Chris Kraft, Architect Of NASA's Mission Control, Dies At Age Of 95

Jul 23, 2019
Originally published on July 23, 2019 8:42 am
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One of the people who helped make the moon landing possible died on Monday, just two days after the nation celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission. Chris Kraft helped shape NASA's space program as the agency's first flight director, and he put his stamp on everything from the Mercury program to the space shuttle. He was 95 years old. NPR's Russell Lewis has this remembrance.

RUSSELL LEWIS, BYLINE: Anyone who has watched a rocket launch, marveled at the moon landings or seen the space stations streak across the darkened night sky can thank Chris Kraft.

ANDREW CHAIKIN: Chris Kraft really was the architect of Mission Control.

LEWIS: That's Andrew Chaikin, who has written extensively about the space program. He says one person is synonymous with NASA, and it's Chris Kraft, one of NASA's earliest employees who directed some of the most important missions in the agency's history.


ALAN SHEPARD: Three, two, one.

LEWIS: This is from NASA's first manned flight, Alan Shepard aboard Freedom 7 in 1961. It was a short, 15-minute suborbital trip. In this recording, Chris Kraft talks to his fellow controllers just after liftoff.


CHRIS KRAFT: Time, two-five. Altitude two, 2,000 feet. Trajectory, OK.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: That's a familiar voice. One-and-a-half G.



KRAFT: Oxygen purge is starting.

LEWIS: In a 2015 NPR interview, Kraft remembered that launch. He said he might have sounded cool, calm and collected...


KRAFT: But I was shaking like a leaf. (Laughter). I wasn't too bad after the first one, but that first one was something else.

LEWIS: During the 1960s, NASA was a place full of ideas and energy as the agency rushed to meet the end-of-decade challenge to land humans on the moon. The organization took risks and succeeded in large part because of Chris Kraft. He joined NASA not long after it was created in 1958 and helped design a space program from scratch. It was a mighty undertaking - so many things he had to think through, like developing a communication system to speak to the crew every 15 minutes.


KRAFT: What do I have to do to do that? Well, I had to build a whole damn worldwide network, which had never been done before. That in itself (laughter) was quite a job.

LEWIS: In addition to the technical, he had to put together his team, dozens of controllers who monitored the astronauts, their spacecraft, anything to do with the mission. And this is perhaps what Chris Kraft was best known for.


KRAFT: When I gave them the job, I said, it's your job to now take this on and get it done. But I'm not going to stand behind you and push you. You come up with your ideas on how to do it.

LEWIS: His leadership was tested after the Apollo 1 launch pad fire in 1967. Three astronauts died during a countdown rehearsal. Kraft said he never got over the accident and wrestled with whether the rush to the moon ultimately killed the crew.


KRAFT: We allowed poor workmanship to happen. And that was unforgivable, frankly. And we knew it was happening. We weren't willing to stop the wheels to fix it.

LEWIS: Still, he was proud of what he was able to accomplish.


KRAFT: We need to have that curiosity. We need to have that innate feeling of be ready, be prepared. It pays off in success.

LEWIS: Many of Kraft's original ideas remain in use today. In fact, Mission Control Center in Houston is named after him. Chris Kraft never once saw a launch with his own eyes. He was either working the mission or, later in life, watching from home on television. Russell Lewis, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.