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Review: Good 'Flight' from NASA's Kraft

"Flight: My Life in Mission Control"
By Chris Kraft
E.P. Dutton
370 pages

In this story:

From small town to space central

Unflinching criticism, unstinting praise

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(CNN) -- There aren't many people left who can provide eyewitness testimony about the beginnings of the U.S. space program. Even fewer remain who were there before the beginning -- before Mercury, before NASA, before Sputnik started the "space race." Chris Kraft is one of those few.

In "Flight: My Life in Mission Control," Kraft provides an insider's insight on how -- and why -- the United States achieved supremacy in space flight. What sets him apart from some of his former colleagues is his refreshingly blunt assessment of the people who surrounded him as NASA undertook the most daunting technological challenge of the 20th century. That perspective injects a human element into the compelling narrative of the grand adventure that was Apollo.

From small town to space central

Special section: Apollo 11 at 30

Kraft grew up in a small Virginia town that doesn't even exist any more. He studied engineering at Virginia Tech and, because of a paperwork snafu, ended up working for the government instead of private industry. His position at an aviation facility in Langley, Virginia, put him at the center of the U.S. effort to catch up with the Soviets after the successful launch of Sputnik.

Kraft was one of the 35 people assigned to the Space Task Group five weeks after NASA was founded. His background in conducting flight tests on new airplanes made him a natural choice for flight-testing new space vehicles, even though no one was quite sure how they should be tested. Kraft built the flight operations program from the ground up and was chief architect of NASA's first Mission Control Center at Cape Canaveral. He was the first person to earn the title "Flight" -- the final authority on what happened during a space mission.

His descriptions of those hectic early days when Project Mercury was on the drawing board capture the creativity and competitiveness that shaped NASA.

Early on, there were power struggles between Kraft's boss and mentor, the estimable Bob Gilruth, and NASA's guru of rocketry, Wernher von Braun. Kraft had his own run-ins with the German engineer. They almost came to blows at a cocktail party were von Braun was vocally dismissive of the notion that people on the ground had any business controlling a spacecraft during flight.

"Wernher had a Teutonic arrogance that he'd honed to a fine edge," Kraft writes. "He saw himself as the number one expert in the world on rockets and space travel and had polished that self-image with magazine articles, books, lectures and technical papers. He was famous ... I had a Scotch in one hand and felt the other one start clenching into a fist. If he'd said, just one more time, that ground control of a space flight was a dumb idea, I might have punched him."

Unflinching criticism, unstinting praise

Kraft is as unflinching in his criticism of other NASA personnel as he is unstinting in his praise for most of the people involved in launching the space program. He recounts an unpleasant, pre-NASA encounter with a Marine Corps major named John Glenn. He chronicles the headaches astronaut Wally Schirra gave him during the Apollo 7 mission.

But he saves his harshest comments for one of the original Mercury astronauts. Kraft considered Scott Carpenter a substandard pilot, a substandard engineer and not very bright to boot. Carpenter all but exhausted his fuel supply during the fourth flight of Mercury because he refused to follow orders from the ground. Kraft made sure he'd never go into space again.

The curmudgeon in Kraft emerges often enough to leaven the tales of triumph over adversity that he witnessed during every step of the march toward the moon. In the aftermath of Apollo 11, with Congress and the president slashing away at the NASA budget, Kraft lost some of his faith in his fellow countrymen.

"The attention span of the American mind proved to be the biggest disappointment of the century," he writes. "We had the solar system, maybe even the stars, in our hands. And the American people told us to forget it."

"Flight: My Life in Mission Control" is an important addition to the history of space exploration. It's also fun to read. The personality of Chris Kraft -- the brusque, no-nonsense engineer who agonized over not spending enough time with his children and was moved to tears by the success of Apollo -- is deeply wedded to the story he has to tell. He gives readers an unvarnished glimpse of how NASA fulfilled its mandate to put a man on the moon. And he provides a front-row seat to one of humanity's grandest adventures.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
Dutton (Penguin Putnam): 'Flight'

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