My Life in Mission Control
by Chris Kraft
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
NASA’s mission in the 1960s “of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth” involved the work of myriad individuals beyond the astronauts. One of those men, whose work for the project predated Kennedy’s 1961 challenge was Chris Kraft, who would create the concept of Mission Control and for whom the Mission Control building at the Johnson Space Center is named. Kraft died within days of the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, but not before he published his memoirs in Flight: My Life in Mission Control.
While Flight is a biography, providing Kraft’s background and discussing his upbringing and his family, the main focus is the work he did in helping to establish NASA. Kraft takes credit for his own achievements, but not at the expense of those with whom he worked. He is aware of those whose work he was supporting and those around him who helped support him in the race to the Moon. At the same time, he was not concerned about letting his occasionally less than fond memories of some individuals come through. While he clearly was not a huge fan of John Glenn, based on Kraft’s description, the two men eventually came to have a respect for each other’s work. Scott Carpenter was less successful at winning Kraft over and Kraft takes credit for grounding Carpenter after the astronaut’s 1962 flight. Kraft’s description of Werner von Braun is also one that diminishes the scientist’s importance to the space race.
While the majority of the book focuses on the technical achievements Kraft and his team were able to pull together to achieve their goal, and to explain the thought processes behind the decisions made in the program, he also spends some time on the Soviet Union. Kraft is clear that once the Americans surpassed the Russians, the race had essentially been won. Any movement by the Soviets was for show without any real hope of achieving the moon, merely stealing some of the American’s glory. He also notes that one of the coffins in the nails of the Soviet program was the death of “The Chief Designer,” Sergei Korolev, about whom nothing was known until after his death. Even as Kraft dismisses the Soviet program, he discusses plans and offers of collaboration.
Flight is written in an easy style that allows the reader to have the impression that they know both Kraft and the individuals he discusses. The book captures that same sense of wonder that Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff captured as well as exists in much science fiction, although the heroes of Kraft’s story are himself and other similar engineers and bureaucrats. This allows Kraft to discuss some of the decisions behind the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs and Kraft appears to display tremendous honesty in explaining why things were done.
Kraft is hardly an unsung hero of the space age. He has received honors and was portrayed by Stephen Root in Tom Hanks’ From the Earth to the Moon miniseries. NASA is keenly aware of his importance and doesn’t try to hide his role from the public. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that most Americans whose interest in the space program is average or less are not aware of the man who created Mission Control. Flight is an excellent introduction to both the man and his role in the American space program, not only in its nascency, but long after he retired.
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