President Franklin Roosevelt concerning the need to create an atomic bomb, famous letters of Lord Chesterfield, and a letter written by Frederick Douglass granting forgiveness to his former slave master. Obviously, compendiums are a necessary component of gifted students' libraries.

Maurice D. Fisher, Publisher, Copyright by Gifted Education Press, August-September 2000