Friday 20 September 2019

Obituary: Christopher Kraft

Creator of Nasa's Mission Control who brought the Apollo astronauts back to Earth

In control: Chris Kraft
In control: Chris Kraft

Christopher Kraft, who has died aged 95, was an aeronautical engineer and key leader within Nasa during its first manned space flights, and later went on to direct the first flights to the Moon. He died on July 22, two days after the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 making humanity's first landing on another world.

Kraft devised the mission control concept, based in Houston, Texas. He also established the management system that put command of space missions firmly in the hands of Nasa flight directors on the ground, rather than the astronauts in space.

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Comparing his complex work as flight director to an orchestral conductor, Kraft said: "The conductor can't play all the instruments - he may not even be able to play any of them. But he knows when the first violin should be playing, 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."

The key to this approach was reliable and constant telecommunications with Earth. This enabled clear voice links, and in times of danger technicians at their consoles could assess every aspect of the spacecraft's performance from a constant stream of data and make highly informed decisions about the best course of action.

As Neil Armstrong piloted his craft towards the first Moon landing, it was Kraft's team in Mission Control who advised the astronaut that he could ignore computer alarms and continue the descent. A year later, when Apollo 13 was crippled by an explosion en route to the Moon, it was the Mission Control system and the back rooms full of specialists which helped steer the damaged craft back to Earth.

Kraft's space career started with his work on America's Mercury and Gemini programmes, which in the early years trailed the achievements of the USSR. Under his direction, Alan Shepard accomplished the short sub-orbital hop that was the first American manned space flight, followed by John Glenn's orbital mission that finally emulated the feat of the Russian cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin. As Kraft's team steadily gained confidence and experience, they eventually overtook their Cold War enemy.

Kraft was familiar as the patient and genial face of Nasa, explaining space missions to the world's press. In the closed world of Mission Control, however, he could be an unsmiling, authoritarian taskmaster. Listening through headphones to every critical conversation, and watching the readings on his console while smoking a large cigar, Kraft made many hard decisions at the most perilous moments of space flight.

The careers of astronauts who defied his instructions - including the Mercury veteran Scott Carpenter and the three-man crew of Apollo 7, who frequently argued with Mission Control - invariably suffered. None of them flew in space again.

Christopher Columbus Kraft Jr was born on February 28, 1924 at Phoebus, Virginia. Generally known as Chris, Kraft was educated in his home state, commencing his studies at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 1941. He graduated in aeronautical engineering in 1944 after being deemed unfit for military service due to a hand badly burned in a childhood accident.

In 1945 he joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (Naca), Nasa's predecessor organisation, at Langley, Virginia, working there for 13 years.

He married Elizabeth Anne Turnbull in 1950. Their son Gordon was born in 1952, and their daughter Kirsti-Anne in 1954. The family moved to Houston in 1962.

After the shock launch of the Sputnik satellite, which put the USSR ahead in the space race, President Dwight Eisenhower transformed Naca into Nasa and established the Space Task Group in 1958.

A series of embarrassing surprises were to follow as Russia put the first mammal in space (the dog, Laika), launched successful unmanned probes to the Moon and achieved the coveted feat of the first man in orbit, with Yuri Gagarin's flight.

Kraft, now with the title of Nasa's first flight director, was in charge of managing the US's fast-growing human space flight programmes.

With his call-sign "Flight" he oversaw the early efforts to put American astronauts into Earth orbit, and the first spacewalk of the Gemini programme. Later, Kraft helped develop the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston.

During the Apollo programme, Kraft was promoted to director of flight operations and given responsibility for the overall mission planning, training and execution of human space flight at Nasa. He continued in this role through the first and second Moon-landing missions in 1969, before becoming deputy director of the Manned Spacecraft Centre.

Kraft later served as Space Centre director, from 1972 until his retirement in 1982.

He oversaw the success of the remaining Apollo Moon missions, the first US space station, Skylab, the first joint space mission with the Soviet Union and the early flights of the space shuttle.

Kraft is survived by his wife and their son and daughter.

Sunday Independent

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