A&S Interview: Chris Kraft
NASA's first Flight Director assesses the state of the space program 40 years after Apollo.
- By Michael Klesius
- Air & Space magazine, March 2010
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.
A & S: Has the American public today become too risk-averse for us to even think about returning astronauts to the moon?
Kraft: I don’t think the American public is that knowledgeable about the tremendous risks that are taken, and therefore I don’t think they are risk-averse. I think that we’ve had a number of review committees that have made the powers that be in the country somewhat frightened of what can happen if we take the risk, and that’s the wrong attitude. Spaceflight is different from flying in an airplane. It has its risks. It has its costs, both in lives and in fortune. And I still think that the return on investment that the country gets out of the space program is well worth the risk we take and the money we spend.
A & S: Do you communicate with anyone in the space agency today? Have you served on advisory panels?
Kraft: I continue to talk with the people in NASA and in fact in the aerospace industry, and have consulted for some of them. And I still talk to the NASA Administrator and the director of the Johnson Space Center, and others who are in charge of the programs. But I am not directly involved in the advisory panels. That’s not my cup of tea these days, at my age, and I prefer to give them my advice when they ask, and sometimes when they don’t.
I think the people within NASA are pretty much on the same page. The problem that they are faced with is that they are government servants, and are bound to do what they are told. And so they have to be very careful how they inflict their own opinions and what they think is the right thing for the country. So yes, we talk about all the things that we think NASA ought to be doing, what NASA’s goals ought to be, and we try our best to do it within the limits that we can do as government servants and as past government servants. I think you have to give the people in NASA credit for staying on the job as much as they do, because they do get severely criticized for a lot of things they have no responsibility for. And I often say the following: NASA does not often do what it wants to do, it does what it’s told to do. And in that regard, I think they do one heck of a job.
A & S: They take their orders from the White House.
Kraft: Yes, and I think you’re seeing that happen today. You had one administration say we’re going back to the moon. And the next administration that says we’re going to do it with commercial rockets, and "NASA, you go work on technology and let us know where you want to go next, 20 years from now." That doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense to me.
A & S: Do you advocate a return to the moon?
Kraft: Dr. [Robert] Gilruth, who was my predecessor at the Johnson Space Center, and myself both said the same thing: We won’t return to the moon again until it becomes easy to go to the moon. And it’s not easy yet. And so, until we are better prepared than we are today, more directly capable of going back to the moon, I think that we maybe ought to slow the pace and make sure that we take advantage of the space station and prepare ourselves for going back to the moon in a little more rational way. I think it’s certainly the next objective, because there are a lot of things to be still gained scientifically and technically in preparation for going wherever you want to go, by having gone to the moon to do it.
A & S: Would you see it perhaps then as a laboratory for going to Mars?