How Gene Kranz’s Plainest Vest Became His Most Famous

Posted on Wed, April 15, 2020

In one of the iconic images of the successful recovery of the Apollo 13 spacecraft and astronauts on April 17, 1970, mission commander James Lovell’s face fills a screen in the background of mission control as NASA flight director Eugene "Gene" Kranz stands in the foreground smoking a celebratory cigar—while wearing one of his characteristic vests. Kranz’s white suit vests have become almost as well known as his "Foundations of Mission Control" rules and the adage "Failure is not an option." But the tradition that Kranz invented for himself was not only wearing a white suit vest at work but also wearing colorful, celebratory vest during mission recoveries. And yet, the best known of his characteristic garments is the plainest.

Gene Kranz in mission control

Mission Control in Houston celebrates after the Apollo 13 astronauts successfully returned to Earth from the dramatic mission.

When Kranz spoke at the John H. Glenn Lecture in Space History at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in 2005, I had the honor to meet him and his lovely wife, Marta. And it was from her that I heard the backstory of her husband’s famous vests. After all, she sewed them for him. She explained that when the mission control teams were being put together, each team was designated by a color. Senior flight director Christopher Columbus "Chris" Kraft chose red; John Hodge, blue; and Kranz, being the least senior, got white. They also chose the controllers to be on their teams in order of seniority. So, Kraft chose first, then Hodge, and then Kranz.

As a result, Kranz was looking for a way to build a sense of teamwork in a group that might otherwise feel like the last-picked. Thinking of his military experience, he was searching for a physical symbol of espirit de corps to unite his team, like a mission patch or other emblem. (Kranz later asked space artist Bob McCall to create a patch for mission control, but that was still years in the future during the Gemini missions.) At the time, three-piece suits were in fashion and Marta Kranz occasionally made Christmas and other holiday vests for her husband. So, to symbolize the white team, she made Kranz a five-button white suit vest, home sewn with elegant flaps on each of the two pockets.

The first time Kranz brought a white vest into Mission Control, he carried it on a hanger that he hung on the back of his chair, not in a box as show in Ron Howard’s 1995 Apollo 13 film. As the Gemini missions turned over to the Apollo lunar missions, Marta continued to make new vests for Gene. Specifically, she created festive vests to be worn in celebration of successful recoveries. (Mission control never considered the task to be complete until the astronauts and spacecraft were safely aboard the recovery ships.) The Apollo 9 vest has gold and silver thread embroidery in a brocade pattern. One had red, white, and blue stripes done in sparkly sequins. In contrast, the workaday white vests seemed rather plain.

Kranz Celebrates 41-C Mission

Eugene F. Kranz wears a special vest to celebrate the shuttle mission STS-41C.

The circumstances of Apollo 13 in 1970 meant that Kranz never changed into a celebratory vest. On the way to the Moon, two days into the mission, an explosion aboard the service module fundamentally changed the flight plan. The landing on the Moon was scrubbed and the safe return of the crew became paramount. A series of problems made the safe outcome unsure until the very end. Throughout, the engineers in mission control and the back rooms that supported them solved problem after problem. As a result, by the time the astronauts set foot on the U.S.S. Iwo Jima recovery ship, Kranz celebrated while still wearing his work clothes.

The 1995 release of the film Apollo 13 reminded the public of Kranz (played by Ed Harris) and his trademark white vests. In the intervening years, Kranz himself had given some of his vests to charity to support causes that were important to him. Before the lecture in 2005, then, when I asked Gene Kranz about the possibility of donating one to the Smithsonian’s national collection, he would only agree to loan a vest to the Museum for display. I gave him my card and agreed to contact him to discuss the matter more later. At the end of the lecture, however, during the question and answer period, in front of a full auditorium, one of the Museum’s docents asked Kranz whether the Museum might acquire one of his vests. Kranz began his usual answer (there was already one loaned to the Johnson Space Center and there were very few left…) but then changed tone and responded that he had just that evening talked to a curator at the Museum about a donation. Later, he jokingly accused me of planting the question. I did not. But I will admit, I led the applause.

Gene Kranz's white Apollo 13 Vest with pockets

The vest Gene Kranz wore during the Apollo 13 mission.

Gene Kranz’s vest and accompanying Apollo 13 button were displayed for years in the Apollo to the Moon gallery on the 2nd floor of the museum in DC. When the Museum opens the new exhibits that are being prepared as a part of our ongoing renovation, the artifacts will be a part of the Destination Moon exhibition. Kranz’s leadership lessons from his years in mission control have made him a sought-after public speaker and his vests have become a part of pop culture history.

If you’d like to read more about Kranz, an excellent oral history conducted on January 8, 1999, by Rebecca Wright, Carol Butler, and Sasha Tarrant of the Johnson Space Center Oral History Project can be found in excerpt here.

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