Apollo 13: Gene Kranz’s Famous White Vest

Ed Harris as Gene Kranz in Apollo 13 (1995)

Ed Harris as Gene Kranz in Apollo 13 (1995)

Vitals

Ed Harris as Gene Kranz, determined, no-nonsense NASA flight director

Houston, Texas, April 1970

Film: Apollo 13
Release Date: June 30, 1995
Director: Ron Howard
Costume Designer: Rita Ryack

Background

Okay, Houston, we’ve had a problem here…

Apollo 13 astronaut Jack Swigert first transmitted this famous (and oft-misquoted) message 50 years ago today at 3:08 AM (GMT) on Tuesday, April 14, 1970, soon repeated by the mission commander Jim Lovell: “Uh, Houston, we’ve had a problem.” (At the Apollo Mission Control Center in Houston, it was still 10:08 PM on Monday, April 13.)

The craft had launched three days prior from Kennedy Space Center, manned by Swigert, Fred Haise, and mission commander Jim Lovell. The mission was intended to be the third of the American space program that would land on the Moon until the notorious “problem”—an explosion resulting from a failed oxygen tank in the service module—forced the three-man crew and their mission controllers in Houston to improvise solutions that ultimately resulted in the three astronauts safely returning to Earth, splashing down in the South Pacific on April 17 when they were swiftly met by a U.S. Navy recovery team.

While Apollo 13 was technically unsuccessful in its initial objective of a lunar landing, the mission and its outcome have been deemed “a successful failure” due to how different individuals, teams, and departments were able to work together in as tight timeframe to solve the almost-impossible task of bringing the three astronauts home safely, requiring not only the best efforts of Lovell, Haise, and Swigert, but also ingenuity and dedication from the Mission Control team centered in Houston under the “tough and competent” leadership of flight director Gene Kranz.

Gene Kranz (center, in white vest) celebrates Apollo 13's successful splashdown on April 17, 1970.

Gene Kranz (center, in white vest) celebrates Apollo 13’s successful splashdown on April 17, 1970.

A father of six by the time he coordinated Apollo 13’s safe return, Kranz had served his first shift as NASA Flight Director during the Gemini IV mission in 1965 when astronaut Ed White became the first American to walk in space. Kranz, his Mission Control team, and the three astronauts would all be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom later in 1970, and the flight director himself would be ranked the second most popular space hero, behind only Neil Armstrong, in a 2010 Space Foundation survey.

Famous for his cool head under pressure as well as his white homemade vests, Kranz would be portrayed by Ed Harris in Apollo 13, the 1995 blockbuster acclaimed for its realism and nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actor for Harris’ performance. (Harris’ first foray into space cinema was his early role as John Glenn in 1983’s The Right Stuff.)

What’d He Wear?

“Mrs. Kranz has pulled out the old needle and thread again,” Jerry Bostick (Ray McKinnon) comments to a colleague when a package arrives for Gene Kranz at Mission Control in Houston on launch day. “The last one looked like he bought it off a gypsy,” the man responds.

“Thank you, Tom,” Kranz receives the package. “I was starting to get worried.” From the tissue paper, Kranz pulls out a neatly folded white waistcoat, already decorated with the Apollo 13 mission badge. “I like that one, Gene!” he hears from a fellow Mission Control engineer as he holds the vest up for inspection, eventually donning it to great applause from his team. “Save it for splashdown, guys,” the humble leader responds with a smirk.

Gene Kranz straightens out his newest waistcoat minutes before the launch of Apollo 13. Note that he correctly wears the bottom button undone.

Gene Kranz straightens out his newest waistcoat minutes before the launch of Apollo 13. Note that he correctly wears the bottom button undone.

The real Gene Kranz's off-white faille vest. (Source: SmithsonianMag.com. Photo credit: Eric Long.)

The real Gene Kranz’s off-white faille vest. (Source: SmithsonianMag.com. Photo credit: Eric Long.)

In the five years that Gene Kranz had served as NASA flight director leading up to Apollo 13, the vests handsewn for him by his wife Marta had become his trademark, continuing her previous tradition of making scarves for pilots in Kranz’s Air Force squadrons.

“All the wives sewed, and I began making vests for Gene,” Marta Kranz recalled in an April 2010 article by Owen Edwards for Smithsonian Magazine. “Gene wanted some kind of symbol for his team to rally around. I suggested a vest… There were three Mission Control teams—red, white and blue—and Gene’s was the white team, so his vests were always white.”

Kranz recognized that his vest was “an immediate hit” when he first wore one for Gemini IV. “From then on, I put on a new vest on the first shift of every mission.”

Photos from other missions depict Kranz celebrating splashdowns in more colorful waistcoats—such as this one in a patriotic red, white, and blue sequined stripe for the final lunar mission, Apollo 17—but the uncertainty of the Apollo 13 result kept the stoic flight director in his white vest through the end. Several of Kranz’s mission vests have been sold among other pieces of memorabilia from his storied career, though the white faille vest from Apollo 13 remains proudly displayed at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (as seen at right).

To recreate Kranz’s famous Apollo 13 vest for the movie, Rita Ryack’s costume design team turned to the best source possible: Marta Kranz. After nearly 30 swatches of sample fabrics were sent to Marta to evaluate, a discovery in a film warehouse yielded the appropriate off-white faille. With the Marta-approved material in hand, the costume team got to work, crafting the single-breasted, five-button waistcoat with its uniquely dog-eared pocket flaps and the creamy tonal-striped back lining, patterned with small diamonds among the striping, with its adjustable back strap.

As the crew of Apollo 13 prepare for reentry and splashdown, Kranz tidies up his appearance, fastening his tab collar and tightening his tie. He was never seen without his trademark white vest throughout the duration of the mission.

As the crew of Apollo 13 prepare for reentry and splashdown, Kranz tidies up his appearance, fastening his tab collar and tightening his tie. He was never seen without his trademark white vest throughout the duration of the mission.

Worn on the left side of Kranz’s vest was a replica button of the distinctive Apollo 13 mission badge, designed by New York artist Lumen Winter with artwork completed by Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) artist Norman Tiller.

Originally conceptualized by Lovell himself, the patch features three horses crossing the sky above the Earth to symbolize the three-person crews of the Apollo program. In addition to “APOLLO XIII” in white across the top with “EX LUNA, SCIENTIA” along the bottom. As Lovell explains, this Latin translation for “From the Moon, knowledge,” referenced the Naval Academy’s “Ex scientia, tridens” motto, meaning “Through knowledge, seapower.” Notably, this was the only Apollo mission badge to omit the names of the crew; fortuitous, as the last-minute replacement of Ken Mattingly with the measles-immune Jack Swigert would have rendered the badge inaccurate.

APOLLO 13

The film’s Gene Kranz rises about the oft-chided NASA engineer “uniform” of short-sleeved shirts and ties, wearing long-sleeved shirts with tab collars though he often unsnaps the tab after a long day commanding the White Team. (He wears his ID badge clipped to the breast pockets of his shirts, mostly concealed by the vest.)

Even when a tie is worn appropriately tightened to the neck, an unfastened tab collar can be a jarring effect. Kranz likely opted for snap-tabs rather than button-tabs as these could be more quickly fastened or unfastened with one hand, saving time and dexterity for a busy man with many conflicting priorities at one time.

Even when a tie is worn appropriately tightened to the neck, an unfastened tab collar can be a jarring effect. Kranz likely opted for snap-tabs rather than button-tabs as these could be more quickly fastened or unfastened with one hand, saving time and dexterity for a busy man with many conflicting priorities at one time.

Okay, guys… we’re goin’ to the Moon!

For the first day of the Apollo 13 mission, April 11, 1970, Kranz dresses in a characteristically patriotic color scheme that would become familiar over the week to follow, never deviating from a palette of red, white, and blue with gray accents.

Apropos his leadership of the designated “White Team”, Kranz wears a white shirt with a snap-closed tab collar, front placket, breast pocket, and single-button cuffs. His navy tie is patterned with sets of four “downhill”-direction stripes that alternate between gray and red. A silver horizontal tie clasp is clipped onto the tie, though not onto the shirt so it merely adds weight to the tie without serving the function of keeping the tie from swinging freely. This would mark the last appearance of both this tie and tie clasp.

Day 1: Kranz at the controls.

Day 1: Kranz at the controls.

Let’s work the problem, people. Let’s not make things worse by guessin’.

Kranz’s White Team is back on duty on the evening of April 13, working well into the following day to try to solve the problem reported aboard Apollo 13. Kranz wears a pale blue shirt that more notably contrasts under the off-white fabric of his vest. Styled the same as his white shirt, Kranz is always seen wearing this shirt with the cuffs unbuttoned and rolled up his forearms and his tab collar unsnapped, though he also loosens his tie and unbuttons his collar once the getting gets even tougher.

The flight director wears another patriotically striped repp tie, patterned with balanced burgundy and gray block stripes against a navy ground with a thin white stripe bordering the bottom of each gray stripe.

Day 4: NASA may have the technology to send humans into space, onto the moon, and back, but their overhead projectors leave some functionality to be desired. Rather than waiting for a fix, Kranz rolls up the screen and uses chalk on the blackboard to formulate a plan to coordinate Lovell, Haise, and Swigert's safe return.

Day 4: NASA may have the technology to send humans into space, onto the Moon, and back, but their overhead projectors leave some functionality to be desired. Rather than waiting for a fix, Kranz rolls up the screen and uses chalk on the blackboard to formulate a plan to coordinate Lovell, Haise, and Swigert’s safe return.

With all due respect, sir, I believe this is going to be our finest hour.

Picking up with Mission Control on April 15, Kranz is wearing the same tie as he had the past few days, though with a clean white shirt that goes through plenty of rumpling and wrinkling as he continues to wear this same outfit over the following three days until the astronauts are safely back home. In fact, it’s likely that changing into this new shirt between April 14 and 15 was the only variation in Kranz’s attire from the night of the “problem” until the reentry on April 17.

Aside from the first day of the mission (and certain continuity errors), Kranz wears a gold-toned tie clasp in an elongated hexagonal shape with three descending rectangles against a cream “zig-zag” enamel filling.

Kranz takes his job and professional appearance seriously and is depicted taking a brief moment on the 17th to tighten his tie, refasten his collar and cuffs, and button up his vest for the moment of truth as the Odyssey command module reentered the Earth’s atmosphere.

Day 7: Kranz celebrates with the White Team after a job well done.

Day 7: Kranz celebrates with the White Team after a job well done.

Each day in the office, Kranz wears a pair of dark navy flat front trousers with frogmouth front pockets, jetted back pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms that break over his black leather shoes.

We rarely see any of Kranz’s shoes, but they appear to be cap-toe oxfords in a black leather that coordinates with his belt, which closes through a rectangular silver-toned box-frame buckle.

Tense moments at Mission Control in Houston with little to do but wait.

Tense moments at Mission Control in Houston with little to do but wait.

On his right wrist, Kranz wears a nickel-plated POW/MIA bracelet. This is a slight anachronism as these commemorative bracelets were not developed until later in 1970 by the California student group Voices in Vital America (VIVA), but they serve as an illustrative indicator of Kranz’s patriotism and dedication to bringing Americans home at all costs.

The name etched on Kranz’s memorial bracelet is LTC Harrison Klinck with the date 11/1/67. According to HonorStates.org, Harrison Hoyt Klinck was born in Los Angeles and joined the U.S. Air Force, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel during the Vietnam War. A member of the 469th Tactical Fighter Squadron, the Thunderchief Fighter (F-105D) he was flying crashed on a mission over North Vietnam on November 19, 1967 (suggesting that the bracelet’s etched date of “11/1/67” is an error.) Lieutenant Colonel Klinck’s remains were recovered in August 1985 and identified two months later. A commissioned fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force, Kranz may have felt a kinship with the fellow USAF aviator.

Ed Harris reportedly based Gene Kranz's quietly emotional reaction on how the real Kranz reacted when recalling his emotions at the time of the successful reentry. It's perhaps significant that this scene, celebrating the safe return of three American heroes presumed missing forever, provides the clearest shot of Kranz's POW/MIA bracelet honoring another missing American hero.

Ed Harris reportedly based Gene Kranz’s quietly emotional reaction on how the real Kranz reacted when recalling his emotions at the time of the successful reentry. It’s perhaps significant that this scene, celebrating the safe return of three American heroes presumed missing forever, provides the clearest shot of Kranz’s POW/MIA bracelet honoring another missing American hero.

While NASA astronauts were famously equipped with Omega Speedmaster Professional “Moonwatch” chronographs since their official authorization in March 1965, Kranz was a land-based engineer with no need for an expensive wristwatch that could survive in orbit. Yet, precision was still essential to his work and his timepiece would need to serve him without fail in a role where every second counts. The real-life Kranz wore a Seiko 5 6119-8460 Sports Diver throughout his NASA career, including the Apollo 11 lunar landing and the Apollo 13 rescue.

As Kranz, Ed Harris wears a cushion-cased steel dive watch with a blue-and-red “Pepsi” bezel on a tapered steel three-piece link bracelet. While likely not a ref. 6119-8460 like the real Kranz wore, Harris’ watch indeed appears to be a Seiko automatic diver, likely the Seiko 6139-6002 “Pepsi Pogue” with its 41mm cushion case and two pusher buttons at the 2:00 and 4:00 positions. The dark blue dial with its 3:00 day-date window and 6:00 sub-register suggests that this was the AH001M model, which retailed for $100 in 1969 according to this catalog listing.

Though not the same model as the real Gene Kranz wore, Ed Harris' period-correct Seiko in Apollo 13 still has associations with the American space program.

Though not the same model as the real Gene Kranz wore, Ed Harris’ period-correct Seiko 6139-6002 in Apollo 13 still has associations with the American space program.

The “Pepsi Pogue” received its nickname from Colonel William Pogue, one of “the original 19” from NASA Astronaut Group 5 (which also included Haise, Mattingly, and Swigert), who wore his personal yellow-dialed Seiko 6139-6002 AH035M as pilot of the Skylab 4 mission from November 1973 through February 1974, despite it never being formally approved for mission use. Now dubbed “the first automatic chronograph in space” as the NASA-approved Omegas were manual-winding, the identity of Colonel Pogue’s Seiko wasn’t confirmed until 2007, more than a decade after it was coincidentally chosen to dress Ed Harris’ wrist in Apollo 13.

Vintage Seiko “Pepsi Pogues” can be found at online auctions or retailers like Barnebys, Chrono24, and eBay. Production of the original Seiko 6139-6002 ended around the late 1970s, though Seiko has evolved to keep similarly styled watches among its offerings like the automatic Seiko 5 Sports SNZF15 (via Amazon). If you’re interested in a true original Seiko 6139, I recommend this highly informative collector’s guide from The Spring Bar.

On the third finger of his left hand, Gene wears a silver-toned wedding band to signify his marriage to Marta, the talented vestmaker.

The Archer Connection

Gene Kranz’s famous off-white waistcoat would be revived in popular culture on the FX animated sitcom Archer when the spy agency analyst Ray Gillette (voiced by Adam Reed) dons his own in the episodes “Skytanic” (Episode 1.07) and “Tragical History” (Episode 2.06), referring to it as his “crisis vest”. The Kranz connection goes a step further as Ray wears a blue “ISIS” badge, referring to the series’ fictional spy agency (not the real-life terrorist organization!)

Ray Gillette channels Gene Kranz as he debuts his "crisis vest" in the Archer episode "Skytanic" (Episode 1.07).

Ray Gillette channels Gene Kranz as he debuts his “crisis vest” in the Archer episode “Skytanic” (Episode 1.07).

How to Get the Look

Ed Harris as Gene Kranz in Apollo 13 (1995)

Ed Harris as Gene Kranz in Apollo 13 (1995)

The real Gene Kranz adopted homemade white vests that became his symbolic sartorial signature, worn over his shirts and ties in the NASA Mission Control room. What’s your style signature?

  • White or pale blue cotton shirt with snap-tab collar, front placket, breast pocket, and single-button cuffs
  • Navy striped repp tie with balanced burgundy and gray “downhill” stripes with white bottom border striping
  • Off-white faille single-breasted waistcoat with five clear plastic buttons, irregular-flapped hip pockets, notched bottom, and cream diamond-patterned tonal-striped back lining with adjustable strap
  • Dark navy flat front trousers with belt loops, frogmouth front pockets, jetted back pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
  • Black leather belt with silver rectangular box-type buckle
  • Black leather cap-toe oxfords
  • Nickel-plated POW/MIA bracelet
  • White gold wedding band
  • Stainless steel cushion-cased dive watch with blue-and-red “Pepsi” bezel, blue dial with 3:00 day-date window and 6:00 sub-second register, and steel three-piece link bracelet

Do Yourself a Favor and…

Check out the movie.

The Quote

We’ve never lost an American in space; we’re sure as hell not going to lose one on my watch. Failure is not an option.

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