Christopher C. Kraft, well-known Virginia Tech alum and one of NASA’s first employees, has died at 95 in Houston, Texas. The cause of his death is unknown. He died just two days after the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
Kraft served as flight director for all Mercury programs and Gemini programs until Gemini 7, when he began preparing for the Apollo program. He served many mission control positions and as Johnson Space Center director until his retirement from NASA in 1982.
“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 NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine in his statement on Kraft’s passing. “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. From that home base, America’s achievements in space were heard across the globe, and our astronauts in space were anchored to home even as they accomplished unprecedented feats.”
He entered Virginia Tech in 1941 and completed his aeronautical engineering degree in just two years. He was also a member of the Corps of Cadets and, according to his NASA biography, credits the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets “for the foundation of his leadership training that would later characterize his personality in his NASA career.”
After he graduated, Kraft became an engineer with Chance Vought in Connecticut and then joined the NACA Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory where his research and engineering contributions were an integral part of their aircraft projects.
In 1958, the U.S. established NASA, which converged with NACA along with the Langley Research Center. After joining the Space Task Group in November of that year, Kraft became one of the original 35 engineers to be a part of Project Mercury, which was the U.S.’ first human spaceflight program.
His idea for creating the Mission Control Center was one of his greatest contributions in the spaceflight field. He also conceptualized the concept of a flight director, a position that he ended up serving for all six of the Mercury missions, including John Glenn’s Mercury-Atlas 6 flight.
Kraft had once compared his work as a flight director to a conductor’s work and 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.”
President John F. Kennedy awarded Kraft the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal at the end of the Mercury program. He became the head of missions again when the Gemini program began and served as flight director.
After Gemini 7, Kraft stepped back and then became a part of planning the Apollo program. He became head of missions during the program, and then served as Johnson Space Center director from 1972 until his retirement in 1982.
However, his work did not stop after his retirement. He consulted for various companies, including IBM, and published his autobiography, “Flight: My Life in Mission Control” in 2001.
In 2011, NASA named its Building 30 Mission Control Center at the Johnson Space Center “Christopher C. Kraft Jr. Mission Control Center.”
“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,” Bridenstine said in his statement. “We stand on his shoulders as we reach deeper into the solar system, and he will always be with us on those journeys.”