One can argue that the 3 most important personalities that got humans to the moon were Wernher von Braun for NASA’s rockets, James Webb for NASA’s organization, and Chris Kraft for NASA’s operations. Kraft just died and Internet obituaries justifiably laud him for his work in the early space program.
But his undeniable accomplishments allowed him to become dictatorial to the point where he could ground astronauts for life – or be shielded from reality. Well after his retirement, NASA requested he lead a team to examine where costs for the Shuttle program could be reduced. The 1995 Kraft Report stated NASA was overreacting to the Challenger explosion with a “safety shield” culture where people hid behind safety to avoid making tough decisions. The report claimed the post-Challenger safety culture at NASA to be “duplicative and expensive.”
Kraft’s attitudes presupposed the operation of the Shuttle was a routine thing. It never was. He also believed that one could realistically launch 40 Shuttle missions a year. For perspective, there were only a total of 135 Shuttle launches over the entire 30-year program.
Apparently, Kraft never learned from his experiences during the Apollo 1 fire (killing 3 astronauts) and the Challenger explosion (killing 7 astronauts). America lost the Shuttle Columbia eight years after the Kraft Report was released. The official NASA investigation into the accident found NASA’s adoption of the Kraft Report as part of the cause.
It does not appear that Kraft learned from this experience either. As a sad coda to his hubris, in 2012 Kraft signed a well-publicized letter to the head of NASA claiming that NASA was advocating “an extreme position” on climate change. The letter read in part:
The unbridled advocacy of CO2 being the major cause of climate change is unbecoming of NASA’s history of making an objective assessment of all available scientific data prior to making decisions or public statements.
The letter requested NASA to stop including “unproven and unsupported remarks” on its websites.
Of course, in 2012 carbon dioxide was already scientifically established as a major component of climate change. This work relied, in a large measure, on NASA data and NASA scientists. Why Chris Kraft decided to throw his professional reputation to make a nonsensical statement in an area well outside his expertise remains a mystery.
Except, perhaps, the observation that it takes a truly special human to remain human, to be humbled by nature and objective reality, after having accomplished so many great things.