By Mary Alys Cherry
Those were the words of NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstein as he announced the passing of the legendary Chris Kraft, who was not only NASA’s first flight director, but a man who played a key role in helping build the Johnson Space Center and create the concept of Mission Control, which is housed in the building aptly named the Christopher C. Kraft Jr. Mission Control Center.
Kraft died Monday, July 22, just two days after America celebrated the 50th anniversary of the landing on the moon, which he helped direct. He was 95.
“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,” Bridenstein said. His 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.
“Chris was flight director at some of the most iconic moments of space history, as humans first orbited the Earth and stepped outside of an orbiting spacecraft. For his work, he was awarded the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal by President John F. Kennedy. Chris later led the Johnson Space Center, known then as the Manned Spacecraft Center, as our human exploration work reached for new heights following the Apollo Program. We stand on his shoulders as we reach deeper into the solar system, and he will always be with us on those journeys.”
Christopher Columbus Kraft Jr. 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.
During the Apollo program, he became the director of Flight Operations, responsible for all human spaceflight mission planning, training and execution. After serving as deputy director of the center for three years, he was named JSC director in January 1972 – a post he held 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 Hampton, Va. After high school, he enrolled at Virginia Polytechnic Institute (VPI, now Virginia Tech) and enrolled in mechanical engineering in 1941 but later decided to major in aeronautical engineering. In 1944, he graduated with one of the first degrees in that field awarded by the Institute and was hired by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the predecessor organization to NASA. He worked for over a decade in aeronautical research before being asked in 1958, when NASA was formed, to join the Space Task Group, a small team entrusted with the responsibility of putting America’s first man in space.
Kraft was invited by Robert Gilruth to become a part of a new group that was working on the problems of putting a man into orbit. Without much hesitation, he accepted the offer. When the Space Task Group was officially formed on Nov. 5, Kraft became one of the original 35 engineers to be assigned to Project Mercury, America’s man-in-space program.
As a member of the Space Task Group, Kraft was assigned to the flight operations division, which made plans and arrangements for the operation of the Mercury spacecraft during flight and for the control and monitoring of missions from the ground.
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, including the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal; four NASA Distinguished Service Medals; the Distinguished Alumnus Citation from Virginia Tech, in 1965; 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.”
Chris Kraft married his high school sweetheart, Betty Anne Turnbull, in 1950. They have a son and a daughter, Gordon and Kristi-Anne.