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Kraft in Mission Control in July 1965. (NASA)

NASA's First Flight Director

Chris Kraft assesses the state of the space program 40 years after Apollo

Christopher C. Kraft Jr. was a NASA flight director who worked many breakthrough missions. In 1972, he was named director of what would become the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. He retired in 1982, and this year will be awarded the National Air and Space Museum Trophy for lifetime achievement. (On April 28, he and the crew of US Airways Flight 1549, winners of the Trophy for current achievement, will take part in an online conference). Associate editor Mike Klesius spoke with Kraft in February.

Air & Space: What gets you most excited about space exploration these days? A promising technology? A policy decision? A visionary person or group of people?

Kraft: I don’t think we’re doing a whole lot of space exploration these days. But the thing that is most exciting to me about today’s programs is that the astronauts are so very well trained, so adept at carrying out their tasks in space. I’m extremely impressed with their ability to do that. I think it comes from the tremendous amount of training that they’ve received on the ground before they go.

I think there is a lot of promising technology available, but I don’t think we have been spending sufficient funds to make those technologies happen as quickly as they might. I think the real policy decision that’s got to be made is, what are NASA’s goals going to be in the present administration? There certainly is a lot of debate about that, and I hope that wise minds and smart people decide what that ought to be.

A & S: Is there a lesson learned from your Apollo days that you feel is highly relevant to the U.S. space program today?

Kraft: Number one, we found out that we can do what we set our mind to in this country, given the right amount of support both from the government and from the people from the universities who make it happen. I think the biggest impact that people don’t recognize is the fact that there was such a tremendous change in the state of the art of almost every technology, every field, as a result of Apollo because it was driven by the need to accomplish it. I think that’s the thing that needs to be stressed here, that NASA and its people are not just engineers playing with toys. They're playing with the future of the country and providing the impetus that keeps this country great by the technology they develop as a result.

A & S: You’ve written about your years at NASA in the book Flight: My Life in Mission Control. From all those memories, which stands out for you as your proudest moment?

Kraft: The first, of course, was the flight of Alan Shepard. Seeing him on the end of a rocket as the first human being in the United States to do that was an extremely exciting moment for me, since I was the flight director. John Glenn’s flight was certainly a very wonderful flight, and we had a number of things we had to carry out to make sure it happened safely. After that, I think Apollo 8 was the flight that changed the course of future spaceflight forever, because it was the first time that man had left the gravitational field of the Earth and gone to visit another planet, even though that planet was just the moon. There were so many firsts associated with Apollo 8, and it took a lot of guts on the part of the United States to make that decision to do that flight. And I’m pleased that the powers that be above NASA had the faith and trust in NASA to make it happen. And of course, landing on the moon was the culmination of a tremendous effort on the part of the whole United States. And seeing the American flag raised on the moon was something we had set our minds to, and it was a fantastic day.

A & S: Are there similarities between NASA today and NASA just after the final Apollo missions were cancelled, when the agency was looking to take its next step? What advice would you give under these circumstances?

Kraft: Certainly after the last three flights of Apollo were cancelled, and NASA was sort of put aside in what they thought they could do and what we were hopeful we could do in the next 20 years of space flight, i.e. land on Mars, it certainly was a disappointing situation. On the other hand, I think that even in those times there was still a great deal of public support for continuing the space program, and we depended on that to keep what little bit of budget that NASA was able to obtain in the 70s to build the space shuttle. I’m hopeful that that same result takes place in the next few months as the NASA budget is discussed.

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