In the couple of weeks since the passing of Christopher Kraft, there have been many well-deserved tributes to a life of historic and significant scientific and technical achievement. As many folks may know, he joined the NASA Space Task Group in November 1958 as NASA’s first flight director, created the concept of NASA’s Mission Control, served as Flight Director for all of the Mercury flights and several Gemini missions before becoming NASA’s Director of Flight Operations. In 1972, he became Director of the Manned Spaceflight Center, soon thereafter to be named the Johnson Space Center. Kraft served as its Director until his retirement in 1982, having gone on to play an essential role in the latter Apollo missions, Skylab, the Apollo Soyuz Project, and early space shuttle flights. He was an indispensable force and presence in this country’s space program.
For readers interested in Kraft’s Virginia Tech connections, they are many. He graduated at the age of 20 in December 1944 (officially, Class of 1945) with a degree in aeronautical engineering. He had also been elected president of the Corps of Cadets his senior year. In November 1965, he was honored with a Convocation at Burruss Hall, where he was presented with the highest award the university can bestow on any person or alumnus, the Distinguished Alumnus Citation.
At the same event, he received from Time Magazine the original portrait used on the cover of the 27 August 1965 issue in which Kraft was featured, and, also, from the university, a Steuben Glass Eagle “on behalf of the entire VPI family.” According to the Roanoke Times, a crowd of over 3,000 was in attendance, including students, faculty, university officials, NASA colleagues, members of Kraft’s graduating class, and locals. Following the program, Kraft was also honored by a review of the Corps of Cadets on the Drillfield.
From 1970 to 1978, Kraft served on this university’s Board of Visitors. Among the many times he spoke on this campus, he gave the Founder’s Day Address at Burruss in April 1974, titled, “The Frontiers of Space . . . America’s Space Program in the 1970s” and was the featured speaker at the 110th annual commencement in June 1982. Well before he achieved the national spotlight and while he was working for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, precursor to NASA) back in April 1954, he presented a technical paper, “Gust Alleviation,” to the Fifth Annual Engineering Conference on campus.
With regard to the University Libraries, 11 April 1986 was, likely, the most significant date in its relationship with Kraft as that was the day of the ceremony marking the opening of the Christopher C. Kraft, Jr. Papers and the establishment of the Archives of American Aerospace Exploration at Special Collections. On the program that day, in addition to Kraft himself, were Paul Gherman, Director of Libraries; David Roselle, Provost; and William Lavery, President of the University. Kraft had donated his papers, approximately 28 cubic feet of material when processed, that documented his 37-year professional career, and he would prove essential in helping Special Collections to acquire the papers of many of his NACA and NASA associates. In fact, collections from several individuals from NASA present at the 1965 Convocation went on to donate their papers to Special Collections, including Melvin Gough, Hartley Soule, John Duberg, and William Hewitt Phillips. Other collections in the group of over thirty include the papers of Robert Gilruth, Michael Collins, Blake Corson Jr., Marjorie Rhodes Townsend and James Avitabile.
As the details of Chris Kraft’s life can be found in numerous and just-published obituaries and tributes, as well as in his 2001 autobiography, Flight: My Life in Mission Control, I would rather offer a glimpse into certain early stages or moments in his career as represented in his Papers, and to choose a selection of items readers may find interesting, surprising, or, simply, less well-known. The collection includes more than 27 boxes and 5 large folders, so we’ll only be touching the surface. Check the finding aid for the collection to see a list of the collection’s contents. Lastly, I’ll end by retelling a story about Kraft involving a very close call that I discovered only in my preparation for this post.
You may be surprised to find that there are a few items in the collection from Kraft’s days at Tech. There are seven lab reports from the summer and fall of 1944, all from class(es) taught by L.Z. Seltzer (and all graded, by the way . . . one “B” and all the rest “A” or “A-“) on topics such as: Turbulence Test on the V.P.I. Wind Tunnel, Yaw Characteristics of Pitot-Static Tubes, Wing Tunnel Test on Low Wing Monoplane, and Airplane Propellers Problem, among others.
After leaving Blacksburg, Kraft went to work for NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics), the US government’s agency for aeronautical research, at Langley Field, near Hampton, Va. (though not before a very funny brush with Chance Vought Corp. in Connecticut: see Flight, page 27). The war was still raging and Langley was doing important work. Kraft had been excluded from active military service because of a serious burn he sustained to his right hand as a child, and he clearly saw this work as his way to make a contribution. In those early days at Langley, Kraft did extensive work on the P-47D Thunderbolt and the P-51H, a late model Mustang, both piston-driven advanced fighters of their day. Kraft’s Papers include a good selection of this work, including various reports, calibrations, photographs, and memoranda.
You might notice that the photo farthest to the right in group above shows some of the instruments ready to be loaded aboard the Bell XS-1. Beginning in 1946, NACA began testing this aircraft and one other like it to explore flying conditions at transonic speeds. On 14 October 1947, Chuck Yeager flew faster than the speed of sound in the Bell XS-1, and Kraft’s Papers show his own involvement in this area of research. One of the documents, dated 23 June 1948 and titled, “A Free-Fall Test to Determine the Longitudinal Stability and Control Characteristics of a 1/4 Scale Model of the Bell XS-1 Airplane at Transonic Speeds” shows Kraft’s name at the top of the cover page and identifies him as Chairman, FRD [Flight Research Division] Stability and Control [Branch].
About this time, Kraft was handed another assignment to work on—gust alleviation—that is, creation of an automatic system that would smooth out the motion of an airplane when it encountered turbulent air. This is the same topic Kraft presented on at the 1954 Engineering conference at Virginia Tech mentioned above. As he was beginning this work, and as described in his autobiography:
I found a French aerodynamicist, René Hirsch, who’d designed and built a gust-alleviation airplane and was beginning to test it. We corresponded about our various plans and concerns and seemed to be in some agreement. Then he was injured when his airplane crashed. I never learned the cause of the accident. Gust alleviation was not only a mysterious quest, but now I knew it was dangerous as well. (page 41)
Well, of course this correspondence is available in Kraft’s Papers! In some cases, we have a draft version and a typed copy of Kraft’s letter as well as Hirsch’s reply. Through most of the first half of the 1950s, this problem took up much of Kraft’s time and there are many documents on the topic in the Papers. I’m no engineer, but I imagine this kind of exchange would be interesting to explore.
The collection of Kraft’s papers are arranged chronologically by year, and in the materials from 1959, following the creation of NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration, in case you wondered) in July 1958, documents that refer to Project Mercury begin to appear. During this time, Kraft stopped being a flight research engineer and became an engineering manager, and these documents include Mission Documents for the first Mercury-Atlas and Mercury-Redstone missions. In NASA lingo, each mission was typically (there are exceptions) named by the spacecraft, booster rocket, and number. Thus, MA-5, which took place on 29 November 1961 with Enos, a chimpanzee, aboard, was the fifth mission to fly a Mercury spacecraft atop an Atlas booster. MR-3, NASA’s first manned suborbital mission, with Alan Shepard aboard on 5 May 1961 (about three weeks after Yuri Gagarin’s “first man in space” mission), was the third Mercury mission with the Redstone rocket. Also among the documents for 1959 are notes and materials related to a talk Kraft presented to a symposium titled, The Pilot’s Role in Space Exploration (a controversial and dicey topic) offered by the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, 8–10 October 1959.
Test procedures and reports; project discussions; post-Launch reports; flight plans; post-flight debriefings of Shepard and then Gus Grissom, the second American to fly a suborbital mission: these are among the documents to be found in Kraft’s papers from these early years of the space program. The success of Shepard’s 15-minute flight was followed three weeks later by President Kennedy’s public proposal “that the US “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” We would do well to remember Kraft’s response, as recalled in his autobiography:
The moon . . . we’ve only put Shepard on a suborbital flight . . . an Atlas can’t reach the moon . . . we have mountains of work just to do the three-orbit flight . . . the moon . . . we’ll need real spacecraft, big ones and a lot better than Mercury . . . men on the moon, has he lost his mind? . . . Have I?
Well, the rest is history. And it can all be followed in Chris Kraft’s Papers: the technical aspects, the failures, the tragedies, and the successes, but mostly the development towards that success, as revealed through the documentation accumulated by Kraft over the course of a storied career.
But wait. There is one more thing. I promised to describe a close call in Chris Kraft’s life before ending this post. It does not involve a rocket exploding on a launch pad or anything like the difficulties of Apollo 13. In fact, I did not know about this story. Never heard it before. If you’ve read Kraft’s book, Flight, you probably do, unless you were blinking for the couple of paragraphs at the bottom of page 238 and the top of 239. Here’s what I found as I was going through our biographical file of newspaper clippings on Kraft.
That’s right. Just a few days after Kraft left Virginia Tech following the Convocation in his honor, he was flying with several other NASA officials on a National Airlines flight from Houston to Miami with a scheduled stop in New Orleans. As they were climbing out of New Orleans, a young man whom Kraft describes as “sickly” and carrying “a small paper bag” was seated by the flight attendant in the seat across from him. As Kraft tells it, the attendant said, “He’s acting funny. Do you mind if I put him in that seat across from you?”(Flight, page 238). The young man—Thomas Robinson, age 16, from Brownsville, Texas—pulled a gun out of the bag and pointed it at Kraft. As quoted in the newspaper article, Paul Haney of NASA’s Public Affairs Office and also a passenger, said, “He pointed it at Chris . . . it was only six inches off his jaw. . . . There was a click which I thought was a cocking action . . . it did not fire. That’s why I thought it was a cocking action. The kid stood up and backed toward the cockpit door and fired three shots in the floor of the lounge.”
Robinson demanded the plane fly to Cuba. He actually had two guns and fired both into the floor of the cabin. Kraft writes, “He fired both into the floor of the lounge in front of me, then he was tossed sideways as the pilot put the plane in a high-g turning descent, heading back to New Orleans.”
At that point, another passenger, Edward Haake, described in the newspaper as an electronics executive and a decorated B-17 pilot (of course) got involved. Again, from the newspaper:
Haake was the only other person in the lounge, Haney said. The husky 6-footer talked to Robinson calmly, pretending to go along with the wild plans about going to Cuba, even though Robinson now had a revolver in the other hand. “He even fixed him a drink,” Haney said.
“Then the kid calmed down and Haake pulled out a plastic holder full of gold coins. He asked the boy if he would like to see them. The kid said he was a coin collector.
“At some point along the way, the kid lowered his hands. I think he was going to reload the gun. When he put his hands together Haake grabbed them.
“Chris and I immediately jumped. I was the first one there. Haake held his hands and I threw him against the seat.
“And while Haake held him, both Chris and I helped subdue him.”
According to Brendan I. Koerner, author of The Skies Belong to Us: Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking, Robinson pleaded guilty to attempting to intimidate a pilot, a less serious charge than air piracy. He served a brief sentence at an Arizona prison camp for youthful offenders.
As I said, quite the life!
For more on the life of Christopher Columbus Kraft, Jr. see an earlier blog post: Chris Kraft: Oral History of an Aerospace Pioneer.