Kraft, Christopher

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Christopher Kraft

Born February 28, 1924 (Phoebus, Virginia)

American flight director for National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

"With a man on the end of a rocket, if you're not shaking, you don't understand the problem."

Christopher Kraft played a significant role in the development of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). He was recruited by NASA in 1958, at a crucial time in U.S. history. In 1957 the former Soviet Union surprised the Americans and the rest of the world by launching the Sputnik 1 satellite (an object that orbits in space) to study the atmosphere of Earth. Since the end of World War II (1939–45), the United States and the Soviet Union had been engaged in a period of hostile relations known as the Cold War (1945–91). Not only were the two powers involved in an arms race for military superiority, but they were also competing for dominance in space. Sputnik 1 was therefore a sign that the Soviet Union was moving ahead in the Cold War. The United States immediately responded by creating NASA, which integrated all U.S. space research agencies and established an astronaut training program. Kraft's career as NASA flight director spanned twenty-four years, encompassing the major achievements of American manned space exploration.

Joins NASA

Christopher Columbus Kraft Jr. was born in Phoebus, Virginia, on February 28, 1924, the son of Christopher Columbus and Vanda Suddreth Kraft. In 1944 he received a degree in aeronautical engineering from Virginia Polytechnic Institute. The following year he took a job conducting flight tests for new military airplanes at the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics at Langley Field, Virginia. In 1950 he married Betty Ann Turn-bull, with whom he later had a son and a daughter. Kraft joined NASA in 1958 as a member of the Space Task Group, which was developing Project Mercury. The first stage of the U.S. manned space program, Project Mercury developed the basic technology for manned space flight and investigated a human's ability to survive and perform in space. Kraft remained in Langley until 1962, when he moved with the Space Task Group to Houston, Texas.

Kraft was named flight director for the Mercury missions. He was also put in charge of designing mission control facilities at the Manned Spacecraft Center (now Johnson Space Center) in Houston. The position of flight director was a new concept at the time. Although preparing for a space flight seemed fairly basic, the job turned out to be extremely challenging. Kraft had to develop a system to coordinate hundreds of pieces of equipment for the spacecraft; for the launch pad in Cape Canaveral, Florida; and for the facilities at the ground control center in Houston and at numerous other NASA control sites around the world. The nature of his job was also controversial, because he was in charge of all aspects of a mission.

Directs Mercury flights

The first Mercury flight was made by astronaut Alan Shepard (1923–1998; see box in John Glenn entry) on May 5, 1961, from Cape Canaveral. Forty years later Kraft recalled his own experience on that day. In an interview with Barbara Bogave on Fresh Air, a National Public Radio program, he revealed that he was nervous. As he prepared to announce the countdown for the launch of Shepard's space capsule, Kraft told Bogave, he was shaking so hard that he could not even see his microphone. "With a man on the end of a rocket," he explained, "if you're not shaking, you don't understand the problem." Kraft managed to announce the countdown, and he continued to do so for the next twenty-one years. His voice was identified with U.S. space flights in the minds of many Americans who grew up during the early days of manned space flight.

The Mercury flight was a success, and Shepard became the first American in space. He piloted the Mercury space capsule 115 miles (185 kilometers) above Earth's surface and 302 miles (486 kilometers) across the Atlantic Ocean. Although the trip lasted for only about fifteen minutes, his journey was almost technically perfect. Shepard was not the first human in space, however: Less than a month earlier, on April 12, Soviet cosmonaut (astronaut) Yuri Gagarin (1934–1968; see entry) had made a nearly complete orbit of Earth aboard the spacecraft Vostok. Gagarin's flight, which had been surrounded by intense secrecy, represented yet another technical triumph for the Soviet Union. Americans saw this event as a potentially fatal blow to the prestige of the United States.

"… It Will Be an Entire Nation."

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy gave a speech to a joint session of the U.S. Congress in which he announced that the United States would put a man on the Moon. In the following excerpt from the speech, available on the John F. Kennedy Libary and Museum Web site, Kennedy asks for the nation's commitment to this goal:

First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish. We propose to accelerate the development of the appropriate lunar space craft. We propose to develop alternate liquid and solid fuel boosters [rockets], much larger than any now being developed, until certain which is superior. We propose additional funds for other engine development and for unmanned explorations—explorations which are particularly important for one purpose which this nation will never overlook: the survival of the man who first makes this daring

flight. But in a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon—if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.

Immediately confronting the Soviet challenge, on May 25 President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63) made a momentous speech before a joint session of the U.S. Congress. He announced that the United States would put a man on the Moon within the next ten years (see box on page 131). Kennedy's vision captured the imagination of the American people, and it greatly expanded the mission of NASA. Kraft had been so focused on the Mercury goal of getting a man into orbit that he was completely surprised by the president's commitment to go to the Moon. "Frankly, it was beyond my comprehension," he admitted in the interview with Bogave.

Recalls Glenn flight

Under pressure to match the Russian feat as soon as possible, NASA chose John Glenn (1921–; see entry) to be the first American to orbit Earth. On February 20, 1962, Glenn successfully made three orbits aboard the Friendship 7. As Glenn was preparing to land, Kraft and his ground control crew received a signal that the heat shield (a panel that protects the capsule from intense heat) might not be secured to the Friendship 7. Many engineers at ground control felt that Glenn should change the original plan of releasing the retrorocket apparatus, a rocket attached to the capsule that is used to slow its descent to Earth. Instead, they argued, the rocket would be kept in place, strapped over the heat shield, to keep the shield from coming loose. Glenn was instructed to leave the rocket on the capsule, then he guided the Friendship 7 manually back to Earth. The signal was later determined to be a false alarm.

Kraft recalled the heat-shield incident during an interview with MSNBC television correspondent Alan Boyle in 1998. Kraft contended that the event had been made to seem "a lot more dramatic than it was." He knew the heat shield was not loose, and he was more concerned about leaving the retrorocket in place. As a result of this experience Kraft decided that "from then on I was going to make my own … decisions about those kinds of things and not worry too much about what other people thought."

In 1964 NASA initiated Project Gemini, and Kraft served as flight director for many of the missions. The Gemini program provided astronauts with experience in returning to Earth from space as well as successfully linking space vehicles and "walking" in space. Gemini also involved the launching of a series of unmanned satellites, which would gain information about the Moon and its surface to determine whether humans could survive there. Gemini was the transition between Mercury's short flights and the Apollo Project, which would safely land a man on the Moon.

Helps land men on Moon

Kraft was appointed chief of flight operations for the Apollo Project. The program's first mission, Apollo 1 (see entry) ended tragically on January 27, 1967, when three astronauts died in a launch-pad fire in their module. (Two other tragedies later struck NASA programs. In 1986 the space shuttle Challenger [see entry] exploded shortly after takeoff. [A space shuttle is a craft that transports people and cargo between Earth and space.] In 2003 the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated after it reentered Earth's atmosphere [see box in Challenger Crew entry].) Kraft was wearing a headset that transmitted the horrifying sounds of the last moments of the astronauts—Gus Grissom (1926–1967), Edward White (1930–1967), and Roger Chaffee (1935–1967). The cause of the fire was determined to be an electrical short circuit near Grissom's seat. As a result of the accident the program was temporarily delayed while safety precautions were reviewed. The next five Apollo missions were unmanned flights that tested the safety of the equipment. The first manned flight was Apollo 7 (October 1968) and the last was Apollo 17 (December 1972). The most famous was Apollo 11, which successfully landed Neil Armstrong (1930–; see entry) and Buzz Aldrin (1930–; see entry) on the Moon.

Kraft told Boyle that his favorite mission was Apollo 8 because "the firsts associated with that were unbelievable." The first Moon flight in history, Apollo 8 received considerable public attention, especially because it took place during the Christmas season. The spacecraft was launched on December 21, 1968, from Cape Kennedy (now Cape Canaveral), with Frank Borman (1928–), James Lovell (1928–), and William Anders (1933–) onboard. As the astronauts entered lunar orbit on December 24, they moved to the far side of the Moon, where they were beyond voice contact with Earth. Starting at 7:00 p.m., after they regained contact, they broadcast live pictures from the Moon's surface. That night the crew members read verses one through ten from Genesis, the first book in the Old Testament of the Bible (the holy book of the Jewish and Christian religions). After making ten orbits around the Moon, Apollo 8 headed back to Earth on Christmas morning, December 25. During the mission Borman, Lovell, and Anders became the first humans to leave Earth's orbit, the first to orbit another world, and the first to reenter Earth's orbit from outer space.

During a conversation with American History writer Mark Wolverton in 2001, Kraft revealed that NASA officials had opposed putting television cameras on the Apollo flights. "They thought we could do without it," Kraft recalled, "that the motion picture and still cameras we took along would be sufficient and that it wasn't worth the weight [on the space craft]." He eventually succeeded in persuading NASA to install cameras, thus making it possible for the world to witness such historic moments as Armstrong's first step onto the surface of the Moon. Small color television cameras were not yet available, so the images were in black and white. "It was a lousy picture," Kraft said, "but better than nothing."

Advocates future exploration

After Apollo 17 the United States did not undertake any other Moon flights. Instead, NASA concentrated its efforts on space shuttle missions in conjunction with Spacelab and the International Space Station (ISS; see entry). A space shuttle is a craft that transports people and cargo between Earth and outer space. Spacelab is an orbiting research laboratory operated by the United States. The International Space Station is an orbiting research laboratory operated by the United States and other nations.

Following the Apollo missions, Kraft was promoted to director of the Johnson Space Center, the position he held until his retirement in 1982. Kraft wrote about his NASA experiences in Flight: My Life in Mission Control. Discussing the book with Bogave, Kraft said he had been content not to travel into space himself: "I never wanted to go. I was on every flight." In the interview with Wolverton, Kraft expressed his disappointment at the lack of government and public interest in continuing lunar exploration after Project Apollo. "I think we ought to set the goal of going back to the moon and to Mars," he said. NASA should "lay out the steps which would get us a permanent base on the back side of the moon," he continued. "That would lead to the tools to live on Mars." Kraft's hopes seemed closer to becoming a reality in January 2004. Speaking at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., President George W. Bush (1946–; served 2001–) announced that he would authorize a new program for exploration of the Moon and Mars.

For More Information


Kraft, Christopher. Flight: My Life in Mission Control. New York: Dutton, 2001.


Wolverton, Mark. "Talking with: Chris Kraft." American History (August 2000): p. 66.

Web Sites

Bogave, Barbara. Interview with Chris Kraft. Fresh Air (March 5, 2001). (accessed on June 29, 2004).

Boyle, Alan. "Christopher Kraft: The Maestro of Mission Control." (accessed on June 29, 2004).

"Christopher Kraft." Encyclopedia Astronautica. (accessed on June 29, 2004).

Kennedy, John F. Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs. John F. Kennedy Library and Museum. (accessed on July 2, 2004).

Kraft, Christopher. "The Kraft Report on Space Shuttle Operations" (March 15, 1995). NASA Watch. (accessed on June 29, 2004).

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