Christopher C. Kraft, Jr. was born on February 28, 1924, in Phoebus, Virginia. He received a Bachelor of Science degree in Aeronautical Engineering from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (now Virginia Tech), in Blacksburg, Virginia, in December 1944.
In January 1945, he joined the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). During his career with NACA, he made significant contributions in the field of aeronautical flight research.
In October 1958, Kraft was selected as one of the original members of the Space Task Group, the organization established to manage Project Mercury. In its early phases, he was a prime contributor to the development of many of the basic mission and flight control techniques used in manned space flight.
From 1961 to 1966, Christopher Kraft was Flight Director for all of the Mercury missions and many of the Gemini missions. During the later phase of Project Mercury, he also directed the design and implementation of the Manned Spacecraft Center (the MSC, renamed the Johnson Space Center in 1973) in Houston, Texas. It is the hub from which all of NASA’s manned space programs have been conducted since then.
Kraft was the director of flight operations for the Apollo program until 1970 when he became the MSC deputy director in 1970. He was Director of the Johnson Space Center from January 1972 until his retirement in August 1982. He made his mark as the consummate flight planner, a role he compared 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.”
Christopher 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. Kraft pointed to the Apollo 8 flight in 1968 as the “epitome, in my mind, of the first fifteen years of space flight.” When the engineers determined that the lunar module was 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.
The mission was planned soon after the disastrous Apollo 1 fire, at a time when NASA feared that the Soviets might be preparing for their own lunar circuit. In one of the greatest engineering feats in history, Apollo 8 marked the first time humans left Earth orbit, the first time humans orbited another world and the first time a manned craft 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 later. “The firsts associated with that were unbelievable.”
Since his retirement in 1982, Christopher Kraft has remained active as an aerospace consultant. In 2002, he published an account of his NASA career, Flight: My Life in Mission Control. He has been awarded the Distinguished Alumnus Citation from Virginia Polytechnic Institute (1965), NASA’s Outstanding Leadership Medal (1963), Spirit of St. Louis Medal (1966), and NASA’s Distinguished Service Medal twice in 1969, one for Apollo 8 and the other for Apollo 11. NASA awarded him the Distinguished Service Medal again in 1981 for the design and development of the Space Shuttle, and again in 1982 as a special award in recognition of his service at both NACA and NASA. Christopher Kraft has also earned the Space Flight Award, the Astronautics Engineer Award (1982), and the John F. Kennedy Astronautics Award for 1996.
In 2006, NASA honored Christopher C. Kraft, Jr., for his key involvement in America’s space programs with the Ambassador of Exploration Award, given to the astronauts and other key individuals who participated in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space programs for realizing America’s vision of space exploration from 1961 to 1972.