Astronaut Thomas Stafford, commander of Apollo 10, has died at the age of 93

By | March 18, 2024

WASHINGTON (AP) — Astronaut Thomas P. Stafford, who commanded a dress rehearsal flight for the 1969 moon landing and the first U.S.-Soviet space link, died Monday. He was 93.

Stafford, a retired three-star Air Force general, served in four space missions. Before Apollo 10, he flew on two Gemini flights, including the first encounter with two American capsules in orbit. He died at a hospital near his home in Space Coast Florida, said Max Ary, director of the Stafford Air & Space Museum in Weatherford, Oklahoma.

Stafford was one of 24 NASA astronauts who flew to the moon but did not land on it. Only seven of them are still alive.

“Today, General Tom Stafford ascended to the eternal heavens he so courageously explored as a Gemini and Apollo astronaut and as a peacemaker in Apollo Soyuz,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said via X, formerly known as Twitter. “Those of us who were privileged to know him are very sad, but grateful that we knew a giant.”

After putting away his flight suit, Stafford was the point man for NASA as it sought independent advice on everything from human Mars missions to safety issues and returning to flight after the 2003 space shuttle Columbia accident. He chaired a monitoring group that investigated how to fix the then-defective Hubble Space Telescope, earning a NASA public service award.

“Tom was involved in so many things that most people weren’t aware of, including being known as the ‘Father of Stealth,'” Ary said in an email. Stafford was in charge of the famous desert base “Area 51,” which was the site of many UFO theories, but was also home to the testing of Air Force stealth technologies.

The Apollo 10 mission in May 1969 set the stage for the historic Apollo 11 mission two months later. Stafford and Gene Cernan brought the lunar lander nicknamed Snoopy within nine miles of the moon’s surface. Astronaut John Young stayed behind in the main spaceship named Charlie Brown.

“The most impressive sight, I think, that really changed your view of things is when you see the Earth for the first time,” Stafford recalled in a 1997 oral history, talking about the view from orbit the moon.

Then came the other side of the moon: ‘The earth disappears. There is a big black void.”

Apollo 10’s return to Earth set the world record for the fastest speed by a manned vehicle at 24,791 mph (39,897 km per hour).

After the moon landings ended, NASA and the Soviet Union decided on a joint docking mission and Stafford, a one-star general at the time, was chosen to command the American side. It meant intensive language training, received by the KGB while in the Soviet Union, and lifelong friendships with cosmonauts. The two teams of space travelers even went to Disney World and rode Space Mountain together before going into orbit and joining ships.

“We’ve got a catch,” Stafford radioed in Russian as the Apollo and Soyuz spacecraft connected. His Russian counterpart, Alexei Leonov, responded in English: “Well done, Tom, it was a good show. I vote for you.”

The 1975 mission included two days of the five men working together on experiments. The two teams then toured the world together, meeting President Gerald Ford and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.

“It helped prove to the rest of the world that two completely opposite political systems could work together,” Stafford recalled at a 30th anniversary meeting in 2005.

The two crews became so close that years later Leonov arranged for Stafford to adopt two Russian boys when Stafford was in his 70s.

“We are too old to adopt, but they were too old to be adopted,” Stafford told The Oklahoman in 2004. I have nothing left to give.”

Later, Stafford played a central role in the discussions in the 1990s involving Russia in the construction and operation of the International Space Station.

Growing up in Weatherford, Oklahoma, Stafford said he would look up and see giant DC-3 planes flying overhead on early transcontinental routes.

“I wanted to fly ever since I was 5 or 6 years old and saw those planes,” he told NASA historians.

Stafford attended the US Naval Academy where he graduated in the top 1% of his class and flew in the backseat of a number of planes and loved it. He volunteered for the Air Force and had hoped to fight in the Korean War. But by the time he got his wings, the war was over. He attended the Air Force’s experimental flight test school, graduated first in his class and stayed on as an instructor.

In 1962, NASA selected Stafford for its second wave of astronauts, including Neil Armstrong, Frank Borman and Pete Conrad.

Stafford was assigned to Gemini 6 along with Wally Schirra. Their original mission was to rendezvous with an empty spaceship. But their 1965 launch was scrapped when the spaceship exploded shortly after launch. NASA improvised, and in December Gemini 6 met but did not dock with two astronauts aboard Gemini 7.

Stafford’s next flight in 1966 was with Cernan on Gemini 9. Cernan’s spacewalk, connected to a jetpack-like device, did not go well. Cernan complained that the sun and the machine made him extra hot and hurt his back. Then his visor fogged up and he could no longer see.

“Stop it, Gene. Get out of there,” Stafford, the commander, told Cernan. Stafford brought him back in and said, “Move your hand forward, start floating up… raise your hand… just walk hand over hand.”

In total, Stafford spent 507 hours in space, flying four different types of spacecraft and 127 types of aircraft and helicopters.

After the Apollo-Soyuz mission, Stafford returned to the Air Force and worked in research and commanded the Air Force Flight Test Center before retiring in 1979 as a three-star general.

Through his Air Force duties, Stafford not only ran the Army’s top flight school and test base for experimental aircraft, but he also commanded General of Area 51. A biography from his museum noted that while Stafford was in charge of Area 51 and later on development and head of acquisitions at the Pentagon, “he wrote the specifications and established the program that led to the development of the F-117 Stealth Fighter, and later the B-2 Stealth Bomber.”

Stafford became president of an Oklahoma-based trucking company and later moved to Florida, near Cape Canaveral.

He is survived by his wife. Linda, two sons, two daughters and two stepchildren, the museum said.

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