Tom Stafford—Test Pilot, Gemini and Apollo Astronaut—Dies at 93

Lt. Gen. Thomas P. Stafford, a U.S. Air Force test pilot, an astronaut on two Gemini and two Apollo missions, and an important figure in the development of stealth technology, died on March 18 at the age of 93.

Stafford “wrote the book” on basic test flight techniques still taught today, and his space flights were all highly significant. As commander of Apollo 10 in 1969, Stafford led the dress rehearsal for Apollo 11’s moon landing, taking his lunar module within nine miles of the moon’s surface, and proving out nearly all other flight aspects of the landing missions that followed. As commander of the July, 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Program, Stafford pioneered international cooperation in space with the Soviet Union, laying a foundation for the two countries to later jointly build and inhabit the International Space Station.

After leaving NASA in 1975, Stafford commanded the Experimental Flight Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., where he supervised testing of the A-10, F-15 and F-16 fighters and the B-1B bomber. He also oversaw secret aircraft activities at Groom Lake, including development and test of the Have Blue experimental stealth aircraft, and later wrote the requirements for the F-117 attack plane which resulted from it. While at Edwards, Stafford also continued to fly, including surreptitiously-acquired Soviet fighters. Having learned Russian for the Apollo-Soyuz program, he was also a key debriefer of Russian pilot Viktor Byelenko, who defected to the West with a then-new MiG-25 in 1976.

In his last Air Force job, Stafford was deputy chief of staff for research, development and acquisition. He drafted the requirements for the F-117, as well as the AGM-129 stealth cruise missile and the B-2 bomber. He also outlined the Advanced Tactical Fighter roadmap which eventually culminated in the F-22. He retired from the Air Force in 1979.

Born in Oklahoma, Stafford served with the Oklahoma National Guard in high school. In 1952, he graduated near the top of his class from the U.S. Naval Academy with honors in engineering. However, to get access to the hottest airplanes, he opted for an Air Force commission.

He earned his wings in 1953 and went into fighters, flying the F-86D in Florida, South Dakota, and Germany. He was picked for the test pilot school, from which he graduated first in his class in 1959. Soon thereafter, as a test pilot instructor, he co-wrote the manuals “Pilot’s Handbook for Performance Flight Testing” and “Aerodynamics Handbook for Performance Flight Testing,” which are still assigned today.

Stafford was a finalist for the Mercury program but was an inch too tall to fit in the cramped and was turned down on that point alone. He re-applied to be an astronaut, but while he was waiting, he applied to and was accepted at Harvard Business School. He was about to start classes in 1962 when he got word he’d been chosen for the “New Nine” astronaut group and accepted the assignment with NASA. That group would earn their space spurs in the two-man Gemini craft, and those who survived all went on to command Apollo moon missions.

Gemini 6, in December, 1965, was Stafford’s first space mission. He and mission commander Wally Schirra made the first rendezvous—but not a docking—with another crewed spacecraft, Gemini 7. Rendezvous was the critical element in the plan to go to the moon.

Six months later, in May, 1966, Stafford commanded Gemini 9, flying into space with pilot Gene Cernan. They replaced the prime crew at virtually the last minute, after astronauts Elliot See and Charles Basset were killed in a T-38 crash.

The mission was fraught with problems, with the loss of their Agena target vehicle in a launch pad explosion, and the substitute vehicle unable to jettison its launch shroud in orbit. Cernan was to have tested a jet backpack on a spacewalk, but grave unexpected difficulties and Cernan’s exhaustion maneuvering in his stiff, reinforced space suit drove Stafford to abort the rest of the test. Cernan barely managed to re-enter the ship. When the guidance computer failed, Stafford calculated re-entry with paper and pencil. The overall difficulties and potential disaster of losing Cernan on the mission pushed NASA to create an underwater spacewalk rehearsal capability.

Astronauts Thomas Stafford (right) and Eugene Cernan wave to the crowd aboard the aircraft carrier USS Wasp as they emerge from their Gemini-9 capsule on June 6, 1966. John C. Stonesifer (far right), with the Manned Spacecraft Center’s Landing and Recovery Division, was onboard to greet the astronauts. NASA photo

Three years later, in May, 1969, Stafford commanded Apollo 10, and, reunited with Cernan, was the first to pilot the lunar module, nicknamed “Snoopy,” in lunar orbit. The two mapped landing sites in the Sea of Tranquility for Apollo 11, and contended with a faulty guidance system, but safely re-docked with the command module, nicknamed “Charlie Brown.” On the return, along with command module pilot John Young, the crew set a re-entry speed record of nearly 25,000 miles per hour. Together, they had performed all elements of the moon landing but the landing itself, which took place two months later in July, 1969.

After Apollo 10, Stafford served as head of the astronaut office, managing astronaut assignments and specialties for the remainder of the Apollo moon landing and Skylab programs. He then served as Deputy Director of Flight Crew Operations at Johnson Space Center, Texas, bearing the rank of Brigadier General; the first serving astronaut at that rank.

Stafford was the co-commander of the Apollo-Soyuz program in 1975, learning Russian and helping develop the adapter that made it possible for the two highly dissimilar craft to dock. Along with astronauts Deke Slayton and Vance Brand, Stafford docked with a Soyuz bearing cosmonauts Alexei Leonov—first man to make a spacewalk—and Valeriy Kubasov, who shared mementos and conducted experiments for 44 hours before undocking and making their separate ways back to Earth. The mission lasted nine days in total. Stafford was the first U.S. general officer to make a space flight.

The mission was credited with reducing tensions between the two superpowers and laying a diplomatic foundation for the ISS 20 years later.

Stafford and Leonov became close friends over the ensuing decades, and Stafford delivered the eulogy, in Russian, at Leonov’s 2019 funeral.

Stafford returned to the Air Force from NASA and was promoted to major general with the Edwards command. In 1978, he took on the deputy chief of staff assignment, during which laid the groundwork for the future force. He retired from the Air Force in 1979.

During his years with NASA and the Air Force, Stafford amassed nearly 7,000 flying hours and more than 507 hours of spaceflight, flying more than 100 types of aircraft and spacecraft.

In retirement, Stafford was an aviation consultant for many companies, and served on the board of Gulfstream Aerospace, as well as others. He headed many blue-ribbon commissions for NASA to map out future human space exploration, and advised NASA on the Shuttle-Mir program, during which Space Shuttle missions STS-63 and STS-71 docked with the Russian Mir space station. He also served on the Return to Flight Task Force after the 2003 loss of the Columbia shuttle.

U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), left, speaks with retired astronaut Lt. Gen. Thomas Stafford prior to the start of a hearing before the House Subcommitte on Space and Aeronautics regarding Safety of Human Spaceflight on Capitol Hill, Dec. 2, 2009, in Washington. NASA photo/Bill Ingalls

He published an autobiography, co-written with Michael Casutt, titled “We Have Capture: Tom Stafford and the Space Race,” in 2002.

The Lt. Gen. Thomas P. Stafford Air & Space Museum, a National Air and Space Museum affiliate, opened in Oklahoma in 1981, and today exhibits many of the artifacts from Stafford’s space and USAF career.

Stafford received dozens of distinguished honors, awards and honorary degrees. They include two awards of the Harmon Trophy; the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics award in 1969; the Society of Experimental Test Pilots Doolittle Award in 1979, and the Congressional Space Medal of Honor in 1993. In 2011, Stafford received both the National Aeronautic Association’s Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy and the Air Force Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award. He was elected to the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame; the International Space Hall of Fame; the National Aviation Hall of Fame and made a fellow of the American Astronautical Society.

His military decorations include the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal; Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Force Commendation Medal and Air Force Outstanding Unit Award. He received the Thomas D. White Air Force Space Trophy in 1975. His NASA Awards include the Exceptional Service Medal and two awards of the Distinguished Service Medal.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said Stafford was “critical to the earliest successes of our nation’s space program and was instrumental in developing space as a model for international cooperation. He also helped us learn from our tragedies and grow and reach for the next generation of achievement,” and contributed thoughts and ideas to NASA “to the end of his life.”