One of NASA’s first employees, key to creating the U.S. space program, has died at 95. Chris Kraft was the agency’s first flight director and managed all of the Mercury missions, as well some of the Gemini flights. He was a senior planner during the Apollo lunar program. Later he led the Johnson Space Center in Houston and oversaw development of the space shuttle.
Anyone who has ever watched a rocket launch, marveled at the moon landings or seen the space station streak across the night sky can thank Kraft. “Chris Kraft really was the architect of mission control,” said Andrew Chaikin, who has written extensively about the space program. He says Kraft is synonymous with NASA, having directed some of the most important missions in the agency’s history including NASA’s first manned launch in 1961.
It was a short, 15-minute suborbital flight piloted by Alan Shepard. A recording of the controllers during the mission captures Kraft coolly talking to his colleagues. In a 2015 NPR interview, Kraft said he might have sounded cool, “but I was shaking like a leaf. I wasn’t too bad after the first one. But that first one was something else.”
During the 1960s, NASA was full of ideas and energy as the agency rushed to meet the end-of-decade challenge to land humans on the moon. The organization took risks and succeeded, in large part because of Kraft.
He was a quick study (he finished his aeronautical engineering degree at Virginia Tech in two years). He joined NASA not long after it was created in 1958 and helped design a space program from scratch. It was a mighty undertaking. There were so many things he had to think through — like developing a communications system that would allow him to speak to the crew every 15 minutes. “What do I have to do to do that?” he asked, “Well, I had to build a whole damn worldwide network which had never been before. That, in itself, was quite a job.”
In addition to the technical, he had to put together his team: dozens of controllers who monitored the astronauts and their spacecraft — anything to do with the mission. Chaikin said, “He was the general in battle with his troops and, you know, he had to coordinate all of them. He had to digest all these bits of data that were coming at him from all these different systems, all these different flight controllers.”
“When I gave them the job,” Kraft recalled, “I said it’s your job to now take this on and get it done. I’m not going to stand behind you and push you. You come up with your ideas on how to do it.”
His leadership was tested after the Apollo 1 launchpad fire in 1967. Three astronauts died during a countdown rehearsal. Kraft said he wrestled with whether the rush to the moon ultimately killed the crew. “We allowed the poor workmanship to happen,” he said. “That was unforgivable, frankly. That we knew it was happening. We weren’t willing to stop the wheels to fix it.” He said he never got over the disaster.
After he retired in 1982, Kraft complained about the high cost of developing the next generation of rockets and NASA’s plans to land humans on asteroids, and he lamented the loss of shuttles Challenger and Columbia.
Recalling the 1986 Challenger explosion, he seemed to still think of himself as part of the team, saying, “We weren’t willing on the shuttle to fix the O-rings in the boosters. We weren’t willing to take the damn system by the hand and fix it before we said we were going to fly. … We had a creed in Mercury that we came up with and that said we will never fly with a known problem that will kill us. Never. … We did on the shuttle. … That was unforgivable.”
Still, he was proud of what he was able to accomplish, and pushed for more. He said, “We need to have that curiosity. We need to have that innate feeling of be ready. Be prepared. It pays off in success.” Kraft thought NASA had stopped being bold after the moon missions. He said, “We didn’t do the follow-on and we could have and we should have.”
Many of his original ideas remain in use today. In fact, Mission Control Center in Houston is named after him. And he told NPR he had flown in space himself, sort of.
“I flew on every flight — vicariously. I didn’t have to go. I mean that. I used to tell people back then when we’re flying, I have this feeling that’s what we’re doing all the time. And then when we stop flying, I don’t believe we did it. That was a strange feeling. … I was in my revelry when we were flying. My people were the same way. It was such a tremendous pleasure out of making things happen well and safely and knowing that they were contributing to that part of the program. I think it was extremely important to all of us and that was our payoff. We didn’t make any money working for the government. But we sure got a hell of a lot of enjoyment out of it.”
Kraft never saw a launch with his own eyes. He was either working the mission or, later in life, watching from home on television.