NASA’s First Flight Director

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

Kraft in Mission Control in July 1965. (NASA)
Air & Space Magazine

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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?

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