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NASA pioneer, mission control architect Chris Kraft dies at 95

By Nicholas Sakelaris
July 23, 2019, 11:50:36 AM EDT

NASA pioneer and former Johnson Space Center Director Christopher Kraft Jr. -- the man who created the space agency's legendary mission control centers -- died Monday. He was 95.

Kraft was the architect behind Houston's control centers that launched countless space missions for decades. In 1961, he led the mission on which astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American in space. The achievement inspired President John F. Kennedy to commit to reaching the moon by the end of the 1960 -- a goal fulfilled with only six months left before the arrival of the 1970s.

"America has truly lost a national treasure today with the passing of one of NASA's earliest pioneers -- flight director Chris Kraft," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement. "Chris was one of the core team members that helped our nation put humans in space and on the moon, and his legacy is immeasurable ... It was his legendary work to establish mission control as we know it for the earliest crewed space flights that perhaps most strongly advanced our journey of discovery."

Kraft would often recall the exhilaration and nervousness during NASA missions, including Shepard's suborbital journey.

chris kraft

A view inside mission control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, during NASA's Gemini 8 mission on March 16, 1966. The control centers were designed by longtime NASA pioneer Chris Kraft. UPI Photo/File

"I think Alan Shepard was certainly a flight where I learned to be a flight director because until you put a human being on the end of a rocket, you don't really understand the problem," Kraft once told tourists at Florida's Kennedy Space Center.

Kraft once said he viewed himself as the conductor of a technological symphony.

"The conductor can't play all the instruments. He may not even be able to play any one of them," Bridenstone said. "But, he knows when the first violinshould be playing, and he knows when the trumpets should be loud or soft, and when the drummer should be drumming. He mixes all this up and out comes music. That is what we do here."

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Born in Phoebus, Va., in 1924, Kraft earned a bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering from Virginia Tech University in 1944 and ultimately joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, NASA's predecessor. He was often outspoken about the safety of the space shuttles, saying they were the safest ever built -- even after the loss of Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003.

"We had two failures, which were catastrophic," he said. "Both were the fallacies of man, not the fallacies of the machine.

"Challenger was a failure of the human brain. ... eventually they were playing Russian roulette [with Columbia]."

Kraft was always a passionate supporter of the space shuttle, which flew from 1981 to the program's retirement in 2011, and believes it's near the height of spacecraft efficiency.

"It'll be a cold day in hell when that is improved on."

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