The man who led the U.S. mission to the Moon in the 1960s was honored at Virginia Tech Sept. 30 by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for his direction of America’s space program. Dr. Christopher C. Kraft, Jr., a 1944 aerospace engineering graduate of Virginia Tech, received NASA’s Ambassador of Exploration Award.

Capt. John Young, former NASA astronaut, presented the award to Kraft in front of more than 100 of his prominent fellow alumni of Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering. In turn, Kraft presented the award — a small sample of lunar material encased in Lucite and mounted for public display –– to Richard Benson, dean of engineering, for permanent display in the college.

The moon rock awarded to Kraft is part of the 842 pounds of samples brought back to Earth during the six Apollo lunar expeditions from 1969 to 1972.

“We are deeply honored by Dr. Kraft’s decision to present his award to Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering for permanent display,” said Benson. “There is a generation of engineers, of which I am a part, which came of age during the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space missions. Dr. Kraft was the face of those missions – engineering at its daring best. Dr. Kraft’s extraordinary contributions to NASA are just the measurable part of his legacy. How many of those inspired teenagers in the 1960’s went on to successful careers in aeronautics, microelectronics, medical devices, computer science, engineering education, and more? We’ll never know the whole of his legacy, but we can safely say that few Americans have ever done so much to advance the engineering and scientific prowess of this great nation.”

NASA also is presenting the Ambassador of Exploration Award, in ceremonies elsewhere, to the 38 astronauts and other key individuals who participated in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs, for realizing America’s vision of space exploration from 1961 to 1972.

A native Virginian, Kraft was born in Phoebus in 1924, two years prior to the launching of the first liquid-fueled rocket by the American physicist Robert Goddard. The influence of high school teachers led him to his choice of engineering as a profession, and he selected Virginia Tech. Graduating in 1944 with a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering, he immediately joined the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the precursor of NASA.

Kraft’s career is indeed phenomenal. By October 1958, he was selected as one of the original members of the Space Task Group, the organization established to manage the Project Mercury. As NASA’s director of flight operations in the 1960s, he was instrumental in the decision to land an astronaut on the moon. It was 1961 and the Russians had just sent Yuri Gagarin into space. Several weeks later U.S. astronaut Alan Shepard completed a successful mission, spending 15 minutes in a suborbital flight directed by Kraft. Following that flight, President Kennedy challenged the country to land a man on the moon within the decade and return him safely to earth.

Kraft recalled this challenge, saying “With all due respect to the memory of John F. Kennedy, I must tell you that I thought the man had taken leave of his senses. We had never even placed a man in orbit. And yet, here in front of television cameras beaming his message all over the world was the President of the United States committing us to a lunar landing.”

Despite his reservations at the time, Kraft says NASA succeeded with the moon landing because of the “national commitment to the cause. We had financial problems. We had people problems, and we had horrible experiences to deal with…But the great majority of the public, the Congress, and the presidential administration we had during that time period were very supportive of the goals we had set.”

After Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, Kraft went on to lead the planning and operational control of the two sub-orbital Mercury missions through Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, and the Apollo Soyuz/test project.

He was deeply involved in the development of the Space Shuttle. During its definition and design studies, he played a vital role in the decision-making process that created the Space Shuttle program, and he determined the initial configuration of the Space Shuttle system, a new concept in space transportation. Kraft was the director of NASA’s Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas from January 1972 to August 1982.

Kraft retired from NASA in 1982. In a tribute to his career at the time, the Roanoke Times editorialized that Kraft “… probably instilled more confidence in our space program than any slick campaign could have done, because of his knowledge and ability to impart it. He knew more about all of the systems aboard our spacecraft than anyone else, and was in the unenviable position of making quick, life and death decision about the flights. He was the ultimate technical generalist. Even his name seemed perfect for the job.”