Space Sunday: a legend, TESS and a rocket flight

“Flight”: Christopher C. Kraft Jr. (February 1924 – July 2019), the man who created NASA’s mission control and the role of the flight director. Credit: NASA

During the celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission in July, came a note of sadness: the passing of Chris Kraft.

This is a name that may not be familiar to some, but Christopher C. Kraft, Jr., was one of the most influential figures of NASA’s pioneering early years of America’s human space flight, who joined the agency from its forebear, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA).

Born in Virginia in February 1924, to Bavarian immigrants, Kraft began his studies at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) studying aeronautical engineering. During this time he applied to join the US Navy, but was rejected due to an injury to his right hand that occurred during childhood. He graduated in December 1944 with a Bachelor of Science degree.

On graduation, he applied to both the Chance Vought aircraft company and NACA. On arrival at the former on his first day of work, he was told that he could not be hired without his birth certificate, which he had not brought with him. Annoyed, he returned home and accepted the offer from NACA instead.

At NACA he was assigned to the flight research division, working under Robert Gilruth, who was to become his mentor. Most of Kraft’s work was theoretical – although it did lead him to be the original discoverer of wingtip vortices causing the majority of turbulence behind an aircraft. While he enjoyed it, he also found it taxing to the point of considering leaving, when the NACA was subsumed by NASA.

Kraft (l) and mentor Robert Gilruth (r) celebrate the first orbital rendezvous between two crewed vehicles, Gemini 6 and 7, December 1965. Astronaut L. Gordon Cooper Jr stands behind them, centre, with arms folded. Credit: NASA

Gilruth then invited Kraft to join a new project he was heading – the Space Task Group – charged with putting a man in orbit. As a result, Kraft became one of the original thirty-five engineers to be assigned to Project Mercury. In his new role, he was assigned to the flight operations division at NASA, charged with determining how the Mercury missions would be managed and operated from the ground. He was reporting in to Chuck Matthews, who essentially passed off the division’s requirements to Kraft in a throwaway comment:

Chris, you come up with a basic mission plan. You know, the bottom-line stuff on how we fly a man from a launch pad into space and back again. It would be good if you kept him alive.

Kraft realised that just like test pilots, whom he had supported through the X-1 flight programmes, astronauts would need a system of communications and support back on Earth during critical phases of the mission. He also knew they would also require a ground-based tracking system and instrumentation for the telemetry of data from the spacecraft. Through this, he came up with the idea of a single control centre to monitor and operate missions in real-time; a concept never before tried.

I saw a team of highly skilled engineers, each one an expert on a different piece of the Mercury capsule. We’d have a flow of accurate telemetry data so the experts could monitor their systems, see and even predict problems, and pass along instructions to the astronaut.

– Chris Kraft, Flight: My Life in Mission Control, 2001

Within this structure, Kraft particularly identified the need for a single individual who would have overall control and coordination over the flight centre engineers, and make the real-time decisions about the conduct of the mission. He called that role the Flight Director, and nominated himself as the man for the role.

The first iteration of the mission control concept was the Mercury Control Centre at Cape Canaveral. During this time, Kraft continued to define and refine the role of the flight director, gaining the singular title Flight as a mark of respect, although his own stubbornness that could make him something of a controversial figure in the eyes of management – but not enough to prevent him being awarded the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal on the recommendation of the NASA Administrator, and awarded by President John F. Kennedy.

During Mercury, Kraft selected and trained three engineers to become the first generation of flight directors with him:  Glynn Lunney, John Hodge and man who also grew into a legend as he followed Kraft, Gene Kranz. As the more intensive Gemini missions took place, Kraft took on a new role: head of mission operations, but remained  entirely hands-on with the flight director programme, continuing to select and train other flight directors and continuing a flight director in his own right.

Kraft, lower right, with his hand-picked team of original NASA flight directors, Gene Krantz (bottom left), Glynn Lunney, (top left) and John hodge (top right). Credit: NASA

Mid-way through the Gemini programme, Kraft was asked to oversee the design and implementation of the brand-new mission control centre that would form a part of the new Manned Spacecraft Centre, near Houston, Texas (now the Johnson Space Centre), which would become the nerve centre for all of NASA’s human spaceflight operations.

Kraft, Lunney and Kranz worked directly on the requirements for the new mission control centre, located at Building 30 at the new space centre, liaising with contractors and determining the design of the two primary Mission Operations Control Rooms (each referred to as MOCR, or “moe-ker”).

By the mid-1960s, Kraft was made Director of Flight Operations, and closely involved in planning the Apollo programme. He joined with Gilruth, now the head of the Manned Spacecraft Centre and possibly the most powerful man in NASA next to the agency’s administrator, George Low, the manager of the Apollo Spacecraft Programme Office and Donald Kent “Deke” Slayton, the head of the Astronaut Office, to take on an entirely unofficial, but essential role:

The four of us … had become an unofficial committee that got together often in Bob’s [Gilruth’s] office to discuss problems, plans and off-the-wall ideas. Not much happened in Gemini or Apollo that didn’t either originate with us or with our input.

– Chris Kraft, Flight: My Life in Mission Control, 2001

Kraft at the flight director’s console during Gemini IV, June 1965, despite having been promoted to Director of Flight Operations. Credit: NASA

In 1969, Kraft officially became Gilruth’s deputy in running the Manned Spacecraft Centre, and succeeded him as overall facility director in January 1972. He remained in that role past his due retirement in 1980, remaining firmly embedded in the space shuttle programme. However, his stubborn and outspoken nature in matters relating to that programme brought him into conflict with NASA Administrator James M. Beggs and others, and he suddenly announced his belated retirement at the end of 1982.

Kraft indirectly returned to the shuttle programme in 1994, when he was appointed chairman of an independent review committee with the remit to investigate ways in which NASA could make that programme more cost effective. His report, published in February 1995, recommended NASA’s should outsource shuttle operations to a single private contractor.

Christopher J. Kraft Jr., February 1924-July 2019 in his official NASA portrait, 1979. Credit: NASA

More contentiously, it was sharply critical of the post-Challenger accident safety regime at NASA, claiming it was “duplicative and expensive”, while claiming the shuttle had become “a mature and reliable system”.

NASA’s own Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel responded that, “the assumption that the Space Shuttle systems are now ‘mature’ smacks of a complacency which may lead to serious mishaps.” Nonetheless, responsibility for shuttle operations was turned over to United Space Alliance.

In 2003, the investigation into the Columbia accident, directly cited the recommendations made by Kraft’s committee as potentially contributing to that accident, by encouraging NASA to view the shuttle as an operational, rather than experimental vehicle and distracting attention from continuing engineering anomalies. In typical form, Kraft  defended his report, insisting the space shuttle was “the safest space vehicle ever built”.

Kraft received numerous awards throughout his career, and in on April 4th, 2011, he was guest of honour at a ceremony at Johnson Space Centre’s Building 30 Mission Control Centre when it was renamed the Christopher C. Kraft, Jr., Mission Control Centre, in recognition of the facility’s 50 years managing US human space flight, and Kraft’s unique place in both NASA’s and the building’s histories.

Christopher Kraft passed away on July 22nd, 2019 at the age of 95 and leaving his wife of 69 years, Betty Anne, and son and daughter Gordon and Kristi-Anne, and their families.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: a legend, TESS and a rocket flight”

The Culprit Little Motor Boat in Second Life

Culprit Little Motor Boat

Eku Zhong and Yure4u Sosa produce a wide range of items for Second life from buildings to furnishings to the more quirky. Within this blog I’ve written about a couple of items that might be considering furnishings: the Culprit Bento Upright Piano, and the Culprit Baby Grand; – and also one of the more quirky: the Culprit Mousie. Over the weekend I’ve had the opportunity to try out the newest of their fun items: the Culprit Little Motor Boat.

Launched in-world on August 3rd, 2019, the Culprit Little Motor Boat is a tender-style boat capable of seating up to four people – and little is the operative word here: it’s small enough to feel as though you could pick it up and walk off with it under one arm. This gives the boat a cute look – but if you find it a little too small, it has a scripted resizing capability so you can customise it to fit.

Culprit Little Motor Boat

The packaging for the boat is also small, but includes a lot: there’s a “solo” version of the boat, designed to be kept rezzed and which can be set for personal or public access and supplied Copy / Mod. There is also a version in a rezzer system. This takes the form of a buoy that auto-rezzes an initial boat (no Mod, as it is a rezzer version), and that rezzes further boats as the previous one is used, with the owner able to set the total number of boats that can be rezzed at any one time (up to a maximum of 12). These boats will also de-rez when the driver stands up, so they leave no clutter. Also supplied is a pier sign (provided Copy / Mod) that can be used with the rezzer, and an additional buoy.

When considering the Culprit Little Motor Boat the first and foremost thing to remember is that it is intended for fun. If you take your SL boating seriously, then this little boat may not be for you; but if you’re looking to offer people the opportunity to go motor boating on your estate or region – either on open water or on a Linden Water boating lake, or if you just want a little low-cost boat for occasional fun, then the Culprit Little Motor Boat could be just the thing.

Culprit Little Motor Boat

Operating the boat (either the rezzer version or the solo) is simple:  sit in it as the drive and the engine then starts. Steering is via the Left / Right keys, while the Up key supplies forward motion, the Down arrow throttles down and the Left and Right provide turning (you can use WASD if you have the viewer set that way).

In addition, a menu can be called up by touching the boat. This provides access for manually turning the engine off / on, throttling up / down, operating the interior light, and sounding the horn. It also allows adjustment of the driver / passenger positions, and provides access a range of additional options – camera position, etc. (I confess to not having tested all of these).

Culprit Little Motor Boat compared to a typical SL speedboat, in this case, the Foilstream Little Bee

Two interesting options in the menu are the Turbo button and the Flight button. The former should really only be used on open water as it is fast! The Flight option is handy if you do end up in trouble after using Turbo – such as finding yourself stranded inland, where it can be used to take to the air and fly back to the nearest suitable water.

There are a couple of quirks with the handling that those familiar with boating might find unusual. The first is that the Up key must be continuously pressed to maintain forward motion (like a car’s accelerator). Tapping the Down key will slow the boat / put it into reverse, but releasing the Up key will also cause the boat to slow down – an inertia setting within the menu allows you to adjust the degree of inertial drift.

The rezzer buoy and boat sign

The second is that if using the Down key for low speed manoeuvring (such as turning in a confined  space), Left / Right turning can get switched when moving forward again – just tap the Up key once to correct.

However, when used as a rezzer boat, I doubt either of these above points will be noted, as people using the boats will be too busy zipping around the water having fun rather than trying to be master boat handlers. My only real grumble with the boat is the engine sound loop, which has an awkward little break in it, making it obvious it is a short loop. However, just flicking local sounds off whilst driving resolves this.

The boat is provided in five individual finishes (shown below), with each package containing the rezzer and solo versions of each finish, boat sign and additional buoy. The normal retail price is L$299, however, they are also on introductory offer at L$100 through until midnight SLT on Monday, August 5th (offer extended from that stated in the Culprit group note card).

Culprit Little Motor Boat finishes

Again, this is a boat for fun, not necessarily the serious boating enthusiast; but for those interested, it can be obtained via the Culprit store in-world, where it can test also be test driven on the Culprit boating lake in-world.