Apollo Astronaut Lt. Gen. Tom Stafford Passes Away

Apollo Astronaut Lt. Gen. Tom Stafford Passes Away

One of the most renowned astronauts of the Apollo era, Lt. Gen. Thomas Stafford (USAF), died today at 93. Stafford made four spaceflights, but is probably best remembered for his last — the internationally groundbreaking Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975. Stafford remained involved in the space program long after his retirement from NASA and the Air Force, playing key roles in President George H. W. Bush’s Moon-to-Mars effort and continuing to serve as a vital link between the U.S. and Russian programs.

Lt. Gen. Thomas Stafford. Undated Air Force photo (circa late 1970s).

A native of Weatherford, OK, Stafford graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1952 and became an Air Force fighter pilot and then a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base, CA.

In 1962, he was selected in the second group of NASA astronauts and made his first spaceflight, Gemini VI-A, with Wally Schirra in December 1965. They performed the first crewed rendezvous in space, stationkeeping — nose-to-nose at one point — with Frank Borman and Jim Lovell who were already in orbit aboard Gemini VII for what was then a long-duration mission, 14 days.

In June 1966, Stafford commanded Gemini IX-A where he and Gene Cernan tested three types of rendezvous and docking procedures in preparation for the Apollo program. They originally were the backup crew for Gemini IX, but the prime crew, Elliott See and Charlie Bassett, were tragically killed in a plane crash months before launch.

Three years later, in May 1969, he commanded another mission to practice rendezvous and docking, but this time in lunar orbit. Apollo 10 was the first mission to take a Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) to the Moon where he, Cernan and John Young practiced the maneuvers that would be needed for the landing flight, Apollo 11, two months later. Stafford and Cernan piloted the LEM, named Snoopy, very close to the lunar surface, but did not land, then returned to dock with Young aboard the Apollo Command Module, Charlie Brown.

Stafford may be best known, however, for commanding the U.S. portion of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) in 1975. During the height of the Cold War, a U.S. Apollo and a Soviet Soyuz spacecraft docked together for two days of joint operations in earth orbit. The historic mission led to lifelong friendships between the American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts, especially Stafford and his Soviet counterpart Aleksey Leonov, and paved the way for the cooperation on the International Space Station today.

Tom Stafford (L) and Aleksey Leonov (R) remained close friends after their historic Apollo-Soyuz Test Project mission in 1975. This photo was taken at Russia’s Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center on July 16, 2015, celebrating ASTP’s 40th anniversary. Credit: Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center/NASA. Stafford was among those who eulogized Leonov at his funeral in 2019.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, who often invokes ASTP as a model of how the space program can bring countries together even when terrestrial geopolitics are strained, was among the first to pay tribute to Stafford this morning.

In an emailed statement to SpacePolicyOnline.com, former NASA Administrator (2009-2017) and former astronaut Charlie Bolden said he was deeply saddened by the news and has lost “a long-time role model and mentor.”

“Not only has the world lost one of the few remaining human space flight pioneers, but I have lost a long-time role model and mentor. Tom blazed the trail for our nearly 50-year collaborative relationship between the US and the former Soviet Union as commander of the US crew of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project and his life-long personal relationship with Soviet Commander Alexei Leonov symbolized the detente between the two leading space powers at a critical time in the Cold War.  His diplomatic skills and technical expertise were invaluable to maintaining the collaboration between NASA and Roscosmos.  He will be sorely missed.” — Charlie Bolden

Jim Bridenstine, a fellow Oklahoman who served as NASA Administrator (2018-2021) between Bolden and Nelson, told SpacePolicyOnline.com that Stafford’s skill and valor were exemplified on Apollo 10 when things didn’t go as planned.

“General Tom Stafford is an American hero. When Apollo 10 went out of control, tumbled toward the lunar surface, and was seconds from impact, Tom Stafford gallantly took manual control, regained proper attitude and flew away from the Lunar surface.  In doing so, he saved his crew and the entire Apollo program enabling Apollo 11 to land on the Moon.  This was just one of so many valorous achievements during his lifetime from combat pilot to test pilot to NASA astronaut. I am grateful to have known and received counsel from General Tom Stafford.” — Jim Bridenstine

Another Oklahoman, Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) who chairs the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, said in a statement that Stafford’s “passing marks the end of an era in space, but his legacy will undoubtedly pave the way for a new era in mankind’s odyssey into the unknown. … Ever since I had a long conversation with General Stafford on a coincidental flight from DC to OKC, he has served as a consistent source of priceless knowledge for me and my office. America will rightfully remember General Stafford as a hero and patriot, but I will always remember him as a friend and proud Oklahoman.”

Stafford left NASA in 1975 after ASTP and returned to the Air Force, first as Commander of the Air Force Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base and later as Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Research, Development, Test and Acquisition. He retired as a Lieutenant General in 1979.

He continued to be active in the space program throughout his life serving as both a formal and informal advisor to NASA Administrators, Presidents, and Congress.

In particular, he was a key participant in planning how to execute President George H. W. Bush’s (1989-1993) Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) to return humans to the Moon and go on to Mars. The White House National Space Council under Vice President Dan Quayle chose Stafford to lead a “Synthesis Group” to identify innovative options to achieve those goals in an expeditious manner. Stafford’s 1991 report “America at the Threshold” remains an important contribution to understanding options for architecture design and technology investments.

Mike Griffin headed the SEI program at NASA at that time, served as NASA Administrator (2005-2009) under President George W. Bush, and was Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering (2018-2020) under President Trump. Griffin told SpacePolicyOnline.com by email today that Stafford will be “missed on every level.”

“Tom was a superlative pilot, an astronaut who pioneered the golden age of human spaceflight, an Air Force flag officer who steered critical developments in stealth technology, a national hero, and above all my friend of four decades standing.  He will be missed on every level.” — Mike Griffin

Most recently, Stafford chaired NASA’s International Space Station (ISS) Advisory Committee for many years and led the U.S. side of the ISS Joint Commission with its Russian counterpart to advise NASA and Roscosmos on safety and operational readiness issues.

The Stafford Air & Space Museum in Stafford’s home town of Weatherford, OK, built in 1993, honors Stafford’s achievements in both the Air Force and NASA.

NASA posted a video tribute to Stafford this afternoon along with a more extensive statement from Nelson.

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