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
(Page 2 of 3)
Kraft: Yes. I think that it's a matter of learning to live on the moon—I don’t know how long that takes, maybe not very long—but having lived on the moon when you’re only three seconds away in communication, compared to 40 minutes at Mars. That’s a hell of a difference. I just don’t think we’re ready to go to Mars until we come up with a lot more technology than we have today. And hopefully NASA will get a chance to work on that in the next 10 years.
A & S: What do you think is the most promising path for NASA to follow today?
Kraft: I think they should stay the course and keep the Constellation program going. I’m very disappointed that the space shuttle is being terminated. I think it’s still a fantastic vehicle. I think it still has tremendous potential for flying people and maintaining the space station, and for carrying people into low-Earth orbit, regardless of how much people think that it’s a high-risk vehicle. I don’t agree with that statement. I think it’s the most safe vehicle this country has ever built, and it could continue to be if supported.
A & S: Do you think rockets like Atlas and Delta could be the answer to NASA’s future heavy lift needs?
Kraft: No, I think that building a new vehicle on the basis of the technology we have and can develop for a heavy lift launch vehicle is the better way to go. Those [existing] vehicles are fine for doing certain jobs, but I don’t think they have the heavy lift launch capability. For lighter loads, I think it is possible that the Atlas and the Delta vehicles could be man-rated, which they’d have to be to carry humans into space. However, their performance is not what people say it is. I think that the Ares vehicle was built to have better performance than either one of those vehicles, and given the right kind of technical and financial support would be a vehicle that could do a yeoman’s job for carrying things into low-Earth orbit. And probably very reliably in the future.
A & S: Is there still a role for humans in space exploration?
Kraft: Of course there is. Humans want to go to other worlds. They want to explore. They want to find out if there really are people living in other galaxies, or even in this galaxy. And some day, as many have said, we’re going to get a message from one of those planets that exist out there like the Earth, and that will really change the way people think about space.
A & S: If you had the money to spend, would you take a ride on a [Russian] Soyuz to the space station?
Kraft: No, I would not. I guess the launch wouldn’t be too bad because it’s four Gs. But coming back at nine Gs [in an abnormal ballistic reentry] is not my cup of tea. I think it takes trained people to enjoy that ride. So, no thank you.
A & S: How about an orbital flight on the first crewed SpaceX rocket, Falcon 9?
Kraft: I’m afraid that’s beyond my pay grade. If they can show me by experience that their rockets are safe, and that they have man-rated those vehicles so that it is a reasonable ride, the answer is yes, I would go, but not until then. I think they can do it. I don’t want to throw cold water on people who are trying to do it. As a matter of fact, I want to cheer them on.
A & S: Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, says he’ll be able to get astronauts to the ISS for $20 million a person. Do you think that’s feasible?
Kraft: It sounds pretty low to me. I think that when he and SpaceX begin to validate and certify that that vehicle is safe for humans, and it’s man-rated, he will find that that has been and will be a very difficult row to hoe. And when you have had the experience that I have had, you know it is not easy. I suspect Mr. Musk will find that out. But I don’t want to say that I want him to stop.
A & S: Do you think that commercial companies will be successful in driving down the cost of access to space by a notable margin?
Kraft: I certainly do. I think the more you can get the aerospace industry to do this without government oversight, and without the interference of the government, and without having to meet the very stringent requirements of man-rating vehicles, yes, I think they can do it. I don’t think they can do it tomorrow. I don’t think they can beat the Constellation schedule. And I think that’s going to be proven. That’s the reason I believe that we should stay the course with the Constellation program. I don’t want to see a big gap in manned space flight, or space flight per se, because I think that would be a dangerous course for the U.S. to pursue, both scientifically and politically.
A & S: What in your opinion has been the most lasting impact of the Apollo program on the country as a whole?
Kraft: The biggest legacy of the Apollo program is that you can do whatever you set your mind to. Even the president has used that term, that if you can go to the moon, you can certainly solve these problems. However, you have to remember what the country’s commitment was and the support to those programs. Without that kind of commitment, support, it doesn’t matter what you did in Apollo. That’s what it takes. That’s the thing that is missing today, that kind of commitment to the program. I hope some day we will retrieve that. But it certainly isn’t there today.
A & S: Was there a feeling after Apollo shut down, after the Apollo-Soyuz mission, that we had a gap that was not a good thing?
Kraft: I don’t think there was a great hue and cry over the fact that we had a gap between Apollo-Soyuz and the first flight of the shuttle, which was approximately six years. I think they knew we were working on a new space vehicle, that people were gainfully employed in NASA to bring that about, and that the vehicle itself would eventually be what NASA hoped it to be. I think they realized that we had a number of technical problems that we had to overcome, specifically the engines and the heat protection system. Frankly, most people probably recognized that we had not been supported very well in a budgetary sense, and that was a reason for the delay as much as anything. That’s the thing that is now repeating itself, isn’t it? We’ll just have to see what transpires. I’m hopeful that the Congress will not necessarily overturn Mr. Obama’s budget, but add to it the necessary parts that NASA needs to do to continue the Constellation program, and at the same time encourage the commercial world to someday have the capability of carrying out all of the low-Earth orbit activities that the country and the world wants to do. I’m very much pleased that the commercial ventures are still going forward. But I don’t think that the time schedule is right, and I think the imposition of the requirements of carrying humans into space may well kill those programs. Because it is premature.
A & S: There’s much hand-wringing over this gap that will occur after the shuttle stops flying; yet there didn’t seem to be that same kind of hand-wringing over the gap that would occur after Apollo-Soyuz.