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Biography of General Thomas P. Stafford


Thomas Patten Stafford was born on September 17, 1930, in Weatherford, Oklahoma to parents Thomas and Mary Stafford.  At just 5 years old, Stafford’s interest in aviation started while watching what looked like a giant silver bird flying over (it was a DC-3 airplane) and he said, ‘I want to do that!’ He made his first flight in a Piper Cub airplane at the age of 14. Tom graduated from Weatherford High School in May 1948, just days before his father passed away from cancer.


General Stafford graduated with honors in 1952 from the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland, and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the United States Air Force.  He received his pilot’s wings at Connally AFB, Waco, Texas in September 1953.  He completed advanced interceptor training and was assigned to the 54th Flight Interceptor Squadron, Ellsworth AFB, Rapid City, South Dakota.  In December 1955, he was assigned to the 496th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, Hahn Air Base, Germany, where he performed the duties of pilot, flight leader, and flight test maintenance officer, flying F-86Ds.  He attended the USAF Experimental Test Pilot School, and received the A.B. Honts award for outstanding graduate. He became an instructor in flight test training, and specialized academic subjects, establishing basic textbooks and directing the writing of flight test manuals for use by the staff and students.  He is co-author of the Pilot’s Handbook for Performance Flight Testing and the Aerodynamics Handbook for Performance Flight Testing.

General Stafford was selected among the second group of astronauts in September 1962 by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to participate in Projects Gemini and Apollo.  In December 1965, he piloted Gemini VI and performed the first rendezvous in space, and helped develop techniques to prove the basic theory and practicality of space rendezvous.  In June 1966, he commanded Gemini IX and performed a demonstration of an early-phase rendezvous that would become standard in later Apollo lunar missions, the first optical rendezvous, and demonstrated a lunar orbit abort rendezvous. 

From August 1966 to October 1968, Stafford headed the mission planning analysis and software development responsibilities for the astronaut group for Project Apollo.  He was the lead member of the team that helped formulate the sequence of missions leading to the first lunar landing mission.  He demonstrated and implemented the theory of a pilot manually flying the giant Saturn V booster into orbit, and the technique for the critical translunar injection maneuver.


In May 1969, Stafford would command the Apollo 10 mission to the moon, piloting the first Lunar Module (LM) into lunar orbit.  The highly successful mission was the final full-scale dress rehearsal for a lunar landing that would happen during the Apollo 11 mission just two months later. Stafford flew the LM down to within nine miles of the moon’s surface designating the landing ellipse for the first landing, performed the first lunar rendezvous, conducted reconnaissance on future Apollo landing sites, and proved all the necessary elements of the lunar landing, with the exception of the actual landing itself. 


During the Apollo 10 reentry, General Stafford and his crew were recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records for reaching the highest speed ever attained by man, when the spacecraft reached a speed of 24,791 statute miles per hour – Mach 37.  This ultimate speed record still holds today, and may not be exceeded until an astronaut crew returns from a mission to Mars. 

Following his return from the moon, Stafford was assigned as the Chief of the Astronaut Office in June 1969, and was responsible for the selection of flight crews for Projects Apollo and Skylab.  He reviewed and monitored flight crew training status, and was responsible for coordination, scheduling, and control of all activities involving NASA astronauts.

In June 1971, General Stafford was named as the Deputy Director of Flight Crew Operations at the NASA Manned Space Flight Center (later known as the Johnson Space Center) in Houston.  He was responsible for assisting the center director in planning and implementation of programs for the astronaut group, Aircraft Operations, Flight Crew Integration, Flight Crew Procedures, and Crew Simulation and Training Divisions.


Stafford would become the first general to fly into space when he logged his fourth space flight as Apollo commander of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) mission, July 15-24, 1975.  This mission would be the first international space flight, and would be a joint mission culminating in the historic “first handshake in space” between American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts. Historians now consider the mission as the beginning of the end of the Cold War, and for his efforts, General Stafford was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

General Stafford was promoted to the grade of Major General in August 1975.  He left NASA in November 1975 to assume the command of the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards AFB, California. As part of his responsibilities, he also assumed the operational command of the Groom Lake Test Facility (better known as “Area 51”) in Nevada, the Hill-Dougway-Wendover Test Range in Utah, and the Parachute Test Facility in El Centro, California. During his tenure, he was responsible for the testing oversight of the F-15, YF-16, YF-17 (later to become the F-18), the A-10, B-1A, YC-14, YC-15, C-141B, Air Launch Cruise Missile (ALC), “Have Blue” (the first experimental stealth aircraft), and the safety and operations oversight of the Approach and Landing Test (ALT) Program for the Space Shuttle. 

Stafford was promoted to Lt. General in March 1978, and in May 1978 assumed the duties as the USAF Deputy Chief of Staff for Research, Development and Acquisition, HQ USAF, Washington, D.C.  In addition to the standard duties of his position, in 1979, General Stafford personally initiated the development of the F-117A stealth fighter program. Stafford then wrote the initial design specifications for, and started the Advanced Technology Bomber development (ATV) Program (later renamed the B-2A Stealth Bomber) even though no statement-of-need or requirements existed. He initiated the Advanced Cruise Missile program, designated as the AGM-129 Stealth Cruise Missile, and started the F-110 Afterburning Turbo-Fan Fighter engine program.  He also initiated what would become the roadmap for the Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF), which would become the F-22A Stealth Fighter. General Stafford retired from the Air Force in November 1979.