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​​September 17, 1930 - March 18, 2024

It is with great sadness that the Stafford Air & Space Museum announces the passing of its namesake, Lt. General Thomas P. Stafford (USAF, ret.).  General Stafford passed away on March 18, 2024 in Indian Harbor, Florida.  General Stafford was 93.   


Thomas Patten Stafford was born in Weatherford, Oklahoma on September 17, 1930, to Thomas and Mary (Patten) Stafford. He was raised in the western Oklahoma community of Weatherford and never forgot his roots; he was a proud “Weatherford Eagle” to the end. He often credited his hometown as the foundation for the incredible life and career that unfolded for him.


After graduation from Weatherford High School in 1948, Stafford was selected to attend the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD, where he graduated in the top 1% of his class.  Ever since he was a small child, his dream was to become a fighter pilot, and graduation from Annapolis allowed him to pursue that dream.  Just prior to graduation, the United States Air Force was established as a brand new, separate military department.  To fill the fledging Air Force’s need for officers, outstanding graduates from both the Army and Naval academies were given the option to stay with their original branch of service, or transfer to the newly created department.  Stafford knew the Air Force had the hottest, most cutting-edge aircraft, and his choice was simple.  He transferred to the Air Force, and gained his silver wings.


Stafford’s flying skills were quickly recognized, and he was selected to attend the elite Experimental Test Pilot School at Edwards AFB, California – a legendary facility where he would later serve as Commanding General.  He graduated first in his test pilot’s class and went on to test new aircraft designs, pushing them to their extreme limits.  It was highly dangerous work, but Stafford thrived under its challenges.  He was then chosen to become a test pilot instructor, and co-authored two books to help train test pilots, parts of which are still being used more than six decades later.

In the early 1960’s, at the peak of the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union squared off in one of mankind’s most competitive races – the Space Race to the Moon.  On Stafford’s 31st birthday, NASA announced to the world that they had selected their second group of astronauts that would spearhead the race to the moon, and Stafford was one of the nine selected.  Called the “New Nine,” this group established many of the “firsts” in human spaceflight.  Two of the group were killed in accidents.  The remaining seven commanded future space flights, including six missions to the moon.


Stafford flew in four historic space missions, including three as commander.  In December 1965, he served as the pilot of Gemini 6 with Wally Schirra. They achieved one of the greatest milestones in spaceflight history by performing the first rendezvous in space with another orbiting spacecraft – a critical maneuver necessary for humans to fly to the moon.  Just six months later, Stafford commanded Gemini 9 with Gene Cernan.  Many challenges were experienced during the flight, including a near fatal spacewalk by Cernan.  In May 1969, Stafford commanded the Apollo 10 mission to the moon, and was the first man to pilot a Lunar Module (LM) into lunar orbit.  He was one of only 24 humans to venture into deep space to explore another celestial body.  During reentry, Stafford and his crew of Gene Cernan and John Young set the all-time human speed record of 24,791 mph, or nearly 7 miles/second.  After more than a half century, they still hold the ultimate human speed record that may not be surpassed until a crew returns from a trip to Mars!


Following his flight to the moon, Stafford was selected by NASA to become Chief of the Astronaut Office. He later served as Deputy Director of Flight Crew Operations at Johnson Space Center, where he oversaw astronaut training, mission planning, along with crew selections for the final moon landings and the Skylab Program.  During this time, Stafford received his first star with his promotion to Brigadier General, the first astronaut to obtain that rank.  In 1975, General Stafford co-commanded the final Apollo mission named Apollo-Soyuz, a mission that brought a U.S. crew together with a Soviet crew in orbit to help diffuse the tensions of the Cold War.  General Stafford received a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize, and the success of that mission is still considered by many as the beginning of the end of the Cold War. Nearly a half century later, General Stafford remains the first and only active General to fly in space.

Following his Apollo-Soyuz mission, General Stafford resigned from NASA and returned to the Air Force where he earned his second and third stars.  The Air Force assigned him to be the Commanding General of Edwards AFB, and its Experimental Flight Test Center where new aircraft models were tested, and test pilots trained.  General Stafford oversaw and participated in the final testing of some of the most important aircraft ever flown – many still on America’s front lines today, including the F-15, F-16, A-10, B-1B, and prototypes for the C-17.  He was also in command of Edwards when NASA conducted all the initial Space Shuttle ALT test flights. 


Few people know that during this time, General Stafford was the Commanding General of “AREA-51”, one of the world’s most top-secret test facilities, located in the Nevada desert. There he received his first glimpse of the new, little known experimental technology called Stealth.  General Stafford instantly recognized the promise of this infant technology and how it might dramatically alter the history of warfare.  During his tenure at Area-51, and later while at the Pentagon as head of Air Force Research & Development, and Acquisition, General Stafford wrote the specs and established the program that led to the development of the F-117 Stealth Fighter, and later, the B-2 Stealth Bomber.  Today, he is referred to as the Air Force’s “Father of Stealth.”  He also led efforts to create the AGM-129 Stealth Cruise Missile and established the roadmap for the development of the F-22 Stealth Fighter.


By the end of his NASA and military career in 1979, General Stafford was the first member of his Naval Academy Class of 1952 to earn his first, second, and third stars as a general officer.  He had spent nearly 508 hours in space, including two and a half days orbiting the moon.   His career had enabled him to fly nearly 130 types of military aircraft, four different spacecraft, and ride on three different types of boosters into space. 


Shortly after retirement, the newly elected President Ronald Reagan asked General Stafford to join his presidential transition team as primary defense advisor.  General Stafford also entered the private sector, co-founding a highly successful aerospace consulting firm that worked on numerous projects for the Department of Defense, NASA, and various aerospace contractors.  He went on to serve on the Board of Directors of numerous Fortune 500 corporations.

In June of 1990, Vice-President Dan Quayle, and NASA Administrator Dick Truly, asked General Stafford to form and become Chairman of a team to independently advise NASA on how to carry out President Bush’s Space Exploration Initiative, his vision to permanently return astronauts to the moon, and then go on to explore Mars. This endeavor produced a comprehensive study that still serves as a guideline to return humans to the moon and, one day, on to Mars.


When the Hubble Space Telescope was launched with a potential fatal flaw in its mirror, NASA Administrator Dan Goldin asked General Stafford to form and chair a committee to find a fix.  They did, and the Hubble went on to become one of the most revolutionary scientific research instruments ever built.


As Chairman of NASA’s Advisory Council, General Stafford was instrumental in involving the Russians with the design, construction, and operation of the International Space Station (ISS).  His vision not only led to American astronauts being able to fly to the Russian Space Station, “MIR”, on nine different missions, but also enabled the U.S. to continue its missions to the ISS aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft after the Space Shuttle Program was cancelled in 2011.


After the Space Shuttle “Columbia” and its crew were lost on reentry in 2003, General Stafford co-chaired the oversight committee that ensured all necessary safety changes were made before the Shuttle was allowed to fly again.


General Stafford continued to draw upon his experience and provide engineering expertise in the designs of future manned spacecraft. At the time of his death, at the age of 93, General Stafford still chaired NASA’s key Space Station Oversight Committee for ISS safety, preparedness, and operation.


General Stafford’s career spanned from propeller driven, World War II training aircraft, through the earliest days of jet fighters, to pioneering mankind’s first excursions into space and to the moon.  He helped demonstrate how two bitter enemies of the Cold War, the U.S. and Russia, could work together in peace in space, a collaboration that was instrumental in bringing the first Cold War to an end.  Even today, as another Cold War looms between these same great nations, General Stafford’s legacy lives on as American and Russian astronauts tirelessly work in harmony aboard the International Space Station, making new scientific discoveries that will help all mankind.  General Stafford spent his life as a tireless visionary for his country.

As the late Senator and astronaut, John Glenn, once said about his good friend:


“Few people have ever matched Tom Stafford’s enduring impact on this nation, and we are a safer and better nation for it.”


General Stafford is survived by his wife, Linda, of the home.  They have two sons, Michael Thomas, and Stanislav “Stas” Patten.  His first marriage was to the late Faye L. Shoemaker.  From that marriage came two daughters, Dionne Kay and Karin Elaine, and two grandsons, Thomas P. Stafford II, and Andrew Alexei Harrison.  Linda has two children from a previous marriage, Kassie Neering and Mark Hill, and four grandchildren, Sloane, Lee, Marcus, and Tara.


Services and internment will be in Weatherford, Oklahoma.  Final details will follow.  In Lieu of flowers the family prefers contributions be made to the Stafford Air and Space Museum in honor or General Stafford to support the museum's mission to preserving and celebrating his legacy in aviation and space exploration. For a representative in Weatherford, contact Teresa Schoonmaker or Max Ary of the Stafford Air & Space Museum at 580-772-5871.

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