Christopher Columbus Kraft: NASA’s legendary flight director
Christopher Columbus Kraft, known to his friends and colleagues as “Chris” was one of NASA’s founding engineers. Without his expertise and ingenuity, the United States’ space program might never have gotten off the ground.
Building from the ground up
Kraft’s career with NASA started .out full speed ahead. His primary task was to sit down and work out how to get a person from Earth into space. In theory, it wasn’t that hard to launch an ape into space. The trick was getting them there and back in one piece. Without the aid of fancy modern computers or even so much as a calculator, Kraft set to work against the clock to determine the safest way to put a person in space.
NASA’s Space Task group was comprised of 35 people, including Kraft. It was their job to make the Mercury project into a reality and be the first nation to send a human into space. The head of the division, Chuck Mathews, told Kraft that his job was pretty straightforward: “Chris, you come up with a basic mission plan. You know, the bottom-line stuff on how we fly a man from a launchpad into space and back again. It would be good if you kept him alive.”
Considering there was no groundwork to build off of, Kraft was left to fill in a lot of blanks with math and intuition. His mission plan for catapulting someone into space with a tin can full of rocket fuel had to be designed around what little information they had. Telemetry data, timelines, flight plans from previous uncrewed missions, and communications between airborne and ground-based units were nearly all he had to work with.
Around the world
The Mercury program was an overwhelming success, though it was not without its setbacks. During Mercury-Atlas 6, the sixth flight of the series of nine, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. The mission proceeded as expected until Glenn began his second orbit. Down in mission control, the systems showed a Segment 51 indicator, which alerted the ground team to a potential problem with the landing bag.
With Glenn securely inside the capsule and Kraft and his mission control thousands of miles below, there was no way to know for sure what had happened. Kraft believed that the indicator announcement was due to faulty wiring rather than an actual early deployment of the landing bag, but others higher up in the organization weren’t so confident. An unexpected release of the landing bag would have meant that the heat shield would have come loose. It sat on top of the bag to protect the capsule from the heat of atmospheric friction during re-entry. Were the heat shield to fall off, the craft would turn into a manned fireball before splashing down a charred wreck and a national tragedy.
Not wanting to take the risk, Kraft’s superiors instructed Glenn to leave the retrorocket package in place over the heat shield during re-entry. They reasoned that the solid fuel container would hold the heat shield in place in the event the landing bag had deployed prematurely. Kraft, now powerless to change things despite his better qualifications to make such a critical decision, was furious. He knew that any fuel left in the retrorocket package could ignite during descent and cause the capsule to explode.
Glenn and the capsule splashed down safely. Upon inspection of the craft, they determined that the Segment 51 indicator had been the result of faulty wiring, as Kraft had suggested. After that flight, Kraft became the top authority in crisis decision-making. His superiors no longer made changes to the mission plan without his consent. Once the Mercury program came to a close, President Kennedy invited Kraft to a ceremony at the White House. There, he was presented with the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal by the president and NASA’s Administrator, James Webb.
Keeping the ball rolling
NASA’s subsequent programs jockeyed Kraft through a series of new and changing roles. During the Gemini program, he continued his work as a flight director while doubling as head of mission operations. He was present for several pivotal moments in aeronautical history, including the first space walk. After Gemini 7, Kraft stepped back from his duties with that program to focus on planning the next one, the Apollo program. He shared the grief with his peers following the fire on the launch pad during a countdown test. Three of the Apollo 1 crewmembers died in the fire. Kraft was asked by the widow of one of the astronauts to be the pallbearer at his funeral.
For the remainder of the Apollo program, Kraft maintained a higher role than before as the director of Flight Operations. He sorely missed being a flight director, but he had thoroughly earned his new title. One of the most notable moments in his career during the Apollo era was, of course, the Apollo 13 mishap. Kraft sat as chair during the meeting of senior managers as they decided how to best bring the crew back home despite the damaged craft.
Kraft went on to serve as a mentor and a leader within the NASA community. Even after his retirement, he spent time as a consultant for Rockwell International and IBM. NASA couldn’t bear to let him go completely, and they called him back to guide the space shuttle program. His involvement in the aeronautic community continued until his death in 2016 at the age of 95. He had accrued numerous accolades and left an unforgettable impression on the world of space exploration during his life, and his legacy will not soon be forgotten.