Shoot for the Moon

Former NASA flight director Gerry Griffin '56 recounts his role in taking mankind to the stars.

Less than two minutes into his first mission as lead flight director at NASA, Gerry Griffin ’56 was forced to consider aborting mission.

It was an overcast day at Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida, on November 13, 1969, and Apollo 12—mankind’s second endeavor to the moon—was underway. The Saturn V rocket had successfully lifted off in full view of President Richard Nixon, a crowd of onlookers and national television cameras.

Exactly 36.5 seconds after launch, crewmen on board noticed a bright flash outside. Their warning panel lit up like Times Square. Unbeknownst to the crewmen and mission control, lightning had struck the rocket. Three electrical power-producing fuel cells went offline immediately, and the flight controllers’ computer displays turned to gibberish. Griffin and his men needed to act soon and decisively to avoid aborting the mission and halting the space program in its tracks.

Griffin turned to John Aaron, his electrical, environmental and communications specialist, to make the split-second call. Aaron’s suggestion was unfamiliar: “Tell him to try flipping SCE [Signal Conditioning Equipment] to auxiliary,” Griffin recalls Aaron saying.

“That’s exactly what he said: 'try,'” Griffin said. Aaron wasn’t sure if flipping the switch would fix the problem, but it was his only idea based on something he’d seen months before during a ground test. “Through hours and hours of simulations with guys throwing failures at us and seeing how we handled them, we never touched the SCE switch,” Griffin said.

Regardless, Griffin trusted his controllers and told the capsule communicator to relay the information to the Apollo 12 crewmen. After some confusion from astronaut Pete Conrad, fellow astronaut Alan Bean found the switch among hundreds of identical others.

The gamble paid off. As soon as Bean flipped the mystery switch, mission control received the correct data, allowing flight controllers to quickly resolve the problem and avert disaster. Griffin’s team barely had time to let out a sigh of relief before they were focused and back to work. It was just another day at the office.

Gerry Griffin ’56 in the flight control room at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

During his storied career at NASA, Gerry Griffin ’56 was a flight director on every manned Apollo mission and lead flight director on three lunar explorations.


Griffin knew he wanted to serve his country from an early age. At 16, he was an Eagle Scout in the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps. Upon graduating from high school in Fort Worth, he enrolled at Texas A&M, then named the Agricultural & Mechanical College of Texas. “I wanted to be in the Corps of Cadets,” he said, “and that was one of the key reasons I was attracted to the school. I liked the military, and I wanted to pursue a career in aviation.”

As he began his studies in 1952, a bigger conflict loomed over College Station and indeed the world. “We were in the middle of the Korean War,” he said. “When it ended, everybody shifted focus to the Soviets, and that’s when the specter of the Cold War really kicked into gear.”

In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite to orbit the Earth. The launch rocked the American public’s perception of the U.S. as an undisputed technological superpower. “That little 184-pound ball going around saying, ‘beep, beep, beep’ shocked the United States,” Griffin said. “I knew deep-down, right then that I was going into the space business.”

Rocket Man

In the summer of 1964, he and his wife Sandy moved to Houston, where Griffin began his storied career at NASA. He joined hundreds of other engineers and scientists in conducting the Apollo program, an iconic series of missions with the primary goal of achieving the safe passage of men to the moon and back, with subsequent missions further exploring the lunar surface. During the next eight years, Griffin was a flight director on every manned Apollo mission and was lead flight director on three lunar explorations: Apollo 12, 15 and 17. After the Apollo missions, he took on executive positions at NASA (including, eventually, the director of Johnson Space Center), but he maintains that the best place he’s ever worked was the control room, a smoky, fluorescent-lit space that sent national heroes to places no man had ever been.

“The control room was fun,” Griffin said. “We were all very young; I was one of the older guys and I was in my mid-30s. In pictures back then, you see us looking serious, but it was a hoot. It was an environment filled with people who weren’t afraid to make decisions.”

In the decade after the Sputnik launch, NASA built a program capable of manned orbit and extravehicular activity (“spacewalking”) while remaining hyperaware of their principal challenge from President John F. Kennedy: getting an American to the moon and back. Griffin took on a primary role in meeting that challenge during Apollo 11. However, in his eyes, the lunar mission that preceded it, Apollo 8, stands out more. In the fall of 1968, NASA scientists were steadily overtaking the Soviet Union in the space race but still hadn’t left Earth’s orbit, a bridge they would obviously need to cross to reach the moon. Apollo 8 set out to send its crew out of Earth’s orbit, 238,900 miles across space, into orbit around the moon (without landing) and back to prove they could perform the necessary journey.

On the last test flight before Apollo 8, the Saturn V rocket trusted to complete the mission sustained a serious failure during launch. After engineers at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, made the necessary repairs, NASA leadership decided to shoot for lunar orbit on the next flight. “You talk about a gutsy call!” Griffin said. “We didn’t have a lunar module yet, so we were about to attempt to fly in orbit around the moon with a command module on top of a rocket that had never flown humans before and had just malfunctioned during its last test flight.”

Of course, that’s exactly what they did. “As the Saturn’s third stage began its maneuver to send the astronauts out of Earth’s orbit and on course for the moon, Mission Control was quiet, but everyone’s adrenaline was pumping,” Griffin recalled. “I especially remember the moment when that engine cut off. We were on our way, and although we didn’t know it, the space race was over. The Soviets were still trying, but when we orbited the moon on Apollo 8, I believe they knew they’d been had. It was America’s ‘by golly, we did it’ moment.”

The Dark Side of the Moon

NASA flight control teams work in shifts, switching out crews and directors around the clock during a mission. On April 14, 1970, Griffin’s team had just checked out when something happened aboard Apollo 13. “I left to play a softball game,” he remembered. “They contacted me and said, ‘You better come back, we’ve got an issue.’” Five-and-a-half hours away from reaching the moon’s gravitational influence, one of the cryogenic oxygen tanks on the Apollo 13 spacecraft exploded. Flight controllers knew there was a problem in the oxygen system, but neither mission control nor the crewmen knew the extent of the damage to the craft until later.

Griffin returned to the control room, still wearing baseball sweats and a cap, to assist in the aftermath of the explosion. He was originally scheduled to conduct the mission’s lunar landing, but it became apparent that what was originally an exploration had transformed into a survival operation. Griffin led his team in planning a critical maneuver to slingshot the spacecraft around the moon and expedite their journey home. It would take three-and-a-half days for mission control to safely return the men of Apollo 13 to Earth.

Years later, when Griffin and other flight controllers were invited to the Johnson Space Center to meet with director Ron Howard and actor Tom Hanks about making a film based on the troubled mission, Howard showed astonishment at the men’s resolve. “Ron kept asking us, ‘Were you scared? Were you afraid you wouldn’t get them back?’ We said, ‘No, we never talked about it. You put your head down and made it happen,’” said Griffin

When Apollo 13 re-entered the atmosphere, the control room exploded in applause. In a now-famous image, Griffin is depicted clenching an unlit cigar in his mouth and holding a book of matches in his left hand, his right hand bearing an outstretched thumb and his gold Aggie ring pointed proudly toward the sky.

Where Will Your Aggie Ring Take You?

As Apollo 13 re-entered the atmosphere, Gerry Griffin ’56 (far left) and others in the NASA flight control room celebrate the safe return of its astronauts to Earth.

As Apollo 13 re-entered the atmosphere, Gerry Griffin ’56 (far left) and others in the NASA flight control room celebrate the safe return of its astronauts to Earth.

Where Will Your Aggie Ring Take You?

Across the Universe

Griffin recently donated that Aggie ring to be displayed in the renovated and expanded Zachry Engineering Education Complex on Texas A&M’s campus. During Apollo 12, the ring was carried to the moon by the astronauts as a favor to Griffin. It is the only Aggie ring that has traveled to the moon (so far). The text above the display asks a daring question: “Where will your Aggie ring take you?”

Griffin often thinks about where that ring took him and remembers the enthusiastic young cadet who arrived on campus still eager to earn it. “My advice to Fish Griffin would have been to prepare himself, watch out for opportunities and go for it,” he said. “Texas A&M gave me the foundation for what I needed when the space program came along.

“I didn’t know what an orbit was, how you made a maneuver to go to the moon and back, or how you landed on the moon, but I felt confident I could figure it out. That, to me, is the secret of Texas A&M: It prepares people to do what has never been done before.”

To support Texas A&M aerospace engineering students, contact Stephanie Lampe ’06 at (979) 458-3137 or

Maroon & White Wakeup Call

On December 13, 1971, the seventh day of Apollo 17, Griffin woke up the astronauts on the lunar surface to the tune of the Aggie War Hymn as performed by the Singing Cadets. Astronaut and Purdue graduate Eugene Cernan was less than receptive.

Eugene Cernan: I want you to say it first.


Mission Control: Hello there, Challenger. The Gold Team Flight Director [Griffin] picked out the morning's selection, and he said that if you can find some maroon dirt today instead of orange, you'll probably get a lot more cooperation out of him. [The astronauts had found some orange lunar soil the day before.]

Cernan: I figured the Gold Team might do that. You know, I’ve woke up to a lot of pleasant thoughts, but never to an Aggie before.

Griffin remembers having some difficulty acquiring a recording of the War Hymn to give to NASA’s communication team. “It wasn’t like you could look it up on your cell phone and send an .mp3,” he said. “We had to find a reel-to-reel recording.”

It wasn’t the last time Aggie music serenaded astronauts in space. Decades later, on June 9, 2008, Aggie astronaut Col. Michael Fossum woke up to “The Spirit of Aggieland,” eliciting a much more appreciative response.

Mission Control: Good morning Discovery, and a special good morning to you, Mike!

Michael Fossum: Whoop! Good morning, Shannon. There’s a spirit can never be told, that’s the spirit of Aggieland. Texas A&M University is indeed a very special place. Thanks to my Aggie wife this morning for that wake-up music, to all my Aggie buds, and to the hundreds of thousands of Aggies on campus and around the world. It’s going to be a great day.

To support Texas A&M aerospace engineering students, contact Stephanie Lampe ’06 at (979) 458-3137 or