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A Conversation With...Thomas Stafford

Written by Dick Pryor on Friday October 1, 2010

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S65-59987resizedLike many Americans in the 1960's, I was fascinated by the space race. In the days of "duck and cover" we were all concerned about the battle for global superiority between the world's two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. And, nowhere was the competition keener, the stakes higher and the urgency greater than in the exploration of space.

Whichever nation commanded space could establish itself as the superpower and grab the position as the world's technological, ideological, and potentially military, leader. The threat of nuclear conflagration was never out of mind. Against that backdrop, when President John F. Kennedy implored us to journey into space and later commit to traveling to the moon and back, the best and brightest emerged, and our instincts as Americans turned us toward the sky.

Thomas P. Stafford of Weatherford, Oklahoma accepted the challenge. An Air Force test pilot who graduated first in his flight class, Stafford jumped at the opportunity to join the astronaut corps. Slightly too tall to be chosen as one of the "Original Seven" astronauts, Stafford was announced as a member of the "New Nine" on his 32nd birthday, September 17, 1962.

S65-14550resizedOriginally scheduled to become the 7th American in space and first spacewalker on the initial Gemini flight, Stafford had to wait until 1965 and his first mission aboard Gemini Six. He flew two Gemini flights, each involving rendezvous, and in May of 1969 commanded Apollo 10, the dress rehearsal for the first lunar landing. He clame within 9.4 miles of the moon before turning back to rejoin the command module for the trip home.  Then, he closed out his space flight career, as U.S. commander of a joint mission that brought the American and Soviet space programs together. But, the story of General Thomas P. Stafford doesn't end there.

It was a privilege to sit down with General Stafford to discuss those early days of space flight and also his distinguished career since leaving the astronaut corps. A few minutes with him gave me an indication of why he was so highly-valued in the American space program.

S66-34601resizedHe is clearly a problem-solver and a quick study – skills that are critical for a test pilot. It's no wonder test pilots were favored when astronauts were selected. They lived to push the envelope, and flying in space was the ultimate test flight.

General Stafford was known for his dry sense of humor, calm demeanor, Oklahoma drawl and balding head but make no mistake, he is much more than a "Space Cowboy." He's smart, analytical, quick-thinking, courageous and mission-oriented...and driven to succeed. As our conversation unfolded, I could clearly see how Thomas Stafford could be considered "an astronaut's astronaut." As a top NASA spokesman said, during the days of Gemini: "That guy is really smart. You feel like the ship is in good hands when Stafford is aboard."

General Stafford admitted that he is impatient. I saw him as a man on a mission, and with a vision that few will ever have. Indeed, he saw the moon from less than ten miles away and even though he never returned, he gives you the impression he would be up to the task at a moment's notice, even at the age of 79 (now 80).

S66-34051resizedPeople talk about the Oklahoma pioneering spirit. Part of that is a public relations creation, but with General Stafford, it's real. He is truly one of the greatest explorers our earth has ever known. As he says, "we rode full speed ahead."

It is ironic that as I am writing this approximately 1,200 workers on the Space Shuttle program are losing their jobs due to changing government and space program priorities. General Stafford believes the United States should bolster its space program, with more flights (manned and unmanned) back to the moon and beyond. He is a supporter of flights to Mars.

s69-34329resizedEven now, he's a consultant on the International Space Station program and sees how international cooperation, with the Russians and others, will be critical in the further exploration of space. To this day, he counts Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov as one of his closest friends. In fact, he visited with General Leonov by telephone the day we conducted our interview for "A Conversation With..." General Leonov was the first person to walk in space, the Soviet commander on the Apollo Soyuz Test Project, and the Soviet cosmonaut who extended his hand to American commander Thomas Stafford for the historic "handshake in space."

As a youngster I was a bit of a space geek. Like so many Americans, I was glued to the television set for coverage of each Mercury, Gemini and Apollo mission. With astronaut flash cards, encyclopedias, newspapers and maps at the ready, I watched intently as each spacecraft flew from tracking station to tracking station. I also kept a scrapbook of space-related photographs and news stories - especially stories about Oklahoma's swashbuckling Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper and the new favorite son who pushed space flight toward the ultimate goal, the moon. So, it was a real thrill to have a conversation with this living legend.

IMG_3158resizedMany of my questions to General Stafford were about the missions, the reasoning behind NASA's plans, and the split-second decisions that General Stafford made in space. He leaped into the technical questions, and seemed comfortable with leaving most of the hyperbole to the journalist in the room. As always, Thomas Stafford stayed focused on the target.

We did our interview with General Stafford on July 7, 2010, in the same studio where he sat for the production of the OETA program, "General Thomas P. Stafford: Oklahoma Astronaut" in 1997. We recorded our conversation just a couple of months before General Stafford celebrated his 80th birthday, surrounded by fellow astronauts, at the Thomas P. Stafford Air & Space Museum in Weatherford. The first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong, and General Stafford's Gemini 9 and Apollo 10 crewmate Eugene Cernan, were among those attending.

If you want to learn more about General Stafford, I heartily recommend a visit to the Thomas P. Stafford Air & Space Museum. It is located east of Weatherfod, at the airport, just off of Interstate 40.  It is deceptively large - about 40,000 square feet, and there is no wasted space.  Plan to spend a few hours, especially if you are a space flight fan. The museum is a real treasure – an outstanding museum jammed with information, photographs, and memorabilia from General Stafford's career, the U.S. and Soviet space programs and the history of flight. The collection includes spacesuits, planes, a Titan II rocket and much more. The price is very affordable and well worth it. 

ACW_Thomas_Stafford_035resizedYou can see the Gemini 6 capsule that Thomas Stafford and Wally Schirra flew into space in 1965 at the Oklahoma History Center just east of the state capitol in Oklahoma City.   I also recommend General Stafford's autobiography, "We Have Capture," which is available at the Oklahoma History Center and other book stores, and of course our two OETA productions , including "A Conversation With...Thomas Stafford."

I hope you enjoy our conversation. Thanks for reading. Until next time,

Dick Pryor