Jo Ann Zuniga and James Ramos, Catholic News Service

HOUSTON — Upcoming space travel plans need to include living on the moon, similar to scientific habitats in the Arctic and Antarctica, said Gene Kranz, NASA’s former flight director.

“I believe we need a habitat on the moon just like we have scientists living at the North and South Poles,” Kranz said, a parishioner at Shrine of the True Cross Catholic Church in Dickinson, Texas. “The challenge of a long-term facility and learning to use the resources of the moon is needed for scientific and economic objectives, not political reasons. It needs to be a world project.”

Still in the Houston area, at age 85, Kranz remains busy. During his 34 years with NASA, he directed the Gemini and Apollo programs, including the first lunar landing mission of Apollo 11. Kranz was at the forefront of celebrating the 50th anniversary of man’s touchdown on the moon July 20, 1969.

With each Apollo spacecraft’s successful splashdown, Kranz could breathe a sigh of relief and offer a prayer of thanksgiving.

Following the tragedy that claimed the lives of three NASA astronauts during a dress run of Apollo 1, Kranz told his team at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston: “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,” he said. “’Competent’ means we will never take anything for granted.”

That commitment remained a hallmark of his storied career, especially highlighted in his efforts to safely bring the Apollo 13 crew back to Earth. Kranz was the lead flight director during that mission.

The film “Apollo 13” chronicled Kranz’s work to devise the plan at NASA’s Mission Control that would safely bring the ship and astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise home after its oxygen system failed. Actor Ed Harris portrays Kranz in the film.

Of the effort, Kranz said, “It wasn’t about me; it was about the teams and the people in Mission Control. We truly believed that, in our line of work, failure is never an option.”

“It involves team-building and respect that goes both ways,” Kranz said. “Integrity is really the driver.”

In discussing plans to send astronauts back to the moon by 2024 and Mars in the 2030s, Kranz said, “We have a marvelous array of technology and a gifted group of young trained individuals. What we need is leadership and support from the top.”

In a Space Foundation survey in 2010, Kranz was listed second among space heroes who inspired the public, only behind top pick astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first human to set foot on the moon.

Born in Toledo, Ohio, in 1933, Kranz graduated from St. Agnes Elementary School and Central Catholic High School in Toledo.

In 2007, NASA awarded Kranz the Ambassador of Exploration Award during a presentation ceremony at Central Catholic High School, where the award, a lunar moon rock sample collected by Apollo 16 astronauts, remains today. 

Taught and mentored by men and women religious throughout his education, Kranz is a 1951 graduate of Central Catholic. The award recognizes the sacrifices and dedication of the Apollo, Gemini and Mercury astronauts.

He retired from NASA in 1994. He and his wife, Marta, are the parents of six children, and reside in Dickinson, where he is also a member of the Knights of Columbus Father Roach Council No. 3217.

Kranz may be one of the few Catholics ever immortalized as a LEGO mini-figure. As part of a collector’s set featuring Apollo 13 astronauts, a two-inch representation of Kranz sports his trademark high and tight haircut and white vest. He’s depicted holding a tiny version of the Apollo 13 flight plan. A London-based company, MiniFigs.me, created the set, as well as the only other featured Catholic, a Pope Francis mini-figure.