How NASA's first flight director, Christopher Kraft, is being remembered
HOUSTON – The space community in Houston is remembering a man with an incredible and unique legacy in American history.
Christopher Columbus Kraft Jr., NASA’s first flight director, passed away Monday, two days after the anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. NASA announced Kraft’s passing.
Those who looked up to the early space pioneer are sharing his legacy.
An Early Space Exploration Trailblazer
Kraft’s engineering talents were put to use when he joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which eventually became NASA. It was Kraft’s legendary work that brought Mission Control and the Johnson Space Center to be what it is today.
Kraft was one of the most influential space pioneers never even thought he never wore a spacesuit. Kraft kept his feet firmly on the ground and played an integral role in all things spaceflight. From the Mercury and Gemini missions that first sent Americans into space to the Apollo missions that landed them on the moon, Kraft was a visionary, the nucleus of NASA.
The agency's first flight director, he led the design and implementation of Mission Control at the Manned Spacecraft Center, now called Johnson Space Center. He later became director of JSC.
Kraft’s Mission in Mission Control
Kraft invented the mission planning and control processes required for crewed space missions, according to NASA. He created key leadership protocols, including the go/no-go decisions, space-to-ground communications, space tracking, real-time problem solving and crew recovery, NASA said.
During the Apollo program, Kraft went on to become the director of flight operations at the Manned Spacecraft Center, responsible for overall human spaceflight mission planning, training and execution. His leadership continued in various capacities for more than a decade.
He was the deputy director of MSC from 1972 until he retired in 1982, and consulted as a key adviser for spaceflight leaders until his death.
Kraft’s Daring Advocacy
KPRC’s Phil Archer interviewed Kraft in 2016. Kraft explained that one of his most proud moments was with Apollo 8.
“First time we went to the moon, and we hadn’t planned to do that, and I got stuck with having to convince the rest of the world that we should do it,” Kraft said. “But, at the time, what people wanted to do was go fly around the moon. I wanted us to go and orbit around the moon. ‘Why?’ Because we didn’t know how to do orbit determination around the moon, and we needed to know that to land accurately where we wanted to land on the surface of the moon … That was quite a difference in the risks involved in the mission.”
Early spaceflight pioneer Christopher C. Kraft Jr. Passed away Monday. Kraft was NASA’s very first flight director and created the processes and procedures in Mission Control. The space community is heartbroken, but they say his legacy will live on. I will have a story on him at 5pm KPRC2 / Click2HoustonPosted by KPRC2 Rose-Ann Aragon on Tuesday, July 23, 2019
Kraft had a gift of discernment, blunt command and fearless advocacy. Many times, he would argue and advocate for what he believed was right. He also made decisions on who would lead certain missions.
"They had the ultimate responsibility and accountability. I thank Chris Kraft for giving me the opportunity to be the landing flight director,” said Apollo 11 Flight Director Gene Kranz.
Kranz, with the help of Kraft, would go on to lead a successful lunar landing. With the help of Kraft, Kranz’ leadership impacted many other “green” flight controllers.
The Kraft Legacy
At the Johnson Space Center, historic Building 30 was named the Christopher C. Kraft Jr. Mission Control Center. Kraft’s story has been shared through generations.
"We talked about Chris Kraft being his mentor and all of the flight directors,” Gwen Griffin, daughter of Apollo 11 Flight Director Gerry Griffin, said. “The depth of the respect, I still see it in my 84-year-old father today ... that he has for Mr. Kraft is second to none.”
"He was a driving force and began all of what we do for flight operations,” Mark Geyer, JSC director said. “I was blessed to have talked to him … It would not have happened without Chris Kraft's leadership and vision.”
Christopher C. Kraft, Jr., who died July 22, 2019, created the concept of NASA's Mission Control and developed its organization, operational procedures and culture, then made it a critical element of the success of the nation's human spaceflight programs.
“America has truly lost a national treasure today with the passing of one of NASA’s earliest pioneers – flight director Chris Kraft," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement. "We send our deepest condolences to the Kraft family.
“Chris was one of the core team members that helped our nation put humans in space and on the Moon, and his legacy is immeasurable. Chris’ engineering talents were put to work for our nation at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, before NASA even existed, but it was his legendary work to establish mission control as we know it for the earliest crewed space flights that perhaps most strongly advanced our journey of discovery. From that home base, America’s achievements in space were heard across the globe, and our astronauts in space were anchored to home even as they accomplished unprecedented feats."
Kraft -- whose full name was Christopher Columbus Kraft -- joined the NASA Space Task Group in November 1958 as NASA's first flight director, with responsibilities that immersed him in mission procedures and challenging operational issues. He personally invented the mission planning and control processes required for crewed space missions, in areas as diverse as go/no-go decisions, space-to-ground communications, space tracking, real-time problem solving and crew recovery.
During the Apollo program, Kraft became the Director of Flight Operations at MSC, responsible for overall human spaceflight mission planning, training and execution. His leadership in this critical area continued through the Apollo 12 mission in 1969, at which time he became deputy director of the Center. He served as the center director from January 1972 until his retirement in August 1982, playing a vital role in the success of the final Apollo missions, the Skylab crewed space station, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project and the first flights of the space shuttle.
Kraft was born Feb. 28, 1924 in Phoebus, Virginia, now a part of Hampton, Va. There he attended high school and developed strong interests in non-aeronautical topics such as baseball, and drum and bugle corps. Unlike many of his aerospace peers later in his career, he wasn't interested in airplanes. After high school, he wanted to attend college, but didn't know where or what he should study. He chose Virginia Polytechnic Institute (VPI, now Virginia Tech) and enrolled in mechanical engineering in 1941.
He credits his experiences in the military Corps of Cadets at the institute for the foundation of his leadership training that would later characterize his personality in his NASA career.
By 1942, the VPI campus was being depleted of students because of the war effort, and Kraft patriotically decided to join the Navy as an aviation cadet. Unfortunately, his right hand had been severely burned when he was three years old, and he was declared unfit for military service. Ironically, his old hand injuries did not hamper his athletic prowess -- he played catcher on the VPI baseball team.
A professor in the engineering department was an enthusiastic airplane devotee and passed his interest on to young Kraft. An elective course in basic aerodynamics inspired him to major in aeronautical engineering. In 1944, he graduated with one of the first degrees in that field awarded by the Institute.
Kraft was familiar with the work of the federal National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics -- NASA's predecessor agency -- at Langley, which was located only about 7 miles from his home. However, he felt that Langley was too close to home, and accepted a job offer from Chance Vought in Connecticut -- with a back-up offer from the NACA also in hand. After experiencing first-day bureaucratic frustration at Vought, he opted to accept his back-up offer. So, in January 1945, he returned to Virginia to join the staff of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory. Kraft was assigned to the Flight Research Division under the leadership of Robert Gilruth and Hewitt Phillips, men he held in awe. He contributed to many critical programs that had been conceived by Gilruth, including evaluations of the flying qualities of aircraft, and free-fall model tests to measure transonic and supersonic aerodynamics. He served as project engineer on flying-qualities investigations of the P-51H, an advanced version of the famous Mustang. He also conducted analytical work on gust alleviation, and directed a pioneering study of potentially dangerous wake turbulence caused by trailing vortices.
With the advent of the jet age of the 1950s, he was assigned as project engineer on flight tests of the Navy's high-priority Vought F8U Crusader, which was exhibiting numerous birthing problems in its earliest versions. The problems uncovered by Langley flight tests included unacceptable g-force control behavior during maneuvers, which was determined to result from unintentional pivoting of the unique movable wing used by the configuration. Working with Langley test pilot Jack Reeder, Kraft identified the structural source of the problem, and took on the unpleasant job of telling the Navy that its new first-line aircraft was potentially dangerous. His warnings were heeded by Navy management, resulting in grounding of the F8U fleet, much to the chagrin of many operators of the new aircraft. He then encountered one of the most contentious members of the Navy's Bureau of Aeronautics, who questioned the Langley results and doubted the conclusions drawn by the NACA. That Marine Major was named John Glenn. Following a detailed examination of the Langley study results with Kraft and Reeder, and interviews with Navy pilots who flew the aircraft, Glenn was convinced and became a believer. The F8U was subsequently redesigned, as recommended by Kraft and his associates at Langley, and served the nation as an outstanding fighter during the Vietnam War.
Since his retirement from NASA, Kraft has consulted for numerous companies including IBM and Rockwell International, served as a Director-at-Large of the Houston Chamber of Commerce, and as a member of the Board of Visitors at Virginia Tech. In 2001, he published an autobiography entitled "Flight: My Life in Mission Control." His book is a detailed discussion of his life through the end of the Apollo program, and was a New York Times bestseller.
He has received numerous awards and honors for his work. These include the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal; four NASA Distinguished Service Medals; the Distinguished Alumnus Citation from Virginia Tech, in 1965; the Distinguished Citizen Award, given by the City of Hampton, Virginia, in 1966; the John J. Montgomery Award, in 1963; the Goddard Memorial Trophy, awarded by the National Space Club, in 1979; and the John F. Kennedy Astronautics Award for 1996. In 1999, he was presented the Rotary National Award for Space Achievement for which he was cited as "A driving force in the U.S. human space-flight program from its beginnings to the Space Shuttle era, a man whose accomplishments have become legendary."
In 2006, NASA honored Christopher C. Kraft, Jr., for his key involvement in America's space programs with the Ambassador of Exploration Award, given to astronauts and other key individuals who participated in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space programs, for realizing America's vision of space exploration from 1961 to 1972.
On April 4, 2011, NASA named its Building 30 Mission Control Center at the Johnson Space Center in his honor, in recognition of his service to the nation and its space programs. The Christopher C. Kraft, Jr., Mission Control Center has now operated for 50 years in support of space missions. At the naming ceremony, Flight Director Glynn Lunney commented: "The Control Center today…is a reflection of Chris Kraft."
Chris Kraft married his high school sweetheart, Betty Anne Turnbull, in 1950. They have a son and a daughter, Gordon and Kristi-Anne.
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