In 1956, a year before anyone shot anything into space, Chris Kraft was toiling away at the federal government’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, dealing with problems of turbulence as military jets approached the speed of sound.
He also had an ulcer.
The work was interesting, but Kraft found it stressful. Much of it dealt with theory and that wasn’t his strong suit as an engineer. He was 32. He started thinking about whether he should change careers.
The Russians fixed that with a tiny beeping ball named Sputnik.
Before there were the original seven Mercury astronauts, there were the original 35 government engineers assigned to figure out a man-in-space program. One of those original 35 was Kraft, ulcer and all. If dealing with airplane turbulence was theoretical, this was even more so. No one had ever flown in space before. Was it even possible? The head of his task group casually came to Kraft one day: “Chris, you come up with a basic mission plan. You know, the bottom-line stuff on how we fly a man from a launch pad into space and back again. It would be good if you kept him alive.”
And that is how Christopher Columbus Kraft Jr. — the full name seems appropriate —became one of the people who not only put people in space, but also put them on the moon — and got them all back alive. When Kraft passed away Monday at age 95, he was hailed as “a national treasure” by NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine. He was routinely described as a “key architect” of the nation’s early space program and a “space pioneer.” “A giant has left us,” said Wayne Hale, a former manager of the space shuttle program.
All that is true: Kraft was NASA’s first flight director, in charge during all seven of the one-man Mercury flights and seven of the 10 two-man Gemini flights. He designed Mission Control and eventually was director of the Johnson Space Center. Everything that happened in those days — from launching chimpanzees on test flights to the Apollo 11 astronauts walking on the moon to the improvised rescue of the stricken Apollo 13 to the first space shuttle flights — Kraft had a hand in. In 1965, Kraft was so much the face of NASA that Time magazine put him on the cover. “Conductor in a Command Post,” Time called him.
All Americans can share in the pride of Kraft’s story. Virginians can share a little bit more. Kraft was born in Virginia, educated in Virginia, and first worked in Virginia before his career took him eventually to the Houston of “Houston, we have a problem” fame. The grandson of German immigrants, Kraft grew up in Phoebus (part of modern-day Hampton), in a house next to the town dump. From those humble beginnings, Kraft stood out. As a boy he played in an American Legion drum-and-bugle corps and was named a state champion bugler. He also starred on the baseball field. The military rejected him during World War II because of a childhood injury to his hand, although that hand didn’t stop him from being a catcher on Virginia Tech’s baseball team — and batting an eye-popping .340. In 1944, Kraft became one of the first Tech graduates with a degree in aeronautical engineering. Fourteen years later, he was being asked to figure out how to launch people into space.
Today, human spaceflight still isn’t routine, but it no longer marvels us the way it did in the ’60s. We know it can be done. We didn’t know that back then. “We didn’t know a damn thing about putting a man into space,” Kraft wrote in his 2001 autobiography. “We had no idea how much it should or would cost. And at best, we were engineers trained to do, not business experts trained to manage.” In 1961, the Russians were checking off one space feat after another while the United States was not. But President Kennedy boldly declared that America would be the first to put a man on the moon — and would do it “before this decade is out.”
Kraft thought that the president “had lost his mind.” As someone who would have to carry out that directive, Kraft was “paralyzed with shock.”
“We had a total of 15 minutes of manned spaceflight experience; we hadn’t flown Mercury in orbit yet, and here’s a guy telling me we’re going to fly to the moon,” Kraft once told the Associated Press. “Doing it was one thing, but doing it in this decade was to me too risky.” He later told a lecture audience at The Smithsonian: “Frankly, it scared the hell out of me.” Yet we did it anyway, and Kraft was there the whole way. More perspective: There weren’t really computers then the way we know them now. “All you had was grease pencils,” Kraft once recalled. And a lot of moxie.
Kraft was not someone to be crossed. The Mercury astronauts may have had “the right stuff” but Kraft was the one who decided when they had the wrong stuff. Unhappy with Scott Carpenter’s performance during his flight, Kraft vowed that the astronaut would never fly in space again. And he didn’t. Neil Armstrong once described Kraft as “the control in Mission Control.” Kraft’s call sign was “Flight,” which became the title of his autobiography. “From the moment the mission starts until the moment the crew is safe on board a recovery ship, I’m in charge,” Kraft wrote. “No one can overrule me. . . They can fire me after it’s over. But while the mission is underway, I’m Flight. And Flight is God.”
Sometimes, though, even God, err, Flight, was afraid. When Alan Shepard was strapped into a Mercury capsule atop a Redstone rocket, about to become the first American launched into space, Kraft began shaking so much he couldn’t see the microphone attached to his headset. “I leaned my hands on my console and forced myself to settle down. It was tough,” he later wrote. “A man was sitting out there on top of a rocket . . . the potential for disaster was never more than a moment away.”
There were other moments just as terrifying. In 1967, Kraft was listening in on a headset to what was supposed to be a routine test of the Apollo 1 spacecraft — when a fire broke out and killed all three astronauts. When an oxygen tank ruptured on Apollo 13 as it was on its way to the moon, it was Kraft who chaired the meeting of NASA engineers who figured out how to get the astronauts back.
To the end, Kraft was a loyal Virginia Tech alum (Kraft Way is named after him) and a baseball fan who cheered on the Houston Astros. Kraft’s legacy is a human footprint on the moon. But he saw himself as very much part of the earth. His final wish was for his ashes to be spread on Mill Creek near his boyhood home in Hampton.