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Flight: My Life in Mission Control

Flight: My Life in Mission Control

4.2 4
by Chris Kraft

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In his New York Times bestseller, Chris Kraft delivers an unforgettable account of his life in Mission Control. The first NASA flight director, Kraft emerged from a boyhood in small-town America to become a visionary who played an integral role in what would become the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. It's all here, from the legendary Mercury missions


In his New York Times bestseller, Chris Kraft delivers an unforgettable account of his life in Mission Control. The first NASA flight director, Kraft emerged from a boyhood in small-town America to become a visionary who played an integral role in what would become the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. It's all here, from the legendary Mercury missions that first sent Americans into space, through the Gemini and Apollo missions that landed them on the moon. The great heroes of space are here, too -- Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell, and Buzz Aldrin -- leading the space race that would change the course of U.S. history.

From NASA's infancy to its greatest triumphs...from the calculated gambles to the near disasters to the pure luck that accompanied each mission, Flight relives the spellbinding events that captured the imagination of the world. It is a stirring tribute to the U.S. space program and to the men who risked their lives to take America on a flight into the unknown -- from the man who was there for it all.

Editorial Reviews

Orlando Sentinal
a tale of technological triumph and good-old Yankee ingenuity and teamwork.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Hollywood has captivated American audiences with dramatizations of the early space program and the race for the moon in movies like The Right Stuff and Apollo 13. But what really happened, before filmmakers made revisions for dramatic effect behind the scenes, as well as on the launchpads and in the cramped spaceships far from Earth? Kraft--flight director (thus his moniker "Flight") for the first Mercury flights in the early 1960s through most of the Gemini missions, chief of flight operations for the moon launches and, later, head of the Johnson Space Center in Houston--details the inception and first heady decade of NASA. In these memoirs he reveals little-known details of the space program: the young marine pilot John Glenn's cocky, stubborn side; the disorganization that contributed to the horrible launchpad fire in 1967 that killed three astronauts and NASA's subsequent soul-searching; Kraft and his staff's fight against cautious bureaucrats over the first lunar circumnavigation, one of the space program's high points; Buzz Aldrin's campaign to be the first man on the moon and why Neil Armstrong was chosen instead; and the media's construction of the U.S.-Russian space race. Kraft pulls no punches in his accounts of NASA infighting, and he gives credit where it's due, even to longtime sparring partners like NASA head George Mueller and master rocket-builder Wernher von Braun. Kraft's fair and ever-enthusiastic narrative will have broad appeal, from those who remember the first space flight to younger folks who can't imagine a world without NASA. 8 pages of photos not seen by PW. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
During the early years of the Space Age, Chris Kraft's name was probably better known than that of the U.S. president. All through the '60s and '70s, it was Kraft who delivered the latest news of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions to an excited world. For those who have thought of Kraft as a public relations spokesman for NASA, this book will be an eye-opener. Christopher Columbus Kraft was a fresh and untried aeronautical engineer when he started working for the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA) in 1945. After several years designing test programs for the new jet fighters, the Soviet Union lofted Sputnik and his world was never the same again. The nation set out on a scientific renaissance, NACA morphed into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and Kraft found himself NASA's flight director for America's first trips into space. Both Kraft and NASA were total novices when they began to develop the new technologies and put together the interlocking programs necessary to launch a human on a brief sub-orbital flight. They did so in a very short time, and put Neil Armstrong onto the Moon a scant 12 years later. This is, quite simply, the best autobiography to come out of the space program. Kraft is an interesting person, first of all, and he does a fine job of explaining the complicated aerospace equipment and experiments. He is meticulous with his facts, as you might expect an engineer to be, but never lets the story bog down in esoteric detail. Possibly the best part of the book is his description of the amazingly complex planning and coordination efforts that were necessary before the first missile could ever leave the pad. There is also a strong "people"element throughout the book, with lifelike personality sketches of the astronauts and aerospace experts. Kraft freely describes the inevitable frustrations and personality clashes that went on behind the scenes, and isn't afraid to name names. The result is the first really full-dimensional story of America's historic first space missions. Highly recommended to public and school collections. KLIATT Codes: SA*�Exceptional book, recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2001, Plume, 371p. illus. index.,
Kirkus Reviews
A gung-ho memoir of the American manned space-flight program, told by the crusty, avuncular flight director of the Mercury and Gemini missions (later director of the Houston Spaceflight Center). Kraft graduated from Virginia Polytechnic and then spent 12 years testing military aircraft for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) at Langley Field in Virginia, in the process earning himself both an ulcer and valuable experience as troubleshooter of tedious design problems (and even more tedious bureaucratic conflicts among the various contractors and military agencies). After the launching of the Russian Sputnik satellite in 1958, NACA became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), with Kraft along for the ride as an architect of the manned space program and flight director—the buck-stops-here guy—for most of the important early space flights. He disses some of the folk who didn't see things his way: he almost decks Werner von Braun, for example, and he chafes at John Glenn's "gyrene stubbornness." But he's most useful as an informative corrective to broad-brush treatments that have mythologized the space program. Tom Wolfe, according to Kraft, got some of the right stuff wrong—astronauts did not have to use their celebrity to wrest control of their spacecraft from Mission Control; from the start, Mercury capsule designers wanted to make the spacecraft as flyable as possible. Kraft also points out significant flaws and inconsistencies in the filmed treatment of the nail-biting calamities of Apollo 13. Snappy, highly detailed account of the engineering challenges, backroom bickering, and edge-of-your-seat drama surrounding 20th-centuryAmerica's most dramatic technological achievement. (8 pp. photos, not seen)

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Penguin Publishing Group
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Chapter 9
Around the World in Ninety Minutes
We had two missions to fly before we put John Glenn into orbit. Less than two months after Grissom's flight convinced us to drop the Redstone rocket from the program-a decision that also dropped Wernher von Braun from the program, though none of us thought of it at the time-another Mercury/Atlas combination was on the pad. It was the same capsule, refurbished and improved, that survived the last Atlas explosion. This time we had a near-perfect countdown, a near-perfect flight, and recovered the capsule after one orbital trip around the world. But now it was mid-September, and the Glenn flight, we were sure, would slip into 1962. (Glenn's selection was still a closely guarded secret.)
A few days after that one-orbit flight, we got the news we'd been expecting and dreading. Henceforth the Space Task Group would be called the Manned Spacecraft Center. And we'd be moving to a place none of us expected: Houston, Texas. As much as anything, it was a political decision. Houston, like several other cities, met the requirements NASA wanted. But it also was home to the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, and Lyndon Johnson was vice president of the United States. It didn't hurt that an oil company donated a lot of land to Rice University, which then deeded much of it (but not all) to NASA free and clear.
Bob Gilruth went to Jim Webb and all but begged to keep his operation at Langley, Virginia. Webb made the politics absolutely clear with a single question: "What has [Senator] Harry Byrd done for the space program?" So we were about to become Texans. Betty Anne slipped out of bed that night and cried in the bathroom. I was sorry to be leaving. But it had to be and we talked through it until we vowed that we'd make the move with positive minds, expecting to like Texas as much as we liked our native Tidewater Virginia.
MA-5 was to be our last animal flight, set for late November. "Why another chimp?" reporters asked. "Why not a man?" They had a good point. Russia had put two men into orbit, one of them for a full day. We'd put a chimp and two men into suborbital flights and sent a man-simulator around the world in a Mercury capsule. That put four U.S. missions in the success column-each with nitpicking, but solvable hardware problems-and my operations team was now composed of veteran space-flight controllers. We talked it over and rationalized our decision.
"We've made a public commitment to the step-by-step approach," Gilruth pointed out.
"And the medical committee will give us hell if we ask out of the chimpanzee flight," Walt Williams added.
I thought, but didn't say, that it would feel good to have one more unmanned flight to make sure all those nitpicking problems had been solved. This time we weren't neck and neck with the Russians to put a man in orbit, and I'd rather lose a chimp than an astronaut. We fended off the press questions and stuck to the plan.
MA-5, on November 29, 1961, was a true dress rehearsal for manned flight. We sent off our remote crews and this time deployed four astronauts to key sites where they'd handle capcom duties as needed. Only John Glenn and his backup, Scott Carpenter, stayed behind, along with Deke Slayton, my primary capcom in mission control.
The Atlas was still a fickle rocket. I crossed my fingers on every launch. This one, with our Mercury capsule and a chimpanzee named Enos on top, was on the mark all the way to orbit. FIDO was quickly calculating the numbers.
"How's it look, FIDO?"
"Go for three orbits, Flight."
I couldn't ask for a better report. The capsule set itself into the right attitude and Enos looked good as it went over the hill. As it passed over Australia, the only problem worth watching came from the capsule's thrusters. They were firing too often to keep the capsule stable in the roll axis. We'd seen that on the last flight, too, thought the low temperature of space was turning the fuel to slush, and added some heaters. Now it was happening again. With a man on board, it wasn't a big problem. He'd simply switch the system out of automatic mode. Without one, fuel consumption had to be watched.
Enos had a series of tasks with levers and lights, more than the medics had asked of Ham. He was doing just fine, Surgeon told me.
I'd ordered go/no-go decisions for each orbit. While our capsule was over Hawaii, I polled the team. We were go for a second orbit, and when it passed the California coast, I made the call. Then things started to go bad.
"Roll disturbances are still high, Flight."
"Propellant consumption is above the line, Flight."
I listened without comment.
"Flight, ECS. Cabin and suit temps are going up. Looks like we have a hot inverter, too."
"What's your call, ECS?"
"We're go, Flight. But we need to watch it."
"The chimp's okay for now, but his body temp is a bit elevated."
"Go or no-go?"
"He's go, Flight. For now."
The key words were for now. I heard warnings in every report. This is what we trained for, I thought. This time, it's for real. I activated my comm line to the remote sites.
"All sites, this is Cape Flight. Repeat, Cape Flight. We have several situations for immediate, repeat immediate, attention. One, roll disturbances and propellant usage. Two, cabin and suit loop temperatures. Three, inverter temperatures. Four, crew condition. His body temp is elevated.
"All sites, monitor and report immediately. Repeat, report immediately."
I thought about it for a moment, then clicked back onto the loop. "Hawaii and Cal [California] Capcoms, Cape Flight."
"Go, Flight . . ."
"We might have to bring him down on the next rev. Be ready to change the retrofire clock, or to fire the retrorockets on my mark."
"Rog, Flight."
Forty minutes later, the Australian sites reported that temps were decreasing and stabilizing. But the thruster problem was worse. One of them had failed. The capsule was automatically maintaining its attitude within our limits, and the jerky, back-and-forth roll maneuvers weren't affecting the chimp. It was propellant depletion that worried me. We needed enough to hold steady during retrofire. An astronaut on board could have switched off the automatic system that was malfunctioning. We couldn't do it from the ground.
"Systems, how's it look?"
"We're checking, Flight."
I wanted more than that, but I gave them time. By Hawaii, all the temps were just about normal, including the chimp's.
"Flight, Surgeon. He's go for a third orbit."
"Systems. I want a go/no-go before California."
"Rog, Flight."
I meant exactly that. Go/no-go decisions had to have an element of gut feel to go with the hard data. Enos was reportedly good for the third and final orbit. The surgeon didn't know that the chimp's test apparatus had developed a problem. Like Ham, Enos was getting an electrical shock no matter what he did. He was a strong little fighter and he was tearing the equipment apart. He'd also ripped out a urinary catheter and was beginning to bleed. We didn't have instruments to tell us that piece of bad news.
But my concern was having enough attitude propellant to set up for retrofire. Gordon Cooper was Capcom at the California site. I warned him to be ready to initiate the retrofire command.
At the systems console in mission control, they were still pondering the data when the capsule's signals were picked up in California. Arnie Aldrich on the systems console out there reported immediately. The errant roll maneuvers were still a factor, and propellant was getting low. I turned to Systems in my control center.
"Systems, what's your recommendation?"
I got equivocation. And I was getting a bit upset myself. I glanced at the mission clock and did a quick calculation.
"You've got twelve seconds, Systems!" I snapped. That did it.
"No-go, Flight. Bring him down."
"California, Flight. Retrofire on my mark." There were only a few seconds left to make it, but Aldrich was ready. "five, four, three, two, one, mark!"
The signal went up from the California station at Point Arguello. Arnie gave us a running commentary as a perfect retrofire sequence unfolded in space. We confirmed it on our own consoles at the Cape. Enos was on his way down.
We learned a few things that day. It was the first time I faced a life-and-death decision in my role as Flight. No matter that the life was a chimpanzee's. In those last minutes, all that mattered was getting him home safely. I don't remember thinking of him as a chimp. He was my responsibility as much as any astronaut would ever be. My team learned the value of making those decisions, too. The next time I asked for a recommendation or a decision on anything, I'd get it in a hurry. In the back of my mind, I made a note: It's better to make a conservative decision now and end the mission than to wait for the perfect decision and maybe lose everything along the way.
We'd missed the chance at that third orbit, but the rest of the problems were minor. The cabin and inverter temperatures had stabilized on their own. The thruster problem was trickier and taught us that the obvious answer isn't always the right one. On MA-4, we thought the problem was the cold, so we added heaters. Now we discovered that heat from the thruster firings was the culprit. It caused valves to warp, creating erratic fuel flow. This time we inserted a shunt, a piece of metal that carried heat away from the fuel lines and into the main capsule structure. The problem never came back.
Enos didn't get his third orbit in space. But until his test equipment failed, he'd done an admirable job of paying attention and working in zero gravity. Even when it got too warm for a while, he kept working. The medics had to be satisfied.
At the first postflight press conference, Bob Gilruth told the world that John Glenn would get the first manned orbital flight and that Deke Slayton would get the second. I was delighted for Deke. He'd be a joy to work with. Glenn would be okay, too, even if he'd shown a tendency to be overly picky while backing up Shepard and Grissom. We'd work it out.
Everything was coming at us at once. The moon program was to be called Apollo. A new two-man program called Gemini was inserted between Mercury and Apollo to keep us flying in space and to work out many of the technical problems of going to the moon. And we still hadn't put our first astronaut into orbit. Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. It was a tall order for a team that was still testing airplanes three years ago.
We needed some time off and Walt Williams sent us home for Christmas. Even that generated critical stories in the press. How dare we? We dared, all right, and I spent a week with Betty Anne and the kids. It wasn't all rest. We started planning our move to Houston. And I started setting up my new job. Just before I left the Cape, Williams called me in. Chuck Mathews was going to Apollo, to help in spacecraft design.
"And you're the new chief of the Flight Control Division," Williams said. "Merry Christmas."
"Thanks a lot," I said. It was going to be a helluva increase in responsibility, with three man-in-space programs to support. I thought about how much we'd had to learn to get this far in Mercury. The depth of our ignorance on running long-duration missions with two men up there was heart-stopping. But Gemini would be simple compared to what we needed to learn before we could send men to the moon. How the hell do we control a mission when the crew is a quarter million miles away? I thought with a shudder. It's hard enough when the capsule is only 120 miles overhead.
It was daunting, but taking over the division was an exciting challenge. The first phone call I made when I got home was to my old friend Sig Sjoberg, who was special assistant to both Mathews and me. He jumped at the chance to be my deputy. We put in some of that Christmas holiday time establishing an organization that could support Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo at the same time, with each program in a different phase of work. One decision was easy. We needed to hire a lot of new engineers and technicians in the next months. They'd report to work in Houston. The rest of us would follow in mid-1962, after we'd finished the Glenn flight and the Slayton flight.
No matter the promotion and new responsibilities, I was still Flight and had a mission control center to run. Sjoberg and our administrative assistant, Chris Critzos, took on the mounds of paperwork that came with expanding the Flight Control Division and moving everything fifteen hundred miles away to the Gulf Coast of Texas.
The phone rang on my console in the control center while we were setting up simulations for Glenn's flight. We hoped to get him off the pad in January 1962, but so far the Atlantic coast weather wasn't cooperating. Walt Williams was on the line.
"Glenn and Voas were just here," he told me. "They want to change the flight plan."
It was late in the game for that kind of crap and I was testy when I asked, "What'd you tell them?"
"I told them to see you. It's your call." Before I could ask more, he hung up.
It better be good, I thought, or I know what my call will be.
Dr. Robert Voas was a thorn in my side going back to the Shepard flight, and I didn't like that he was involved in astronaut training. He seemed to be getting a lot of the credit for the detail work being done by Ray Zedekar, George Guthrie, and others. If he understood pilots better, I might have felt differently.
He and Glenn met me in Williams's office. It was just the three of us and Glenn got right to it.
"We're concerned about doing retrofire under manual control," he said.
That surprised me. The flight plan called for retrofire to be done in automatic mode. Manual control was strictly a backup and Glenn had practiced it in the trainer under a variety of off-nominal and emergency conditions. He was pretty good at it, too.
"What's the problem?" I asked.
"Disorientation," Voas said. "If the capsule's spinning out of control, he'll have to stabilize it first. He hasn't had that kind of training."
I bit my tongue. Of course not, you fool, I wanted to say. How do you simulate a zero-gravity condition like that here on Earth? Instead, I asked the obvious question.
"What do you propose?"
"On the first orbit, turn off the automatic system and have John spin the capsule in all three axes," Voas said smugly. I'm sure that he was thinking that I should have thought of this myself. "Then let him regain control."
"So you want to create an actual emergency situation in space just so he can practice recovering from it, in case the same emergency happens by accident?" I tried to conceal the sarcasm in my voice.
I saw a light dawning in Glenn's eyes, but Voas was a bulldog.
"It's not an emergency if he spins it on purpose," he said.
"The capsule is doing exactly the same thing either way," I said with more heat. "What's the difference?"
Voas still didn't understand. Now we were arguing. "Glenn's going to have plenty to do up there without adding this dumb idea," I said.
"If he can't recover from a spinning capsule, you'll have his blood on your hands," Voas said, pointing to Glenn.
"And whose hands are bloody if he deliberately spins it and still can't recover?"
That ended the argument. Glenn and Voas got up and left. Whatever shred of respect I might have had for Voas was gone, and I hoped that none of his ideas rubbed off on Glenn in the future. We ran the mission without creating a "practice emergency." As it turned out, Glenn had to face problems of another kind anyway.

Close to a thousand reporters, both U.S. and foreign, were at the Cape for the John Glenn flight. The weather was so bad that he suited up five times before we let the countdown go to zero. The reporters' moods were as foul as the weather. They were stuck in Cocoa Beach, overrunning their expense accounts, and the only story they could write was about one more delay.
In one press conference, John Finney of the New York Times asked me about the odds of a successful launch the next day. I thought about it briefly and gave him an honest answer: "If I thought about the odds at all, we'd never go to the pad."
The crew of that Russian trawler had it just as bad, shuttling back and forth between Florida and Cuba over rough seas. Our coded signals to the Atlas and the Mercury capsule were kept secret. We used one set for simulations and another on launch day. One morning when we thought we'd get a weather break, the Bermuda site chief opened his safe to get the code and found that the metal bands on the security box were broken. That was one more problem we didn't need. Then he reported a second time. The box had been in the safe so long that the bands broke from stress corrosion. Nothing about John Glenn's flight was easy.
We finally did it on February 20. We'd had a few minor problems and holds, pushing liftoff into midmorning. Then John Hodge reported a problem with the Bermuda radar. I called a hold while he gave me a lengthy explanation.
"Go or no-go?" I asked. He gave me more explanation. "It's your decision, go or no-go?"
He wouldn't give me an answer. I looked at my watch and waited until the second hand was straight up.
"You've got two minutes. Go or no-go? Make up your mind!"
There was a long silence and the tension in mission control was thick enough to touch. I stared at my watch.
"We can live with it, Flight," Hodge finally said. "We're go."
"Goddard, Flight. Are you go?"
"We're go, Flight," the computer supervisor up north said instantly.
"Launch Director, Flight. We're go whenever you want to pick up the count."
Ten minutes later, the count went down to zero. Scott Carpenter was Capcom-we called the position Stony-in the launch blockhouse. His words at the T-10 second mark became famous: "Godspeed, John Glenn."
The man about to become America's most famous astronaut waited until he felt the thundering Atlas rocket begin to move. Then he gave the standard and now classic reply: "Liftoff and the clock is running."
Everything looked good for a while. Glenn was in orbit safely. After a few moments' disorientation, he'd adjusted quickly to zero g. He tried out the control system. It worked just as he'd expected. The capsule's nose pointed wherever he wanted, changing its position with a few quick blips of his thrusters. It was different from flying an airplane, but it wasn't hard. He crossed Africa, looked down on Australia and saw the lights of Perth, and sped toward sunrise near Hawaii. That was when he saw the fireflies. Sparkling in the sun's sudden light, his Friendship 7 capsule was surrounded by dancing bits of brightness. Nobody knew what they were. I heard his call and shook my head. This was something new.
We didn't have much time to think about it. Suddenly a lot was happening. It started with a phone alert from the White House. President Kennedy wanted to talk to Glenn. I wasn't happy with the interruption. But I told the backroom comm people to set it up. We'd patch him through when Glenn crossed over the Cape in about thirty minutes.
Then Glenn switched his control system back to automatic, and the capsule nose swung to the left. He used his hand controller to bring it back. Then it swung again. He brought it back. It wouldn't stay. My systems guy was Don Arabian. He was about to get very busy.
"Systems, what's happening?"
"Looks like a problem in the yaw thrusters, Flight."
"Take 'em off-line, Flight."
"Tell him, Capcom."
Glenn dutifully pulled the switches to turn off the offending thrusters. He had others that would do the same job. Almost immediately, another problem jumped up to bite us.
"Flight, Systems, I've got a Segment 51."
"More details, Systems."
"Segment 51 is a live switch on the heat shield collar. It's saying that the landing bag deployed."
My gut told me instantly that it was a faulty signal. A quick schematic check showed three switches on the collar. Any one of them-or all of them-could be sending the signal. It could be serious. The landing bag was stowed between the heat shield and Friendship 7's pressure vessel and would cushion splashdown. If it had actually deployed in orbit, that meant the heat shield was loose. That only raised more questions in my mind.
How could all of that happen without Glenn hearing something? Wouldn't there be loud noises when it happened and probably some clanging and banging from the heat shield every time the capsule's thrusters fired? And wouldn't Glenn instantly report if his own instrument panel showed deployment? I discussed it quickly with Al Shepard on the capcom console. He'd been through a splashdown and agreed. It was probably a spurious signal.
"Don't mention it to Glenn," I said. "Not yet, anyway. He's got enough to do without worrying about this."
"Rog, Flight."
At the same time, Gene Kranz on the procedures console sent Teletype alerts to the remote sites, asking them to watch for the Segment 51 signal. As Glenn crossed the Atlantic, then Africa for the second time, the reports came back. Segment 51 showed up in some telemetry signals, but not in others.
In the back room, President Kennedy's call to Glenn was canceled. By then, Shorty Powers was reporting the Segment 51 problem to the press and the world. I'm sure that Kennedy understood.
Top management now reared its head in mission control. Walt Williams was still my boss as operations director. He'd never interfered before. But now he got involved, setting up a backroom briefing with Max Faget, who'd designed much of the capsule, and with John Yardley, McDonnell's chief engineer. As Glenn approached Australia on the other side of the world, they appeared by my console. They were worried.
Arabian, Shepard, and I were convinced that nothing was wrong beyond a faulty signal. Gordo Cooper was the capcom in Australia. I told him to ask Glenn about noises. The answer came back in minutes: no noises. But now Glenn was alerted. Something was bothering us and he didn't know what it was.
"Tell him to cycle the switches on the landing bag system," I told Cooper. I hoped that turning the switches on and off would make the signal go away. Cooper passed the word and Glenn complied. Nothing changed. Segment 51 was still there in the Australian telemetry.
Now Walt Williams was getting antsy. Half the mission was still to go, and he was listening to Yardley and Faget suggest that we leave the retrorockets in place after they'd fired. Their reasoning was simple: If the heat shield was loose, the retros might hold it in place during reentry, at least until the retro pack burned away.
I was aghast. If any of three retro rockets had solid fuel remaining, an explosion could rip everything apart. The fuel always burned completely, Faget said. That didn't make me feel any better about leaving that heavy and nonaerodynamic retro pack in place. About that time, one of the remote sites let Glenn know what was happening. Now he understood our worry. But again he reported no noises and no indications that the landing bag was anywhere except where it was supposed to be.
In mission control, our discussions were getting heated. None of us knew that the outside world was even more worried than we were. Shorty Powers's reports, consistently accurate, revealed that Glenn's heat shield might be loose. The press was smart enough to report that Glen's reentry might be short, fiery, and fatal. That Flight considered the signal to be spurious didn't change the tone of the reporting. John Glenn was in danger. Millions of people stopped to watch and listen.
As Glenn approached the United States on his third and final rev, we had to make a decision. He'd maneuvered Friendship 7 into the correct position for retrofire. He'd checked his landing bag switches again, with still negative results. I looked at Walt Williams and Max Faget. None of us had changed our minds. It was my call-jettison the pack after retrofire or leave it on.
"Okay," I said, "you're the hardware experts." That wasn't quite true about Williams, but Max still insisted that leaving it on wouldn't put Glenn in even more danger. "I'll do it your way."
"California, Flight. Tell him we're thinking about leaving the retro pack in place after retrofire."
Wally Schirra did it and Glenn just as quickly wanted to know why. Schirra didn't have time for an explanation. The final word, he told Glenn, would come after retrofire. I wanted to know that those rockets had worked and that the chance of unburned fuel remaining was just about zero.
In mission control, everyone held his breath and watched the clock. We heard Glenn's report. One by one, those rockets that would bring him down fired on time. I asked for confirmation.
"Retro, you're sure they all fired?"
"Rog, Flight. We got three good ones."
"Okay. Texas, Flight. Give him the word. Keep the retro pack in place." We didn't have an astronaut at the Texas site. The local systems engineer had to pass along the critical instruction and he didn't know why.
Within moments Glenn had his instructions. Now he was both curious and concerned. But Texas couldn't tell him anything more. He'd have to wait a few minutes until we had him in sight from the Cape. Then Shepard used the few minutes before communications blackout to give Glenn a quick summary of our thinking.
Glenn's answer was short. He was starting to feel the forces of gravity build up. "Roger," he said. "Understand." In the next minute, he reported seeing chunks of burning material going by his window. A fiery strap wrapped around the window, then blew away. Things bumped and banged off the capsule, and the outside world was turning bright red. Then Friendship 7 went over the hill and we could only wait in silence with shoulders and guts tensed.
Everything worked. We heard his voice relayed through the recovery planes. The capsule had come through the reentry heat and the communications blackout, and now its parachute was out. Glenn splashed down forty miles long, but just five miles from a destroyer. When they had him on the deck of the Noa, I lit up my cigar. I heard later that America had gone crazy in that last hour. The celebrations from coast to coast were just short of delirious. John Glenn, on that day in 1962, and in that last hour before splashdown, became a true American hero.
While America rejoiced, I sat for a few moments and thought it over. We'd taken an action that I still considered dangerous and foolhardy in leaving that retro pack on and letting it burn away. We could have killed John Glenn just as surely as not. We were lucky. When Faget's engineers examined the capsule, they found just what I suspected. One switch was misrigged and was sending a bad signal. There had been nothing wrong up there at all, not until we left the retro pack on. That was wrong. It didn't kill Glenn, but it was still wrong.
We learned some hard lessons that day. One was that we needed telemetry from all three switches individually. If we'd had that on Friendship 7, we would have known that two of the three hadn't activated and that the heat shield hadn't come loose. Redundancy of that kind forces us into a new way of thinking and would soon make my flight controllers the best systems engineers in the world.
Before I went out to join the splashdown parties, I also jotted down a new mission rule: "Never depart from the norm unless it is absolutely required. Once you do, you enter a regime where events are unpredictable. Make a change on the fly and it might bite you and bite you hard."
My flight controllers and I were a lot closer to the systems and to events than anyone in top management. From now on, I swore, they'd play hell before they overruled any decision I made.

—Reprinted from Flight: My Life in Mission Control by Chris Kraft by permission of Dutton, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2001 by Chris Kraft. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

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Flight: My Life in Mission Control 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Reviewer: W. L. Creech; Henderson, NV Brilliantly achieved. Brilliantly written. No matter how well informed you are about mankind's expedition to the moon, this intriguing account by the ultimate 'insider' at the center of the action provides facts never before revealed about what went wrong, what went right, and why. At its root it's a book about professionalism, why it is so important, and how it ultimately was achieved in the face of enormous technical complexity and bureaucratic infighting. Thus, Chris Kraft's deft retelling of this fascinating story also is informative on the importance of creating professionalsim by managers at all levels -- whatever their own challenges. Indisputably, NASA's challenge was enormous, as was Chris Kraft's role. You'll enjoy it and you'll learn lessons from it that you can put to work in your own life. General Bill Creech, Author: The Five Pillars of TQM.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I've read at least a dozen books on the early American space program. This is my favorite. Kraft's "front-seat view" in mission control brings a different perspective over the numerous books by former astronauts. "FLIGHT" chronicles Kraft's childhood in southeastern Virginia and moves up through his career in aeronautical engineering. I was particularly moved by the story of a pilot who died while testing an aircraft that Kraft's design team was working on. It's evident that this was a life-changing moment for Kraft. Kraft is very open about his impressions of personalities at NASA, and he is generous with his praise and criticism of both astronauts and administrators.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
While a very entertaining biography of the early days of NASA and the Mercury missions, the author Chris Kraft seems to have animosity towards astronaut Scott Carpenter. In one whole chapter and in many other parts of this book, Chris Kraft criticizes Scott Carpenter and his space mission in aurora 7, trashes his ability as a asronaut and his career at NASA. Chris Kraft blamed all the problems that happened on Aurora 7 on Scott Carpenter. Shame on Chris Craft. SOUR GRAPES.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is the most exciting space book there is out there. It's a real behind the scenes look at NASA from Mercury to Apollo. Told very well, easy to follow. A definate must read bio!!