Two Days With Two Chris Krafts


It took hundreds of thousands of people to send humans to the moon in the 1960s.

Of those, there are a handful without whom NASA as we know it doesn’t exist; giants that stand above the rest. The late Christopher Columbus Kraft, who passed away yesterday, is one of that small number.

Mission Control is such an intrinsic part of the character of human spaceflight that it’s easy to forget sometimes that it had to be invented, that it didn’t just spring naturally from the idea of astronauts and spaceships.

Inventing Mission Control was just Chris Kraft’s first act at NASA, in a career that shaped the Johnson Space Center and the agency itself.

A few years ago, Rick Houston, who wrote Wheels Stop, the companion to my shuttle book sent me a picture of a copy of Homesteading Space setting on a shelf, next to books by John Glenn and Gene Cernan. He said he took the picture somewhere interesting, but would have to wait to tell me where. A year later, he said I could share where it was – Chris Kraft’s house. It remains one of my favorite places I’ve seen the book end up.

I had two opportunities to talk with Chris Kraft.

The first was when I was working on Homesteading Space. I was heading out to Houston, and I had plans to have dinner after I arrived with Joe Kerwin, one of my coauthors on the book, and his wife. I showed up at Joe’s house, and he asked if it was all right that he invited the Krafts to join us.

In a word, yes. Dinner with one of the legends of NASA history? Yes, that was perfectly all right.

I ate rather agreeable steak that night with the Kerwins and the Krafts. It was a wonderful dinner. Kraft was friendly and interesting and amiable. There was a bit of space conversation, but there was more talk about things they were involved in today; nonprofits they worked with to make the world a better place. An utterly pleasant evening with a delightful man.

To be honest, I was a little disappointed.

The stories I’d heard of Kraft were not stories of a pleasant and delightful man.

This is the man who famously wrote of being the Flight Director in Mission Control, “While the mission is under way, I’m Flight. And Flight is God.”

The man I’d heard about was a force of nature, with opinions so strong they functioned as fact, with no tolerance for fools, who was adamant things be done the right way, and the right way was the way that ensured mission success.

Not, in other words, the man I had dinner with.

The next time I met Kraft was at his home. This visit was not a social call; it was business. I was working on my second book, the shuttle history Bold They Rise. I was in Houston talking to astronaut Bo Bobko, and Kraft invited us over to talk to him.

Kraft shared his recollections of the development and operations of the shuttle. He shared his opinions of the decisions made during shuttle’s inception, and his opinions of the decisions NASA was making as we talked. He lambasted every mistake that was made, past and present. He demonized the numerous sins of Marshall Space Flight Center, where I worked. He recounted the painstaking labor he expected from his teams to ensure the shuttle worked as it should.

There was nothing disappointing about this visit.

This was the man I’d heard about.

I’m glad I got both visits. I’m glad I got to see the man I’d heard about, but I’m also glad I met the one I hadn’t.

While the world is eulogizing the man I interviewed about shuttle, they were both Chris Kraft.

A Cool Home for “Homesteading”


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A year ago today, the inimitable Rick Houston sent me that picture of my book “Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story” with a note: “Can’t tell you where I saw this yet … but when I do, it will be one of the most impressive places you’ve seen it. I promise.”

 

Rick, for those that don’t know, is the author of “Go, Flight: The Unsung Heroes of Mission Control” and of “Wheels Stop: The Tragedies and Triumphs of the Space Shuttle 1986-2011,” which is the “sequel” to my “Bold They Rise: The Space Shuttle Early Years, 1972-1986,” picking up the story of the shuttle where my book leaves off.

 

Two months go by, and I hear nothing, so I ask Rick if I’ve missed the news. “Nope. Not yet. But I’ll tell you where I saw the book.” Yeeeeesssssss? “Chris Kraft’s house.” As in, like, NASA’s first flight director ever, the guy that basically invented mission control, and former director of Johnson Space Center. During a launch countdown, when you hear people say “Go, Flight,” Kraft was the original Flight. So, yeah, that’s more than a little bit cool. “Just don’t say anything yet,” Rick says. Awww, OK.

 

More months go by. I ping Rick again, asking if I can share the pic and offering to pitch his books in the process. He doesn’t even answer me this time. Sigh.

 

The big secret has now been revealed, however. The reason Rick was hanging out at Chris Kraft’s house was for “Mission Control: The Men Who Put A Man on the Moon,” a documentary about the flight controllers that put men on the moon. I’ve yet to see it, but the rave reviews that it got at Spacefest make me very eager to.

 

So, point being, Rick’s an awesome guy, not only because he sent me a picture of my book in what was, indeed, an impressive place, and not just because he writes great books on his own, but because he’s making actual documentaries about space. Check his stuff out.

#SCTweetUp Follow Up


OK, I’m very late with this, but now that I’m posting again, I wanted to go back and finish blogging about the Space Camp Tweet Up about a month ago.

To start with, here are my pictures from the second day. (The pictures from the first day are here.)

First, let me begin by saying that you should follow @SpaceCampUSA on Twitter.

Now, the story —

They say that it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good.

And that, certainly, is the root of my Space Camp tweet-up story.

I can’t tell you how excited I was when I was selected for the first ever Space Camp tweet-up. Crazy excited, to resort to incredible understatement. I’d been wanting to go to Space Camp for 25 years. Back in middle school, I would enter the essay contest every year, hoping to win a scholarship, always to no avail. (Apparently my space writing wasn’t up to snuff. Oh, by the way, I have an appointment with them today to do some writing for them. Apparently the last quarter-century has been good for me in that area.)

But, Space Camp always remained just beyond my grasp.

So you can imagine it was a very very sad day when I had to turn down the chance to go to the tweetup. It was going to be the same day as the STS-134 space shuttle launch, and I owed it to some people to go to that instead.

To add insult to injury, the launch scrubbed. I had to watch it much later on television.

But …

So did the tweet-up. Remember that ill wind I mentioned? The tornados that blew through Huntsville two days before the scheduled launch caused the tweet-up to be delayed, and I was able to get back on the list. Which made me a very, very happy man.

I’ve had the opportunity to do some very cool space-related stuff, from watching launches with astronauts to going on a Zero-G flight to talking to the space station. But so many of the things I got to do at Space Camp had this great “I’m finally doing this!” quality to them that made the experience even more special.

One of the first things we did, for example, was ride the Multi-Axis Trainer, a chair  mounted in concentric loops that all spin in different directions at the same time. I can’t tell you how many times I’d seen the MAT, and been jealous of the fact that I’d never gotten to try it. And now, here I was, strapping in. Awesome. (For the record, I didn’t get at all nauseated, but that’s typical. It has something to do with how quickly the spinning changes direction.)

While we were there, we also got to use the One-Sixth-G Chair, which simulates what it’s like to walk on the moon, using an elaborate pulley system. There was a bit of irony there for me — I’ve experienced “actual” one-sixth G during my reduced gravity flight, so I was probably one of a few people to get to experience the real thing before simulating it at Space Camp. What I learned is that it really doesn’t matter whether it’s real or simulated — I stink at being in reduced gravity. If the real moonwalkers had been as awkward on the moon as I was in the chair, NASA would have covered up that we ever landed out of embarrassment.

Also that night, astronaut Hoot Gibson came and spoke to us about — well, anything he wanted to talk about. Hoot’s a great speaker, and his talk was informative — I learned a few new things — and greatly entertaining.

The next day started with a tour of Marshall Space Flight Center, which was somewhat bittersweet for me. It was a little odd being back just over a month after I left, and I have to admit that I missed it a bit. They do some incredible things there, and it was an honor to have been involved with that.

Our lunch speaker was Tim Pickens, of the Rocket City Space Pioneers team that is competing in the Google Lunar X Prize. He’s a brilliant man, and RCSP is an incredible team doing brilliant things. Hopefully you’ll be hearing more about that on here at some point.

And then, it was time for our mission. For me, the highlight of the entire event. Again, I’d been waiting a long time for this.

OK, to be perfectly honest, I was slightly disappointed. I wanted to be in the orbiter. Instead, I was in Mission Control. Watching Apollo 13 one time, I decided that it wouldn’t be that bad being in Mission Control at Space Camp if you could be Flight, and say really cool stuff like Gene Kranz. But I wasn’t even Flight.

I was a prop.

Well, technically, I was PROP, the propulsion officer. And I did get to say some cool stuff. Heck, just going through the Go/No Go polling was enough to send chills through you. “PROP is Go!” Even if I wasn’t in the shuttle, it was still amazing to finally get to do a Space Camp mission.

I’m not entirely sure the crew would have survived the mission in real life; my pet peeve, for example, was that they never activated their auxiliary power units like they were supposed to. I’m pretty sure that would be a bad day on a real mission, but I’m not sure if they technically needed them on our simulation, which was a once-around abort. Also, the spacewalkers were basically doing a separate sim at the same time as the inside-the-orbiter, so from Mission Control, they basically got left in orbit. Still, I admire their dedication to the mission and their country.

A few things remained after that. We toured Aviation Challenge, where I crashed many simulated airplanes. I got to ride their centrifuge, but it only went up to 3G. (What can I say, I’m a G-snob at this point. It would be great fun for most people.) We rode Space Shot. We got to see the new Sue The T-Rex traveling exhibit, which was pretty cool.

And then it was done.

It was an exciting, exhausting, exhilarating two days, that was a complete dream come true for me.

The only downside —

The only downside —

Was that finally getting to go to Space Camp in no way, shape or form diminished my decades-long desire to go to Space Camp.

And next time, I wanna fly the orbiter.