WASHINGTON – Behind America's last jump into orbit and the triumphant little step on the moon was the agile mind and guts of Chris Kraft, who made decisions in a fraction of a second that drove the nation to unimaginable heights.
Kraft, the creator and long-standing leader of NASA's Mission Control, died Monday in Houston, just two days after the 50th anniversary of what was his greatest achievement and that of NASA: the lunar landing at the Apollo 11. He was 95 years old.
Christopher Columbus Kraft Jr. never flew into space, but "held the success or failure of the American human spaceflight in his hands," Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, told The Associated Press in 2011.
Kraft founded Mission Control and created the work of a flight director, who then compared it to an orchestra conductor, and established how the flights would take place as the space race between the United States and the Soviets increased. The legendary engineer served as flight director for all single-person Mercury flights and seven of Gemini's two-person flights, helped design the Apollo missions that took 12 Americans to the Moon from 1969 to 1972 and more He later served as director of Johnson Space Center until 1982, overseeing the start of the space shuttle era.
Once, Armstrong called him "the man who was the & # 39; Control & # 39; in the Mission Control".
"From the moment the mission begins until the crew is safe aboard a recovery ship, I am in charge," Kraft wrote in his 2002 book "Flight: My life in control of the mission."
"No one can cancel me. … You can fire me when it's over. But while the mission is underway, I'm Flight. And the flight is God.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine called Kraft Monday "a national treasure," and said: "We lean on your shoulders as we enter the solar system and will always be with us on those trips."
Kraft was known as "the father of Mission Control" and in 2011 NASA returned the favor by naming the Houston building that houses the nerve center after Kraft.
"It's where the heart of the mission is," Kraft said in an April 2010 interview in AP. "It's where decisions are made every day, young and old … We realized that the people who had the moxie, who had the knowledge, were there and could make the decisions."
That's what Chris Kraft Mission Control was all about: intelligent people with knowledge that discuss options quickly and the flight director makes a quick and informed decision, said former Smithsonian Institution space historian Roger Launius. It is the place that held the collective breath when Neil Armstrong guided the Eagle moon vehicle on the Moon while the fuel ran out. And it's the place that improvised a last-minute rescue of Apollo 13, a dramatic setting that later turned anonymous engineers into heroes in a popular movie.
It soon became more than NASA's Mission Control. Hurricane forecast centers, city crisis centers and even the Russian space center are all inspired by the Mission Control that Kraft created, Launius said.
Before the first launch to put an American, John Glenn, in orbit, a reporter asked Kraft about the odds of success and he replied: "If I thought about the odds, we would never go to the platform."
“It was a wonderful life. "I can't think of anything an aeronautical engineer would get more than what we were asked to do in the space program, in the 60s," Kraft said on the NASA website that marks the agency's 50th anniversary in 2008.
"In the early days of Mercury in Cape Canaveral, Florida, before Mission Control moved to Houston in 1965, there were no computer screens," all I had were grease pencils, "Kraft recalled. The average age of Flight control team was 26 years old; Kraft was 38 years old.
"We didn't know a damn thing about putting a man in space," Kraft wrote in his autobiography. "We had no idea how much it should or would cost. And, at best, we were trained engineers to do it, not business experts trained to manage."
NASA followed the Soviet space program and suffered many failed launches in the first few days before manned flights began in 1961. Later, Kraft recalled thinking that President John F. Kennedy "had lost his mind" when in May 1961 set a manned goal. trip to the moon "before this decade has come out".
"We had a total of 15 minutes of experience in manned space flights, we had not yet flown Mercury in orbit and here is a guy who tells me that we are going to fly to the moon." Doing it was one thing, but doing it in this decade was too much risky for me, "Kraft told AP in 1989.
"Frankly, it scared me a lot," he said at a 2009 conference at the Smithsonian.
One of the most dramatic moments occurred during Scott Carpenter's mission in May 1962 as the second American to orbit the Earth. The carpenter landed 288 miles from the target due to low fuel level and other problems. He was finally found safely floating in his liferaft. Kraft blamed Carpenter for making bad decisions. Tom Wolfe's book, "The Right Stuff," said that angry Kraft swore that Carpenter "will never fly again for me." But Carpenter said he did the best he could when the machinery malfunctioned.
After Gemini flights for two men, Kraft advanced in NASA management to handle manned space flights and was surprised by the Apollo 1 training fire that killed three astronauts.
Gene Kranz, who would later become NASA's flight director for the Apollo mission that took the man to the moon, said Kraft did not impress him as a leader at first. But Kranz finally saw Kraft as a judo instructor, which allowed his student to grow in skills and then step aside.
“Chris Kraft was a pioneer in Mission Control and fought the battles in Mercury and Gemini, serving as the flight director's role model. He demonstrated the need for real-time leadership, "Kranz wrote in his book," Failure is not an option: control of Mercury's mission to Apollo 13 and beyond. "
Born in 1924, Kraft grew up in Phoebus, Virginia, now part of Hampton, about 75 miles southeast of Richmond. In his autobiography, Kraft said with the name of Christopher Columbus Kraft Jr., "part of the direction of my life was resolved from the beginning."
After graduating from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 1944, Kraft took a job with the aircraft manufacturer Chance Vought to build fighter jets, but quickly realized that it was not for him. He returned to Virginia, where he accepted a job on the National Aeronautics Advisory Committee, not far from Phoebus.
Kraft's first job was to find out what happens to airplanes as they approach the speed of sound.
After his retirement, Kraft served as an aerospace consultant and was chairman of a panel in the mid-1990s in search of a cheaper way to administer the ferry program.
Later, when the space shuttle program was phased out after 30 years, Kraft criticized the stupid decision to remove the shuttles, what he called "the safest machines ever built."
Kraft said he considered himself lucky to be part of the team that sent the Americans into space and called it a sad day when the shuttles stopped flying.
“The people of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo are flowers on the moon. Their spirits will live there forever, "he wrote." I was part of that crowd, and then part of the leadership that opened the space trip to human beings. We launched a narrow flash of light throughout the history of our nation. I was there in The best case ".
Kraft and his wife, Betty Anne, were married in 1950. They had a son, Gordon and a daughter, Kristi-Anne.