Kraft, Jr., Christopher C.
Christopher Columbus Kraft Jr. was born on February 28, 1924, to Christopher Columbus Kraft Sr. and Vanda Suddreth Kraft in Phoebus, Virginia.
In 1942, Chris was attending Virginia Polytechnic Institute in mechanical engineering when he applied for appointment as a Naval aviation cadet, but was refused due to a childhood hand injury. Returning to college, Chris graduated in VPI’s first class of aeronautical engineers in December 1944.
With wartime aircraft production at full speed, in January of 1945, Chris accepted a job with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics at Langley, Virginia. His work in the Flight Research Division included measuring flying qualities of service aircraft and developing an early gust alleviation system for aircraft flying in turbulence.
In 1950, he and his high school sweetheart, Betty Anne Turnbull, eloped. They would go on to have a son and daughter.
On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, and with it, a space race with the United States. On July 29, 1958, President Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act. Before NASA began its official existence in October of 1958, Robert Gilruth, Director of Project Mercury, asked Chris to join the new Space Task Group. This small team of thirty-five engineers was to safely put the first American man into space.
Chris was assigned to the flight operations division and was given the responsibility of developing a mission plan for manned space flight. He would need to develop, from scratch, flight plans, timelines, procedures, mission rules, spacecraft tracking, telemetry, ground support, telecommunications networks and contingency management.
Chris conceived of and designed what was called a Mission Control Center. Especially during the critical launch phase, the astronaut would have to rely on the Center’s team of specialist engineers on the ground.
Another concept of Chris’s was that of a “flight director,” the point-person who would coordinate the team and make real-time decisions about the conduct of the mission. Chris was named NASA’s first flight director and remained in that position for all six manned Mercury missions.
With the Gemini program, Chris became the head of mission operations, in charge of all flight directors while still serving as one. With Gemini missions being longer in duration, Mission Control went to three-shifts.
He got to witness many of the historic firsts of the Gemini program, but also discovered it was easy to get distracted by the astronauts’ descriptions of what they saw in space. But Chris forced himself to focus on his work in order to keep the flight safe.
Following Gemini 7, Chris assigned other directors to take charge of the remaining missions at Mission Control so he could devote more time to managing the upcoming Apollo moon program.
He served on review boards at North American Aviation, the contractor responsible for the Apollo capsule. Still, he missed being at Mission Control as Gemini flights progressed.
With the beginning of the Apollo program, Chris expected to return to his role in Mission Control, which he did for Apollo 1, though that mission never flew due to the tragic training accident. Soon after, he was promoted to Director of Flight Operations for the entire Apollo program.
Chris was named Deputy Director of the Manned Spacecraft Center in 1969. On January 14, 1972, he became its Director, where he played a significant role in the design and development of first reusable manned orbital vehicle, the Space Shuttle.
Although he could have retired earlier, Chris chose to remain as center director until July 1982, which included the first four Shuttle flights.
After his retirement, Chris served as a consultant for various companies including Rockwell International and IBM. He was appointed chairman of the space shuttle management independent review team in 1994. In 2001, he published his autobiography, Flight: My Life in Mission Control.
Chris hand-picked and trained an entire generation of NASA flight directors. Firmly leading by example, Chris was responsible for setting standards and principles still used in the Control Center today.
Among his many honors was the renaming in 2011 of Mission Control at Johnson Space Center, as the Christopher C. Kraft Jr. Mission Control Center.
Chris Craft is a 2016 enshrinee of the National Aviation Hall of Fame