VA Tech Remembers Chris Kraft: NASA’s First Flight Director / Pioneer

0
Chris Kraft '44, NASA's first flight director and a pioneer who was instrumental in the nation's first spaceflight, spacewalk, lunar landing, and more, passed away this week, almost 50 years to the day of the moon landings 50th anniversary.

Moon rock in Torgersen Hall.

Kraft Drive near central campus.

NASA documents and flight plans in Newman Library.

Today, Christopher Kraft’s influence permeates Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus.

VIDEO: https://video.vt.edu/media/Virginia+Tech+remembers+Chris+Kraft+%2744/1_ila7950k

Kraft ’44, NASA’s first flight director and a pioneer who led multiple space missions, passed away this week in Houston at 95 years old.

Across the nation, he is remembered as the face of NASA and father of the mission control center, which he created to communicate with spacecraft in orbit. At Virginia Tech, he is known as a generous alumnus who served and gave back to his alma mater in countless ways.

“Chris Kraft’s spirit and accomplishments are an inspiration to all of us, and we have great appreciation for his service to humanity, our nation, and our university,” said Virginia Tech President Tim Sands.  “We’re proud of Virginia Tech’s role in developing his capacity for remarkable leadership and vision.”

Kraft grew up in a small town, Phoebus, Virginia (now Hampton, Virginia), and enrolled at Virginia Tech in the midst of World War II. He joined the Corps of Cadets and eventually became captain. As part of a VT Stories oral history project, Kraft recalled marching everywhere on campus and in parades as a Corps member.

“I think it had a great deal to do with shaping my willingness to be a leader with people,” he said.

A hand injury from a burn as a child made him unfit to join the military, and as a result, he was one of few Hokies who remained in school during the war.

Kraft took an engineering course that sparked his interest in aeronautics. He recalled learning about the job of an aeronautical engineer from engineering faculty who visited his class to discuss different departments in the college.

“I was fascinated by that,” he said.

Kraft graduated with a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering and soon after joined the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which was the precursor of NASA. In October 1958, he was one of the original members of the Space Task Group, the organization established to manage the Project Mercury. As NASA’s director of flight operations in the 1960s, he was instrumental in landing an astronaut on the moon. 

Later in 1972, he was named director of the Johnson Space Center. Kraft retired in 1982, but his renown did not fade. NASA named its Building 30 Mission Control Center at the Johnson Space Center for Kraft — the Christopher C. Kraft, Jr., Mission Control Center.

Virginia Tech alumnus Homer Hickam, a former NASA engineer and author of the best-selling memoir “Rocket Boys,” said Kraft made a name for Virginia Tech at NASA, where numerous alumni have worked through the years. 

“Virginia Tech graduates in NASA automatically get a lot of respect because most people know that Chris Kraft went to Virginia Tech,” said Hickam ’64, who met Kraft once and said they discussed the rigors of the university’s engineering courses. 

“A Virginia Tech graduate essentially set up how we would operate in space,” Hickam added “It came right out of his education at Virginia Tech.” 

Kraft was a huge proponent of Virginia Tech, so much so that he contributed his life’s work to the university — and encouraged his colleagues to do the same.

In 1986, Kraft donated much of his NASA documents and flight plan papers to the University Libraries Special Collections. His donation essentially established one of the department’s major collection areas —  aerospace science and technology, according to Aaron Purcell, director of Special Collections.

Following Kraft, Michael Collins, former astronaut and command module pilot, gave his Apollo 11 flight plan and other documents from the first moon landing to the University Libraries. They are on display now to commemorate the flight’s 50th anniversary.

“It ties in with a lot of the academic programs we have at Virginia Tech,” Purcell said. “Our challenge is to make students aware of these aerospace collections and make a visit to Special Collections part of the academic experience.”  

The College of Engineering’s dean’s suite in Torgersen Hall also displays a symbol of Kraft’s work. In 2006, he received NASA’s Ambassador of Exploration Award, which was presented to him at Virginia Tech. With the award, Kraft received a piece of rock from the moon. He gave it to the College of Engineering. 

“When Chris received the NASA Ambassador of Space Exploration Award, I commented that there was a generation of engineers and scientists born of the exhilarating work by Chris Kraft and his NASA colleagues in the 1960s,” said Richard Benson, former dean of the College of Engineering and now president of the University of Texas at Dallas. “Chris honored us greatly by having his Moon Rock Award displayed in the Engineering Dean’s Office, and the honor only grows after his passing.”

Among his many accolades, Kraft received the William H. Ruffner Medal in 2002, which is the university’s highest honor. He was Virginia Tech’s commencement speaker in 1982, and he served for two terms on the Board of Visitors.  

Since 1996, Wing Ng, an Alumni Distinguished Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Virginia Tech, has held the title of Christopher C. Kraft Endowed Professor of Engineering. 

Also, Kraft Drive in Blacksburg, near the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center, is named for the NASA legend.

Through it all, Kraft was outspoken about his appreciation for his alma mater.

“Virginia Tech gave me the broad capability to be willing to accept the responsibilities that I had as I went along,” he said in his oral history project interview. “I wasn’t the smartest guy in the office … I wasn’t the smartest guy at NASA. But I had the capability to make things happen. And I’m proud of that.”