Christoper Columbus Kraft Jr., NASA’s first flight director, pioneer of Mission Control, and a key figure in the spaceflight program died on Monday at the age of 95. The sad news comes as NASA celebrates the 50th Anniversary of the time when humans first stepped on the moon.
NASA sent out a tweet earlier this morning saying: “Today, we remember the life and legacy of Chris Kraft who joined our Space Task Group in 1958 as our first flight director with responsibilities that immersed him in mission procedures and challenging operational issues.”
Furthermore, the space agency referred to Kraft as a “legend” due to his significant contributions in US space exploration and his display of excellent leadership in the space program that continues to perpetuate in NASA’s facilities.
“It was, ‘I, the flight director, am in charge. Not you the astronaut, and not the head of NASA. You come to me,’” said author Michael Cassutt, who writes about the space program. “Much of the NASA culture as we envision it really derives from Chris Kraft.”
Kraft died July 22, two days after the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
Apart from being the flight director behind the early Mercury and Gemini space missions — which were the first crewed flight to space — he was also the background visionary behind the momentous Apollo space mission that launched John Glenn and Neil Armstrong, among others to the moon.
Kraft devised, implemented, and managed NASA’s earliest efforts to usher astronauts into space and to bring them safely—if not always— back to Earth.
“Once comparing his complex work as a flight director to a conductor’s, Kraft said, ‘The conductor can’t play all the instruments–he may not even be able to play any one of them. But, he knows when the first violin should be playing, and he knows when the trumpets should be loud or soft, and when the drummer should be drumming. He mixes all this up and out comes music. That’s what we do here,'” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.
Furthermore, Bridenstine called Kraft a “national treasure” and this death is a loss to the nation.
“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,” said Bridenstine in a NASA press release.
“Chris’ 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.”
Other than his major contributions in space flight, Kraft was also considered as the “architect” of the iconic Houston Mission Control center that popularized the famous lines of “Houston, we have a problem” and “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle had landed,” when Neil Armstrong finally made the first step on the moon.
This month, NASA reopened the Apollo Mission Control Center in the Johnson Space Center to the public along with $5 million worth of renovations.
Now, the Mission Control Center at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston is named in Kraft’s honor.
Kraft was born in Phoebus, Virginia on Feb. 28, 1924. He graduated from Virginia Tech in 1944, majoring in aeronautical engineering and joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in 1945.
Kraft joined NASA in the 1940s as an engineer and became an omnipresent leader during the space agency’s heyday in the 1960s, a detail-oriented administrator who said he was “paralyzed with shock” on the day in 1961 when President John F. Kennedy declared the national priority of sending Americans to the moon by the end of the decade.
He took over as director in 1972 and held the post until 1982, overseeing the center through the initial development of the space shuttle. He retired from NASA in 1982 but remained active as a consultant and NASA adviser.
Since retirement, he consulted for many companies including IBM, and published his autobiography, a New York Times bestseller, “Flight: My Life in Mission Control.” He received many awards and honors for his work, including the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal and four NASA Distinguished Service Medals.
“We stand on his shoulders as we reach deeper into the solar system, and he will always be with us on those journeys,” said Bridenstine.