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

Christopher C. Kraft Jr. was a NASA flight director who worked many breakthrough missions. In 1972, he was named director of what would become the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. He retired in 1982, and this year will be awarded the National Air and Space Museum Trophy for lifetime achievement. (On April 28, he and the crew of US Airways Flight 1549, winners of the Trophy for current achievement, will take part in an online conference). Associate editor Mike Klesius spoke with Kraft in February.

Air & Space: What gets you most excited about space exploration these days? A promising technology? A policy decision? A visionary person or group of people?

Kraft: I don’t think we’re doing a whole lot of space exploration these days. But the thing that is most exciting to me about today’s programs is that the astronauts are so very well trained, so adept at carrying out their tasks in space. I’m extremely impressed with their ability to do that. I think it comes from the tremendous amount of training that they’ve received on the ground before they go.

I think there is a lot of promising technology available, but I don’t think we have been spending sufficient funds to make those technologies happen as quickly as they might. I think the real policy decision that’s got to be made is, what are NASA’s goals going to be in the present administration? There certainly is a lot of debate about that, and I hope that wise minds and smart people decide what that ought to be.

A & S: Is there a lesson learned from your Apollo days that you feel is highly relevant to the U.S. space program today?

Kraft: Number one, we found out that we can do what we set our mind to in this country, given the right amount of support both from the government and from the people from the universities who make it happen. I think the biggest impact that people don’t recognize is the fact that there was such a tremendous change in the state of the art of almost every technology, every field, as a result of Apollo because it was driven by the need to accomplish it. I think that’s the thing that needs to be stressed here, that NASA and its people are not just engineers playing with toys. They're playing with the future of the country and providing the impetus that keeps this country great by the technology they develop as a result.

A & S: You’ve written about your years at NASA in the book Flight: My Life in Mission Control. From all those memories, which stands out for you as your proudest moment?

Kraft: The first, of course, was the flight of Alan Shepard. Seeing him on the end of a rocket as the first human being in the United States to do that was an extremely exciting moment for me, since I was the flight director. John Glenn’s flight was certainly a very wonderful flight, and we had a number of things we had to carry out to make sure it happened safely. After that, I think Apollo 8 was the flight that changed the course of future spaceflight forever, because it was the first time that man had left the gravitational field of the Earth and gone to visit another planet, even though that planet was just the moon. There were so many firsts associated with Apollo 8, and it took a lot of guts on the part of the United States to make that decision to do that flight. And I’m pleased that the powers that be above NASA had the faith and trust in NASA to make it happen. And of course, landing on the moon was the culmination of a tremendous effort on the part of the whole United States. And seeing the American flag raised on the moon was something we had set our minds to, and it was a fantastic day.

A & S: Are there similarities between NASA today and NASA just after the final Apollo missions were cancelled, when the agency was looking to take its next step? What advice would you give under these circumstances?

Kraft: Certainly after the last three flights of Apollo were cancelled, and NASA was sort of put aside in what they thought they could do and what we were hopeful we could do in the next 20 years of space flight, i.e. land on Mars, it certainly was a disappointing situation. On the other hand, I think that even in those times there was still a great deal of public support for continuing the space program, and we depended on that to keep what little bit of budget that NASA was able to obtain in the 70s to build the space shuttle. I’m hopeful that that same result takes place in the next few months as the NASA budget is discussed.

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?

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.

Kraft: That’s true, but we didn’t have a space station up there that will expire, E-X-P-I-R-E, if we don’t have something to get up there to use it. The point there is that we’ve invested, we and a large number of other nations, have invested well over a hundred billion dollars in that facility. It would be a shame to not take advantage of it if we don’t have the capability to go to low-Earth orbit with a number of machines.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.