Mission Control’s Pioneer
Without this cold warrior, there’d be no American flags on the moon.

Chris Kraft at NASA during a Mercury Program mission. (Image: NASA)


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.