Stafford, Thomas Patten
Astronaut/Test PilotEnshrined 1997 1930-Present
In April 1976, Stafford noted that the Soviet and U.S. space teams had met all their joint goals. They had designed, developed, and produced the hardware and systems that would enable two spacecraft from different traditions to rendezvous in space. “Where both systems were completely separate before,” Stafford said, “we got together and worked [the differences] out. . . . the political implications were [such] that we could work in good faith.” Stafford underscored good faith as “the key to something this technically difficult.”
- Stafford was the pilot of Gemini 6 which made the first rendezvous in space.
- Stafford was commander of Gemini 9, which performed three types of rendezvous, one becoming the model for the lunar landings.
- Commander of Apollo 10, the first flight of the lunar module to the moon, performed the first rendezvous around the moon and performed the entire lunar landing mission except the actual landing.
- Commander of the ASTP, Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, the first joint space mission between the United States and the Soviet Union.
- In 1975 assumed command of the Air Force Flight Test Center.
Thomas Patten Stafford was born on September 17th, 1930 in Weatherford, Oklahoma. As a young boy, he watched the transcontinental planes fly overhead and decided that he wanted to make his life’s work. He attended the United States Naval Academy and graduated with honors in 1952 with a bachelor of science degree. Upon graduation, Stafford accepted a commission in the United States Air Force.
Stafford received his pilot wings at Connally Air Force Base in Waco, Texas. Upon completion of his training he received orders to the 54th Flight Interceptor Squadron at Ellsworth Air Force Base. In December of 1955, Stafford was assigned to the 496th Fighter Interceptor Squadron in Germany. There he served as a flight leader and a flight test maintenance officer. Stafford returned to the United States in 1958 to attend the Experimental Flight Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base where he graduated first in his class in 1959. After graduation, he served at the school as an instructor and co-authored two flight test manuals. He later became chief of the Performance Branch.
In 1962, Stafford was one of only nine selected in the second group of NASA astronauts. Stafford’s first mission was as pilot on Gemini 6, where he teamed with Wally Schirra. After two different delays, Gemini 6 successfully launched on December 15th, 1965. Gemini 6 performed the world’s first rendezvous in space as they orbited within a few feet of with James Lovell and Frank Borman in their Gemini 7 spacecraft.
Six months later, Stafford was selected as commander of Gemini 9, with Gene Cernan as pilot. The purpose of the mission was to perform three different types of rendezvous, one of which would become a standard model for the Apollo missions. As in Gemini 6, the Agena target vehicle failed to reach orbit. A secondary target successfully launched but mechanical malfunctions precluded docking for the mission. During this mission, Stafford supervised as Cernan performed the first space walk completely around the world. The Gemini 9 crew received credit for accomplishing the most accurate splashdown for either the Gemini or Apollo programs. They landed 0.38 miles from the target point using manual on-board techniques for the final phase of entry.
Stafford’s next mission was in May of 1969 as commander of Apollo 10. The purpose of this mission was to test every aspect of the Lunar Module, with the exception of an actual lunar landing because the LM was too heavy to land. For this flight, John Young and Gene Cernan accompanied Stafford. The LM, with Stafford and Cernan aboard, descended to within nine miles of the moon’s surface. They radar mapped, photo mapped the lunar surface, picked out the first lunar landing site and performed the first rendezvous around the moon. Upon re-entry, Stafford and his crew reached the highest speed ever achieved by man at 28,547 miles per hour. This feat earned them a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for the world’s all-time speed record.
Stafford served as chief of the astronaut office and was responsible for the selection of Apollo and Skylab crews. He became Deputy Director of Flight Crew Operations under Donald “Deke” Slayton in 1971. Stafford’s final mission was the historic Apollo 18, Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. In July of 1975, Stafford commanded the American half of the first joint space mission between the United States and the Soviet Union. Stafford, along with Vance Brand and Deke Slayton, docked with Alexei Leonov and Valeri Kubasov in the Soyuz spacecraft. The event demonstrated the successful testing of a rendezvous and a universal docking system and signaled a major advance in efforts to pave the way for future joint experiments and the exchange of mutual assistance for international space flights.
After Apollo-Soyuz, Stafford left NASA and became commander of the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base, California. In March of 1978 Stafford earned his promotion to the rank of Lieutenant General and in May became Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Research, Development and Acquisition in Washington, D.C. During his tenure in this assignment, Stafford initiated the F-117A Stealth Fighter Program. In early 1979, in a Chicago hotel room, Stafford wrote the initial specifications and started the development of the B-2 Stealth Bomber. He retired from the Air Force on November 1st, 1979.
Following his retirement, Stafford co-founded the consulting firm of Stafford, Burke, and Hecker, Inc., based in Alexandria, Virginia. He has served as advisor to NASA, the Air Force Systems Command and defense advisor to Ronald Reagan during his presidential campaign. He also served on Vice President Quayle’s Space Policy Advisory Council. In June of 1990, the White House requested that Stafford chair a group to find ways to fulfill President Bush’s vision of returning to the moon and to further explore Mars in a way that would be faster, better, and cheaper. The result of this commission was a study entitled “America at the Threshold”. Stafford was Chairman of the oversight committee of the successful Hubble space telescope servicing and repair mission. He was recently asked to chair the operational safety and oversight committee for Phase Two of the international space station.
Among the many awards Stafford has received, he was awarded the Air Force Distinguished Flying Cross, NASA’s Distinguished Service Medal and the Congressional Space Medal of Honor in 1992.
For his leadership, daring and skill in helping develop America’s space program and for providing direction in taking the next step forward into the twenty-first century and beyond, Thomas Patten Stafford is proudly enshrined into the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
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