Thomas Stafford is one of the American astronauts who participated in the Apollo missions, who came so close walking on the moon, but never achieved it. Stafford, though came to within 50,000 feet of placing his boots on the moon's dusty surface.
Thomas Patten Stafford was born in the Oklahoma town of Weatherford on September 17th 1930. Later he attended the local high school and with a good selection of grades attended the United States Naval Academy to further his education. In 1952 he received a Bachelor of Science degree with honours upon graduating.
Instead of joining the United States Navy, Stafford instead chose to pursue his flying ambitions within the United States Air Force. He attended basic flight training and progressed steadily through the course until in September 1953 he received his wings at James Connally AFB in Waco Texas. The new second lieutenant then entered into a period of advanced flight training until being assigned to the 54th Interceptor Squadron, that was based on the other side of the USA in Ellsworth AFB, near Rapid City in South Dakota. Two years later in December 1955 he was sent to West Germany with the 496th Fighter Interceptor Squadron based at Hahn Air Base where he flew the North American F-86D Sabre. His duties at the time, included being the flight leader and Stafford also became flight test maintenance officer
Upon his return to the United States in August 1958, Stafford was selected to attend the Air Force Experimental Flight Test Pilot School at Edwards AFB in California. The California sun seemed to agree with Stafford because after he graduated he stayed on at Edwards becoming an instructor and later chief of the Performance Branch. Whilst chief, he was responsible for writing a number of text books on aeronautical matters. He co wrote The Pilot's Handbook for Performance Flight Testing and the Aerodynamic Handbook for Performance Flight Testing.
1962, however, changed his life dramatically because it was in that year that Stafford was selected by NASA to become an astronaut. He was one of the second group of astronauts that would continue the work of the Mercury Seven into the twin capsule era of the Gemini program.
His first space mission was on board Gemini 6 with Walter Schirra, which made history by being the first US space mission to rendezvous in space. Gemini 9 followed in June 1966 where he acted as command pilot with Eugene Cernan as commander. Upon his return from a successful mission he was appointed to head the mission planning analysis and software development for the Apollo missions. He held this position for two years between August 1966 and October 1968.
During this period, Thomas Stafford continued to train hard for his next mission, which was to be as commander of Apollo 10. Already, Apollo 8 had proven that an Apollo mission could successfully be placed into lunar orbit, his job was to go one step further. Apollo 10 would go into orbit and the lunar lander with Stafford and old crew mate from Gemini 9, Eugene Cernan would separate from the Command Module and float to within 50,000 feet of the lunar surface. Then would come the tricky task of a lunar rendezvous with the command module. It was the return leg of the journey that put the Apollo 10 crew into the Guinness Book of Records however. Their re-entry speed of 28,547 miles per hour into the earth's atmosphere is the fastest speed yet attained by man!
The early 1970's saw interest in the moon missions wain rapidly and as a consequence of this apathy Thomas Stafford never got to walk on the moon. He was assigned to the joint Apollo/Soyuz program of the mid 1970's. The mission lasted between July 15-24th 1975 when the two nations spacecraft joined up in space and made history when American and Russians shook hands and greeted each other warmly in space. It would be over twenty years until a similar situation would occur again.
In November 1975 Thomas Stafford returned to California to become commander of the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base. It also marked Stafford's resignation from NASA.
General Stafford was promoted to the grade of Lieutenant general on April 1st 1978 and took on the role of Deputy Chief of staff for research development and acquisition at USAF Headquarters at Washington DC. He now entered into the political arena with his vehement support for the use of the Space Shuttle and his notable opposition to the defense plans of US President Jimmy Carter. In the late 1970's, Jimmy Carter had tried to cancel the B-1 strategic bomber and the USAF led in part by Thomas Stafford voiced their deep concerns.
Retiring from the US Air Force in 1979 he became vice president of Gibraltar Exploration in Oklahoma City. He is a partner in the consulting firm Stafford, Burke and Hecker, Inc.
His historic contribution to the history of flight and indeed spaceflight was recognized on March 19, 1993 when he was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame.
During his life Thomas Stafford has been awarded two NASA Distinguished Service Medals, two NASA Exceptional Service Medals in addition to the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal with 3 Oak Leaf Clusters to name just a few of the commendations that Thomas Stafford has received over the years.
He has been an ardent supporter of the benefits of space and is still very active in trying to persuade the powers at be to set Mars as the next target for human to travel to.