SPACE CENTER, Houston -- Ask Chris Kraft if he has had any disappointments in his 37-year career at the forefront of the American aerospace program and a long silence ensues.
'I don't think I've got one,' the bespectacled, soft-spoken Virginian said in an interview in his ninth floor office overlooking the Johnson Space Center. 'I don't see how I could have been disappointed.
'I think anybody in this business would like to see us go faster and do things more rapidly, but that's true in any walk of life. When you're involved in it, you know you can do more. But ... that's just the facts of life.'
The comment is vintage Kraft, who has announced he is resigning at the end of the year after 11 years as director of the Johnson Space Center. An engineer first, he also is too smooth a politician to let much negativism creep in.
He denied his leaving has anything to do with fears of a diminished role for JSC now that the space shuttle is becoming operational. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has not assigned JSC a new task.
There have been suggestions space shuttle operations will move to Kennedy Space Center, Fla. Kraft doubts it because 'I think there's so much to be learned yet about how to operate this machine.'
Marshall Space Flight Center, Ala., is fighting for the lead in developing a space station. Kraft sees no contest, only different perspectives on the same problem. He expects JSC and Marshall both to be 'intimately involved.'
Kraft simply considers his job developing the space shuttle finished.
'I'm not tired or anything. But it is natural for somebody else to begin to think about doing the future of the space program, make use of the space shuttle, develop the space station. That's a 10-year process,' Kraft said.
Kraft also sees a great American future in space and a renaissance of public interest within the next 10 years.
'You've got to realize that the country doesn't realize the potential yet of what can be done in space. People that don't work in it every day view it as some esoteric happening. They haven't seen it as part of our economic scene.
'I would say by the end of this decade you would begin to see a real mushrooming effect of people going into space for commercial uses ...'
Kraft apparently has disagreed with a number of decisions in the space program. He probably would not have laid out the campaign to the moon the way it was done. He definitely would not have tried to control where Skylab fell.
But the former outfielder who hit .340 on the Virginia Tech baseball team in 1944 is first of all a team player.
'I've always said pretty much what I think. I don't think I've ever been brash. I don't think it serves the country to criticize in public what is being done by today's administrators,' Kraft said.
'I think the way NASA is going today is pretty well right on. I think NASA's problems are in trying to convince the powers that be that we need to do the things we're out to do.'
Kraft at the time said trying to control where Skylab fell in 1979 was a waste of money. Asked how much money, he now takes a positive tack: 'Not much.'
He also had his own ideas about how to go to the moon, but he was only JSC flight operations director at the time and was not asked to make the decision. The way it was done worked and that suits him fine now.
'I think you would have gone from doing the Gemini program into a more advanced spaceship (rather than Apollo) and then eventually going to the moon would have been easy,' Kraft said.
'I'm not sorry we did it that way. It's just that in the sequential events as an engineer you wouldn't plan it that way. In retrospect, it was right (to go via Apollo.) It couldn't have been done any other way.'
Now Kraft is talking politics as much as space science, politics always being a consideration in the space program. Politicians control the money.
'It's a shame we couldn't have done things in a different sequence than we did them. But those are things that take place and politics has a great deal to do with that,' he said.
'I don't have any doubt that every dollar we've spent in the space program has been worth it to this country, and has been repaid many, many fold in all kinds of ways and will continue to be that way ...'
Christopher Columbus Kraft Jr., 58, was born near Langley Field, Va., in a small town called Phoebus that since has been annexed by the City of Hampton.
Kraft's German immigrant grandparents named his father Christopher Columbus because he was born in New York City on dedication day for Columbus Circle in 1892. Kraft's father was a Veteran's Administration finance officer.
There were lots of planes around Langley and young Kraft made his share of model airplanes as a boy. But he went to VPI in 1940 with the idea of becoming an automobile engine designer or a professional baseball player.
'I didn't have any great visions of being the Lindbergh of the '40s. I had visions then of being Joe DiMaggio,' Kraft said.
He was a catcher in high school, but when he got to college, they told him he was too small at 5-8 and 140 pounds (a trim he still maintains) to stand in behind the plate. So they sent him to the outfield.
'I was pretty fast,' Kraft said. 'I was pretty good.'
His junior year in college, in between baseball, he took a course in aerodynamics as an elective and liked it. When he graduated in 1944 with a bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering, the nation was at war.
'I was one of few engineering trained people in the country then and I was needed, I suppose, to go to work in that field. That's the reason I was allowed to do so. It was natural for me to continue and not get any higher education.'
After completing his bachelor's degree, Kraft joined the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, the forerunner of NASA, getting in on the ground floor of what would be the nation's space program.
He often is called Dr. Kraft, but his three doctorates are all honorary. Anyway, he considered the government aerospace program the best post-graduate program available.
'I think you can learn more working for NASA in a year than you can learn working five in a university,' Kraft said.
Kraft was named to the U.S. space task force in 1958, when America was moving frantically to catch up with the Russians who had launched the first manmade Earth satellite in October 1957.
He moved with the team from Langley to Houston in 1962 to help build the Manned Spacecraft Center since renamed for President Johnson, who as vice president had a lot to do with bringing the center to Texas.
Kraft played a key role in developing the center and supervised the planning team that built the Mission Control Center from which all America's manned flights since Gemini 4 in 1965 have been managed.
He and his team developed the spaceflight procedures that are now almost unchallenged doctrine.
Kraft was flight director on all the one-man Mercury flights starting in 1961, many of the two-man Gemini flights starting in 1964 and was flight operations director when Apollo landed on the moon in 1969.
He became deputy director of JSC in 1971 and succeeded Dr. Robert Gilruth as director in 1972.
Kraft was there for the first manned American launch. He was there for the first American two-man flight, the first space walk, the first men on the moon and the first reuseable spacecraft, the shuttle.
He was there for hard decisions. He was there for astronaut-threatening disasters like Gemini 8, which spun out of control and landed early near Japan, and Apollo 13, which suffered an explosion halfway to the moon.
He was there for the tragedies, most notably the launchpad deaths of three astronauts in an Apollo fire in January 1968.
But for Kraft the highest of all the high moments was the flight of Apollo 8 around the moon on Christmas Eve, 1968: 'Apollo 8 to me was the real turning point of the space program.
'It was the thing that really defeated the Russians, but it also was a profound event because it was man's first departure from this Earth, from the shackles of Earth's gravitation.'
Through it all, Kraft emphasizes, he had a lot of help, a lot of 'great people' around him. But former astronaut Frank Borman, now president of Eastern Airlines, gives a lot of credit to Kraft.
'I think that Chris Kraft was a giant among people involved in the NASA space program,' Borman told UPI. 'He had every attribute and every quality needed in a technical leader and he was a leader.
'Chris was tough as a boot when he needed to be, but always a solid leader. I hate to see him go.'
Kraft said he has not made specific plans for the next period of his life.
'I really haven't decided yet what I'm going to do. I've just made up my mind recently that I was going to retire. I'll look at whatever is available to me and I want something that's going to challenge me if I'm going to do it.
'I'll just see what happens over the next few months.'
Kraft, who moved to Houston from his native Virginia with some hesitation, now would prefer to stay in Houston, where he is on the board of the hospital management company Lifemark Inc.
'I like Houston and I have a lot of great friends here. I'm a golfer and golf is great here. The weather is great for golf most of the year,' Kraft said.
'I like the atmosphere that exists in Houston. It's progressive. People want to do things advancing the state of the art.'
But Kraft added: 'I will move if the challenge is right.'
Kraft is married to the former Elizabeth Anne Turnbull of Hampton, Va., and they have two children, a son, Gordon, of San Francisco, and a daughter, Kristi-Anne of Austin, Texas.