Christopher Kraft Obituary, Death – Chris Kraft, a 95-year-old engineer, was Nasa’s first flight director, shaping the team – and the control center – at Cape Canaveral in Florida and, beginning in 1963, in Houston, Texas. Kraft’s work ranged from Nasa’s first shaky manned trips during the 1960s space race through the space shuttle in the 1980s. He was Nasa’s director of flight operations when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon in Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969, and signed off on the Apollo 12 mission the following November. In 1970, he returned to preside over a crisis conference as the injured Apollo 13 limped down to Earth.
From 1972 until 1982, he was the director of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, which was formerly known as the Manned Space Center. He oversaw Skylab, America’s first space station, the Apollo-Soyuz docking in 1975, and the introduction of the space shuttle. “To err is human,” Kraft would advise a future generation of ground controllers, “but to err more than once is against flight operations division policy.”
Vanda (née Suddreth) and Christopher Kraft raised Kraft in Phoebus, Virginia. He was descended from Bavarian immigrants; his grandmother was a bartender whose business was destroyed by prohibition. His father’s service in the United States Army during World War I culminated in a nervous breakdown; after the war, Kraft Sr worked in the finance department of a local veterans’ hospital. His father was a “joiner,” according to his son, a member of the local American Legion and fire department. However, mental disease plagued Kraft Sr’s life. His son claimed that his father’s impact was more ethereal than substantive.
Chris attended the local high school and excelled in baseball and bugle playing. After being rejected by the United States Navy due to a childhood burns injury, he enrolled in a two-year wartime course at Virginia Polytechnic Institute (1942-44), finishing with a degree in aeronautical engineering. Kraft was admitted into the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (Naca) in Langley, Virginia in January 1945. Under Chuck Mathews’ supervision, he worked in the stability and control section, researching aircraft design issues.
After the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial Earth satellite, in 1957, the United States opted to incorporate Naca into Nasa as part of its reaction. Consequently, the following autumn, Kraft joined Nasa’s Space Task Group, where he was assigned to the flight operations division. Although jet pilots had scraped against space, no person had yet flown beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. The Soviet Union’s Yuri Gagarin, the world’s first spaceman, would not enter orbit until 1961. Thus, not only was David Bowie’s Major Tom absent from the growing mythos of space, but so was ground control. “Someone needs to be in charge of the flights while they’re in flight,” Mathews recalls Kraft telling him. “I want to be that person.” As a result, Kraft was appointed as Nasa’s first flight director.
His first taste of the role occurred on May 5, 1961, when Alan Shepard became the first American in space, completing a suborbital loop in the Mercury capsule Freedom 7. John Glenn soared into orbit for the third manned Mercury mission on 20 February 1962, marking a watershed point in Kraft’s partnership with Nasa. During the astronaut’s second orbit, there was an indication that the heat shield of the space capsule had become unlatched. “My gut instinct told me quickly it was a defective signal,” Kraft wrote, and he was correct. But, higher management overruled him on the proper answer. “I swore they’d play hell before overturning any judgment I made from now on.”
Thirteen weeks later, Scott Carpenter followed Glenn into orbit on a mission that is still fraught with controversy. Kraft believed the astronaut had disobeyed his orders, something Carpenter strongly rejected until his death in 2013. Kraft added, “I took an oath that Scott Carpenter would never fly again.” “No, he didn’t.” On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy declared that Americans will land on the moon and return before the end of the decade. Kraft, a red-blooded nationalist, said in his feisty book Flight: My Life in Mission Control (2001) that the space race was “deadly very serious,” and that “the survival of our American way of life was at stake.”
On the way to the moon, there would be three stages. Project Mercury, which ended in 1963, launched solo men into orbit, and the two-man Gemini programme (1962-66) tested lunar landing technology. Apollo’s mission was to land on the moon. Ed White became the first American to walk in space on June 3, 1965, and he had a great day. It required a stern “the mission director says get back in” command to get the astronaut to return to Gemini IV. Two months later, on August 27, while Gordon Cooper and Pete Conrad were setting a record for longest flight on Gemini V, Time magazine made Kraft the topic of that week’s cover piece. This did not endear him to all of his Apollo colleagues, but it did cement Kraft’s place in the American public mind.
Kraft was focused on his remoter duty as director of flight operations that December, with the first manned rendezvous of Gemini VII and VI-A in orbit. “The entire flight control team… was perhaps the best systems engineering organization in the world,” he wrote. Day-to-day ground control was entrusted to others, but Kraft had become a compelling figure within Nasa, and eventually “the embodiment of mission control,” as Charles Murray and Catherine Cox observed in Apollo: The Race to the Moon (1989).
After leaving Houston in 1982, Kraft worked as a consultant and chaired a commission that published a contentious study on the space shuttle in the 1990s, which was accused of downplaying safety concerns. He was awarded numerous honors, including the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal, four Nasa distinguished service awards, the National Space Trophy, and the Ambassador of Exploration Award. The Johnson Space Center’s mission control center was renamed the Christopher C Kraft Junior Control Center in 2011. Kraft married Betty Turnbull in 1950. She, as well as their children, Kristi-Anne and Gordon, survive him.