FLYING Magazine

Thomas P. Stafford, one of 24 astronauts to journey to the moon, died Monday after a lengthy illness. He was 93.

“Today, [former Air Force] general Tom Stafford went to the eternal heavens, which he so courageously explored as a Gemini and Apollo astronaut as well as a peacemaker in Apollo Soyuz,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said on X, formerly known as Twitter. “Those of us privileged to know him are very sad but grateful we knew a giant.”

Stafford was born in Weatherford,  Oklahoma, in 1930 during the so-called “golden age of aviation.” Enamored with flight from childhood, he wanted to fly airplanes and later announced ambitions to be a fighter pilot. Going into space, he told journalists later in life, was the next logical step.

Military Career

In high school, Stafford served in the Oklahoma National Guard in a nonaviation role. He was athletic and earned a football scholarship to the U.S. Naval Academy, although he did not play in college due to a career-ending injury sustained during practice. After graduation in 1952, he entered the Air Force, training to be a pilot. Eventually he would fly a F-86 Sabre jet, and subsequently became a test pilot.  He flew more than 120 types of aircraft during his career.

NASA astronaut Thomas Stafford, the pilot of the Gemini-Titan 3 backup crew, is shown during suiting operations at Pad 16 at Cape Kennedy, Florida. [Courtesy: NASA]

Space Career

In 1962, Stafford was selected for astronaut training and flew aboard Gemini 6 in 1965 and Gemini 9 in 1’66. In ’69, he was named commander for Apollo 10, which was the second crewed mission that orbited the moon. Accompanied by Gene Cernan, they became the first crew to fly the Apollo Lunar Module in lunar orbit.

In the 1970s Stafford, now a brigadier general, was named commander of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, the first joint U.S.-Soviet space mission. Preparation included traveling to Moscow to learn Russian. The 1975 rendezvous between the Soyuz capsule and the Apollo spacecraft was commemorated by a photograph of Stafford shaking hands with cosmonaut Alexei Leonov.

Stafford flew three types of spacecraft for NASA and logged more than 500 hours of space flight.

After the Apollo-Soyuz mission, Stafford resigned from NASA and returned to the Air Force, where he became the commanding general of Edwards Air Force Base, California, and oversaw the development of new aircraft and pilot training. His expertise was also in demand during the development of NASA’s space shuttle program. 

According to information from the Stafford Air & Space Museum in Weatherford, Stafford also served as the commanding general of Area 51, the common name for the top-secret military facility that may or may not be in the Nevada desert.

Founded in 1993, the Stafford Air & Space Museum is a Smithsonian affiliate. Among the exhibits are test-fired engines used during the development of the U.S. space program. The museum is also the home of the Gemini 6 spacecraft that Stafford and astronaut Wally Schirra flew in a rendezvous with Gemini 7. 

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