Mission Control’s Pioneer

by Josh Gelernter
Without this cold warrior, there’d be no American flags on the moon.

With Russian troops in Ukraine, the world’s atwitter with fears of a new Cold War. This is a good time, then, to reminisce about some good times from the last Cold War.

The Soviet Union was established on December 28, 1922. One year and two months later, Christopher Columbus Kraft Jr. was born in Phoebus, Va. When Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, Kraft was part of Virginia Tech’s corps of cadets; he applied to become a Navy pilot, but a childhood injury kept him out of the service. He was grounded but still interested in planes; two years later he graduated with a degree in aeronautical engineering and a job offer from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics.

The airplane was then just 40 years old — at Virginia’s Langley Field, the NACA used engineers, aeronauticists, and test pilots to sort out the vagaries of flight. Kraft was assigned to the Flight Research Division; the chief of research was Robert R. Gilruth.

Gilruth’s work on American and British warplanes had made him a legend — according to Kraft, he “wasn’t just good. He was held in awe.” Together, Kraft, Gilruth, and the NACA spent 13 years advancing the world of flying. But — Kraft writes in his memoir, Flight — “space was not a word found easily in the NACA Langley Library in 1957. We were airplane people and proud of it. . . . Then for many of us, everything quickly began to change.”

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union orbited history’s first satellite, and the space age began. Two months and two days later, a Vanguard rocket carrying America’s first satellite exploded on a Cape Canaveral launch pad, on live television — and the space race began. President Eisenhower turned the NACA into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration — NASA — and Gilruth became the head of the Space Task Group. The group’s task was putting a man in space. Gilruth selected a handful of his best Langley subordinates as members; among them was Chris Kraft.

This was late 1958, and the brand-new Space Task Group had 35 members. Parts of the small team developed theories of astronautics, others began to design the spacecraft-to-be. Gilruth put his longtime associate Chuck Matthews in charge of “flight operations.” Chuck Matthews delegated to Chris Kraft: “Chris, you come up with a basic mission plan. You know, the bottom-line stuff on how we fly a man from a launch pad into space and back again. It would be good if you kept him alive.”

Kraft’s solution was to invent Mission Control.

No one knew how to put a man in space, and the flight-operations team quickly itemized the things they’d have to figure out. How do you tell if the rocket is doing its job? How do you tell if the spacecraft is functioning? How do you tell if the man inside the spacecraft is functioning? How do you communicate with a capsule that’s on the other side of the planet, moving 18,000 miles an hour? And how can an astronaut handle so immensely complicated (and totally novel) a flight while piloting so immensely complex (and totally novel) a vehicle?

The solution would be the big, monitor-filled, stadium-tiered room that you’ve seen in space movies, Mission Control. As each piece of the spacecraft functioned, a panoply of sensors would record and report those functions back to the control room. Each monitor would display data relevant to one piece of the mission: guidance and navigation, boosters and propulsion, electrical, environmental, reentry, and so forth. Each station would be monitored by an engineer who was an expert in that one aspect of the space flight; those experts would, in turn, be monitored by the flight director. As problems arose, the flight director and his team would solve them and relay instructions to the astronaut. The flight director would be Chris Kraft.

By 1961, America’s first spacecraft, a bell-shaped capsule christened “Mercury,” was ready to put a man in space. First up, though, was a chimpanzee named Ham; he came through with flying colors, and with Chris Kraft at the helm. The flight was almost perfect. Ham’s trajectory was off, but Mission Control handled the problem and Ham coped. Designs were tweaked, and Kraft, Gilruth, and company were ready to make Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard the first man in space.

Washington, however, was less ready and asked for one more test flight; Shepard’s debut was replaced with a final rehearsal. It was faultless, but during the turnaround before Shepard’s launch, Vostok 1 put Yuri Gagarin in orbit.

That was April 12, 1961. Shepard became the second man in space three weeks later. Twenty days after Shepard’s flight, President Kennedy addressed a joint session of Congress and posed a grand Cold War challenge: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.”

In order to go the moon, certain questions had to be answered, so Kraft and NASA designed a program to answer them: the Gemini missions, so named for the two men who would fly them, sitting side-by-side in a scaled-up version of Mercury. Would a man be able to work in the vacuum of space? Gemini 4 answered the question in June of ’65 when Ed White performed a “space walk.” Would men be able to survive a weeklong round trip to the moon? Gemini 5 spent eight days in space; Gemini 7 orbited for two weeks. After a lunar lander left the moon, it would have to rendezvous and dock with another spaceship that was the astronauts’ ride home: Gemini 6 was the first rendezvous; Gemini 8 the first docking. Gemini 8 was also the first mission without Kraft as flight director — since the final Mercury mission, Kraft had been training replacements. As Gemini drew to a close, he took on a new job: planning Apollo, the program that would execute Kennedy’s moon-by-the-end-of-the-decade plan.

In October 1968, Apollo 7 — the program’s first manned flight — certified Apollo’s hardware in orbit around the Earth. Two months later, Apollo 8 became the first manned mission to the moon. On Christmas Eve, Kraft stood with Bob Gilruth in Mission Control, supervising Apollo 8. “There was a stir in the controller rows below us.” Kraft writes:

Both of us held our headsets to our ears to catch what was happening. It was scratchy and garbled, but there was [navigator] Jim Lovell’s voice coming from nearly a quarter million miles away. It sounded as if they were . . . yes they were in lunar orbit, and the room erupted in cheers and hollers.

The crew of Apollo 8 made ten trips around the moon and became the first men in history to see the moon’s far side, and the first to see an earthrise. As they flew over the barren lunar surface, the gallant cold warriors broadcast a message to their home planet: the opening verses of Genesis.

Seven months later, on Monday, July 21, 1969, Neil Armstrong took one small step and the world changed forever. Back in Mission Control, Kraft reports pandemonium and euphoria. Kraft and Gilruth, and their teams of flight controllers and engineers and pilots and scientists, and everyone at NASA and NASA’s contractors, and every citizen of the United States had done it. They had put a man on the moon. A few days later, they returned him safely to Earth. No human achievement has ever been greater.

Gilruth stayed at NASA, as head of the Manned Space Center, through Apollo 15; Kraft succeeded him for 16 and 17. When Apollo 17 splashed down in December of ’72, the Apollo program ended; no one has been back to the moon since. In the decade that followed, Kraft oversaw Skylab and the space shuttle. In 1982, he retired, but as the dean of American engineers, he’s stayed in Houston and kept a close watch over NASA goings-on.

Without Chris Kraft, the moon landings would not have happened. A month ago he agreed to an interview; a few days ago he turned 90. It was an honor for me to talk to him, and it’s an honor to wish him a happy birthday. No man who dedicated his life to the service of his country ever succeeded more spectacularly.

Mr. Kraft’s birthday is also an opportunity to remember that while the Soviet Union killed tens of millions of people, the good guys’ “Cold War mindset” found other outlets: The Cold War is memorialized by monuments at mass graves, but also by American flags on the moon.           

So with Putin in Crimea: If push comes to threats of mutually assured shoving, maybe at least we’ll get to land on Mars.

 — Josh Gelernter is a writer in Connecticut.