Lest we forget: The passing of a legend

By George W.S. Abbey

Senior Fellow in Space Policy


The Apollo 11 50th anniversary celebrations of this past week have brought back a host of memories from the events that occurred in July 1969. Those memories have somehow stayed with me through the years since that memorable month, now so long ago. These are memories of not just the events but also of the people who contributed to the accomplishment of those historic achievements: the many dedicated and committed individuals that made it all happen and, above all, to the leaders who played such an essential role in leading the way.

On July 22, the nation and the world lost one of those great leaders, the last of those who played such a critical role in making President John F. Kennedy’s declaration of May 25, 1961, a reality: Christopher Columbus Kraft. I was fortunate to call Chris a mentor, colleague and a lifelong friend.

Kraft had become a legend well before the flights of Apollo. Born and raised in Phoebus, Virginia, he attended Virginia Polytechnic Institute, usually referred to as Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg, Virginia. Graduating in 1944, Kraft went to work at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA’s) Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, as an aeronautical engineer. NACA, founded in 1915, was a highly respected government research and development organization devoted to the pursuit of state-of-the-art aeronautical research.

With the dramatic flight of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957, Congress recognized the need to put greater emphasis on the nation’s civil space program and established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in October 1958. NACA and the Langley Research Center became a part of the new organization. Kraft, after working for over a decade as an aeronautical researcher, was asked by Bob Gilruth, the leader of NASA’s Space Task Group, a small team entrusted with the responsibility of putting America’s first man in space, to join the Task Group, and Kraft became one of the original 35 engineers to be assigned to Project Mercury, America’s man-in-space program.

Assigned to the project’s flight operations division, no human had flown in space, and Kraft originated the concept of a Mission Control Center. He realized that the manned Mercury spacecraft would require real-time monitoring and support from engineering specialists on the ground. He became NASA’s first flight director, serving in that role for all of the six manned Mercury flights and for the first spacewalk flight during the manned Gemini Program. With the advent of the Apollo missions, Kraft became the director of flight operations and was responsible for all Apollo mission operations.

I became George Low’s technical assistant when Low became the Apollo spacecraft program manager. In that role I had the good fortune to work closely with Chris. I greatly treasured our relationship and it was to endure for over 52 years.

I served as the secretary for the Apollo Configuration Control Board under Low. The board was established to discipline the control of changes on Apollo, but it served a much larger purpose. It became a decision-making forum for both the spacecraft developer and the user on all programmatic decisions. In reaching its decisions, it had the combined inputs of key people representing hardware development, flight operations, flight crews, safety, medicine and science. The board included the directors of all the affected organizations at the Manned Spacecraft Center, as well the program managers from Grumman and Rockwell, the two principal contractors. Kraft was present for every one of the boards’ 90 meetings held between June 1967 and July 1969 and was a key contributor to each and every decision. It was very clear that Kraft’s leadership was going to play a critical role in ensuring the success of Apollo.

In August 1968, Low had taken a few days off, after working a schedule of many long hours for seven days a week ever since becoming the Apollo spacecraft program manager in early 1967. He returned to work after that short break and told me he had determined we were not going to be successful in making a lunar landing by the end of the decade if we stayed with the present sequence of missions. He proposed a plan that, if the first manned Apollo mission was successful in October 1968, we would fly a manned Apollo command and service module to the moon two months later in December 1968. He discussed his bold proposal with Kraft, Deke Slayton, Max Faget and Gilruth. And following Kraft’s positive assessment of the plan’s feasibility and with Gilruth’s agreement, it was presented to NASA management. With their approval, it became the new plan.

In early September, I was in my office adjacent to Low’s office, when I heard one of the senior members of the center’s engineering organization violently and loudly protesting that we could not possibly fly such a mission successfully in December. Receiving no acceptance of his argument by Low, he stormed out of Low’s office, slamming the door as he left. I entered Low’s office and he asked me if I had heard all of what had been said. I told him I had, and he asked me who he should believe, the engineer who just departed or Chris Kraft. I told him I would believe Kraft, and he replied, “So do I.” The mission, Apollo 8, was successfully flown in December and seven months later, in July, we landed on the moon.

We launched Apollo 11 on July 16, 1969, landing on the moon on the 20th and the spacecraft returned to land in the Pacific Ocean about 900 miles southwest of Hawaii on July 24. After the crew was safely recovered on board the carrier the USS Hornet, the celebrations began. I was with Low in the Control Center for the landing, following the safe recovery of the crew and accompanied Low as he tried to visit the various celebrations. As we drove, he reflected on the intense and challenging activities of the past two years. He said those activities had been very much on his mind during the last few days of the mission. As he looked back at who had aided him the most during those trying times and who contributed to making Apollo 11 a success, he said it would have to be Chris Kraft.

In the fall of 1969, I went to work for Chris in his new role as deputy center director of the Manned Spacecraft Center under Gilruth, as both his and Dr. Gilruth’s technical assistant. I continued working for Chris when he became the center director in December 1972, as his technical assistant, and then reported to him from 1976, after he assigned me to be director of flight operations, until Chris left NASA in 1982.

Kraft gained great fame for his creation of the Mission Control Center and as the nation’s first flight director but these were only the beginning of his many and lasting contributions to the United States space program. He served as the Johnson Space Center director for the last Apollo mission, Apollo 17, the Skylab Program and the very successful Apollo-Soyuz Test Project with the Soviet Union in 1975, contributing significantly to the successes of all these programs.

Kraft’s leadership, technical expertise and vision were subsequently instrumental to the design and development and the accomplishments of the Space Shuttle. It was his dedication and commitment that led to ensuring an astronaut selection program that was open to all qualified candidates regardless of gender or race, and that has had a lasting effect on the space program. When I was assigned to the Space Council in Washington and as an assistant to the administrator at NASA headquarters, Chris was always willing to provide his recommendations and serve in support of the nation’s space program. That willingness continued until the day he left us.

I feel very blessed to have had the opportunity to know and work for Chris Kraft. If I achieved any successes during my NASA career it was in no small measure due to his mentorship and guidance. He was a man of great courage and integrity. The nation and the world lost a true giant, and I lost a beloved friend. His legendary accomplishments will provide the foundation for generations yet to come in the continued human conquest of space.