As NASA’s consummate flight director, Christopher Kraft was known for getting to the point of every space mission. The man in charge of John Glenn’s first flight explained the point behind the senator’s 1998 return to space at the age of 77.
KRAFT WAS INVOLVED in America’s manned space program from the beginning, serving as flight director throughout Project Mercury and for several Gemini missions. He vividly remembers the countdown to Alan Shepard’s first flight into space in 1961 — which he says was much tenser for him than Glenn’s launch.
“I could hardly get the goddamn words out of my mouth, I was so scared. ... By the time I got to Glenn, I was an expert, or whatever the hell I was. But at least I wasn’t shaking,” Kraft said during an interview that took place in the old Apollo Mission Control.
Kraft moved up to become director of flight operations through the entire Apollo program, then director of Johnson Space Center until his retirement in 1982. He’s three years younger than Glenn but has never had any desire to fly in space himself. “Too damn dangerous,” he grumbles.
Instead, Kraft made his mark as the consummate flight planner — a role he compares to leading an orchestra.
“You don’t know how to play all the instruments, but you do know how to mix them all together and make it sound like music,” he said. “And I suppose that’s what I was doing in the early days.”
Kraft set the standard for all the flight directors who would follow.
“He had the ability to sort through differences of opinion and get to what really mattered,” Andrew Chaikin wrote in his book “A Man on the Moon.”
So what really matters about John Glenn’s return to space?
“That’s a complex issue,” Kraft said, “because I think the reason they’re flying him is because John Glenn wants to fly. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
“There’s nothing wrong with reawakening the country to be inspired by the fact that here’s a gentleman who’s 77 years old and wants to go into space, and so it must be a pretty good, great thing. And NASA has to have pretty good guts, by the way, to fly a 77-year-old man, because you don’t know what might happen to him. But I’m pleased for John.”
Scientists say Glenn’s flight could yield valuable data on the parallels between the aging process and the effects of space flight. Kraft said he couldn’t judge whether that would be the case, “but it’s worth a try.”
“We may find that it’s useless,” he said. “We may find that it has great things from it. But that’s the glory of doing things in science in the first place. And it’ll probably be none of that — it’ll be something we didn’t expect at all.”
Kraft, who is currently working on his memoirs, minces no words when it comes to the history of space flight. He bristled at a question about the drama that surrounded Glenn’s re-entry.
“You people make it sound a hell of a lot more dramatic than it was,” he said.
Some engineers feared that Glenn’s heat shield was loose, and as a protective measure, he was told not to jettison his capsule’s retro rocket pack. But Kraft said he was convinced that the heat shield was not loose and was more worried about leaving the retro pack attached. As it turned out, the heat shield held.
“I learned that from then on I was going to make my own damn decisions about those kinds of things and not worry too much about what other people thought, because they hadn’t been thinking about it like we in the flight control business,” he said.
He pointed to the Apollo 8 flight in 1968 as the “epitome, in my mind, of the first 15 years of space flight.” When the engineers determined that the lunar module was not ready for an orbital test flight, Kraft and the rest of the mission team came up with an audacious plan to send the Apollo spacecraft around the moon.
“You have to understand the times,” Kraft explained. The mission was planned soon after the disastrous Apollo 1 fire, at a time when NASA feared that the Soviets might be planning their own lunar circuit. In one of the greatest engineering feats ever, Apollo 8 marked the first time humans left Earth orbit, the first time humans orbited another world and the first time humans re-entered Earth orbit from afar.
“We were going to take a look at a planet that we’ve been looking at for 10,000 years, and never had anybody been there to look at it with the naked eye,” Kraft said. “The firsts associated with that were unbelievable.”