Running Time: 2:00:32
About the Lecture
Chris Kraft manages to present in a single event the ultimate in engineering case studies, as well as an insider’s history of 20th century space missions and a pep talk for Aero-Astro students. This blunt raconteur describes the challenges of the earliest space pioneers. His story begins with Project Mercury in the 1950s, whose space task group of 35 included eight secretaries. “We were capable people but didn’t know a damn thing about how to fly in space,” recalls Kraft. How would they communicate with a man in orbit, or assess his health? Most doctors thought when an astronaut left earth’s atmosphere, “he’d be a blithering idiot.” Air to ground communication in those days consisted of 20 words of teletype. “How do you make real time decisions in those circumstances?” muses Kraft. He proudly describes assembling the Mission Rules book, “probably the smartest thing we ever did,” which attempted to address all conceivable malfunctions on a space mission. This was an early example of systems engineering, says Kraft.
When President Kennedy challenged NASA to get a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s, “Chris Kraft did not know how to determine orbital mechanics from 30 seconds of radar at Cape Canaveral. I thought the president was a little daft.” Suddenly, there were a whole new set of problems, such as how to make sure a craft aimed at the moon did not just hit it. In the Gemini and then Apollo programs, Kraft’s team solved innumerable and breathtakingly difficult issues. “We did a lot of things by the seat of our pants because we didn’t know any other way. We did it by feel, by having seen the past and doing things the right way.”
Kraft has some harsh words for the current state of space exploration. He can’t countenance NASA’s abandoning the space shuttle. “We seem to have a great propensity in this country for building something wonderful, great and high performance and throwing it away….Golly, my mother would have gone bananas!” He believes that NASA could have made the shuttle much more efficient to fly, and used it as a key element in the new race back to the Moon and to Mars. Kraft doesn’t believe this program will get off the ground—mainly because NASA hasn’t built anything new in 25 years, “and they’ve forgotten what it takes to do it.” The next space mission, whatever it turns out to be, will depend on the current crop of young aerospace engineers. “Go do it, don’t be frightened to fail,” exhorts Kraft. “You learn more from your failures than from your successes.”