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Remembering Chris Kraft: Pioneer of Mission Control

Posted on Wed, July 24, 2019
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Chris Kraft, 1924 - 2019

Christopher Columbus Kraft Jr. is an appropriate name for a pioneering space explorer. Kraft did not explore space himself, but he made it possible for American astronauts to do so, from Mercury to the Space Shuttle. He was the primary inventor of the mission control concept, and implemented it during Project Mercury and after, including training a cadre of controllers and creating a worldwide tracking network. He died on July 22, 2019, at age 95, just two days after the 50th anniversary of the historic Apollo 11 landing on the Moon. One hopes that he was able to experience that milestone.

Chris Kraft was born in 1924 in tidewater Virginia, not far from the Langley Memorial Laboratory of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), NASA’s precursor. Denied a Navy enlistment because of a childhood hand injury, he graduated from Virginia Tech aeronautical engineering in 1944, after a compressed wartime program. He took a job at Langley in aerodynamic research under Bob Gilruth, who would become his mentor and boss in the pioneering days of the space program. 

In summer 1958, even before NACA became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Gilruth pulled together an engineering group to develop a plan to put a human in space before the Soviet Union. Soon called the Space Task Group (STG), it would be responsible for Project Mercury. He asked Kraft to investigate what it would take to implement the core mission, a three-orbit flight of an astronaut. While NACA had had some operations experience with experimental X-planes in California, those flights lasted only minutes. An orbiting astronaut would be circling the world once every 90 minutes and needed a way to communicate with, and receive instructions from, the team on the ground. Moreover, many aspects of the flight were automated, like the launch, and generated far more information than the astronauts could deal with on their own. Kraft imagined a central Mercury Control linked to a string of tracking stations around the globe. Located at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, not far from the launch pads, it got its first test when NASA began throwing Mercury capsules on suborbital trajectories using Army Redstone rockets in late 1960 and early 1961. Three weeks after the Soviets scored another frustrating first, orbiting Yuri Gagarin, Kraft sat in the flight director’s chair on May 5, 1961, as Alan Shepard became the first American in space. Kraft remembers shaking in his chair as launch time approached—it was the first time a human life was at risk. But he was cool and collected as the brief fifteen-minute suborbital trip progressed perfectly.

Walter C. Williams, Flight Operations Director; and Chris Kraft, Chief of the Flight Operations Division, MSC, are shown in the Mercury Control Center, Cape Canaveral, Florida, as the decision to go for the full 22 orbits is made for the Mercury Atlas 9 (MA-9) mission.

The real test of his concept came with the orbital flights, first with an automated spacecraft, then with a chimp in the cockpit, and finally with an astronaut, John Glenn. The full tracking network was exercised for the first time, and he had to deal with real-time technical problems with the spacecraft. In November 1961, he decided to bring the chimp Enos down after two orbits, one less than planned, because of attitude control failures. During Glenn’s flight on February 20, 1962, a signal light indicated that the heatshield might be loose. Kraft became convinced it was a false signal, but was overruled by cautious superiors. Glenn was told to keep his retrorocket package on after it was fired to drop him out of orbit, in the hope that it might hold the heatshield in place if the latter was loose. It was not, and leaving the package on created other dangers. After Glenn’s successful return, Kraft implemented the rule that the flight director’s powers were absolute during the mission. As conductor of the mission control orchestra, he was final arbiter of all decisions. Kraft was a taskmaster and held all his controllers to a rigorous standard, almost singlehandedly creating the culture of mission control. He mentored and supported many young engineers, but if you crossed him, you were finished. The same happened to a few astronauts who he felt had been insubordinate in flight. They never flew again.

In September 1961, Gilruth’s STG became the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) and began relocating from Hampton, Virginia, to Houston, Texas, as part of NASA’s massive Apollo expansion. Even as Kraft continued as flight director on every Mercury mission, he helped design the new Mission Control Center in Texas, now named after him. The second two-astronaut mission, Gemini IV in June 1965, became the first controlled from there. As missions began lasting longer than a day, he made key subordinates into flight directors on other shifts, notably John Hodge, Eugene Kranz, and Glynn Lunney. At the end of 1965, after the successful Gemini VI and VII rendezvous, he exited the flight director’s chair permanently and devoted himself to his job as the head of flight operations. But he was almost always in the managers consoles in the back row during crucial moments. There Chris Kraft experienced via radio the horrifying death of the three Apollo 1 astronauts in a launch pad fire in January 1967, as well as the triumphs and trials of the Apollo missions to the Moon. 

Chris Kraft briefs President Ronald Reagan in the Mission Operations Control Room at Johnson Space Center in 1981.

In 1968, Kraft became the deputy director of MSC, and in late 1972, when Gilruth retired, the director of what was soon became the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center. He commanded it until 1982, seeing it through Skylab, the Apollo-Soyuz mission, the fallow years of low budgets and no flights, and the first launches of the Space Shuttle. In retirement he remained very active on aerospace advisory, safety, and corporate boards. He will always be remembered as a seminal figure in the creation of the U.S. human spaceflight program and as a  key NASA manager in Apollo’s lunar triumph. 

Michael J. Neufeld is a senior curator in the Museum’s Space History Department, where he is responsible for rockets and missiles and for the Mercury and Gemini spacecraft. He is lead curator for the exhibition Destination Moon--both its touring and permanent versions.