Behind America's late leap into orbit and triumphant small step on the moon was the agile mind and guts-of-steel of Chris Kraft, making split-second decisions that propelled the nation to once unimaginable heights.
Kraft, the creator and longtime leader of NASA's Mission Control, died Monday in Houston, just two days after the 50th anniversary of what was his and NASA's crowning achievement: Apollo 11's moon landing. He was 95.
Christopher Columbus Kraft Jr. never flew in space, but "held the success or failure of American human spaceflight in his hands," Neil Armstrong, the first man-on-the-moon, told The Associated Press in 2011.
Kraft founded Mission Control and created the job of flight director - later comparing it to an orchestra conductor - and established how flights would be run as the space race between the US and Soviets heated up.
The legendary engineer served as flight director for all of the one-man Mercury flights and seven of the two-man Gemini flights, helped design the Apollo missions that took 12 Americans to the moon from 1969 to 1972 and later served as director of the Johnson Space Center until 1982, overseeing the beginning of the era of the space shuttle.
Armstrong once called him "the man who was the 'Control' in Mission Control."
"From the moment the mission starts until the moment the crew is safe on board a recovery ship, I'm in charge," Kraft wrote in his 2002 book "Flight: My Life in Mission Control."
"No one can overrule me. ... They can fire me after it's over. But while the mission is under way, I'm Flight. And Flight is God."
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine Monday called Kraft "a national treasure," saying "We stand on his shoulders as we reach deeper into the solar system, and he will always be with us on those journeys."
Kraft became known as "the father of Mission Control" and in 2011 NASA returned the favor by naming the Houston building that houses the nerve center after Kraft.
"It's where the heart of the mission is," Kraft said in an April 2010 AP interview. "It's where decisions are made every day, small and large ... We realized that the people that had the moxie, that had the knowledge, were there and could make the decisions."
That's what Chris Kraft's Mission Control was about: smart people with knowledge discussing options quickly and the flight director making a quick, informed decision, said former Smithsonian Institution space historian Roger Launius. It's the place that held its collective breath as Neil Armstrong was guiding the Eagle lunar lander on the moon while fuel was running out. And it's the place that improvised a last-minute rescue of Apollo 13 - a dramatic scenario that later made the unsung engineers heroes in a popular movie.
Soon it became more than NASA's Mission Control. Hurricane forecasting centers, city crisis centers, even the Russian space center are all modeled after the Mission Control that Kraft created, Launius said.
Leading up to the first launch to put an American, John Glenn, in orbit, a reporter asked Kraft about the odds of success and he replied: "If I thought about the odds at all, we'd never go to the pad."