General Thomas P. Stafford is a veteran NASA astronaut who flew in space 4 times and in 4 different spacecraft, completing 6 rendezvous, orbited the moon and accumulated 507 hours in space. I am lucky enough to meet astronaut Tom Stafford today.

Tom Stafford
Tom Stafford

A brief space summary. His first flight was piloting Gemini 6 for the first rendezvous in space and less than 6 months later was Commander on Gemini 9 rendezvousing with an Agena Target Vehicle but without docking.  Tom Stafford’s next flight in space was as Commander on Apollo 10 with an all-up test of the lunar module (LM) “Snoopy” flying to within 9 miles of the lunar surface, the point where powered descent would begin for landing and considered to be the dress rehearsal for the first manned moon landing. During Apollo 10 on their back from the moon, Tom Stafford and his crew mates also achieved the highest speed ever attained by a manned vehicle.  Tom Stafford had his final flight in space as the Apollo Commander of the Apollo Soyuz Test Program (ASTP) with the historic handshake in space between Soviet cosmonauts and American astronauts.

The Apollo 10 Lunar Module “Snoopy” dropped down to 47,400 feet (9 miles) above the lunar surface.

It is unfortunate that Captain Eugene Cernan is unable to attend today after an unexpected illness and thanks to the fantastic team and a phone call from Gene Cernan to his crew-mate of two missions, Tom Stafford, they have managed to persuade 85 year old General Stafford to attend at very short notice.  To steal a phrase, you could say “this was their finest hour, a successful failure.”  Tom Stafford turned out to be absolutely fantastic.

It’s not the first time they’ve managed to pull off these rare opportunities, (see my other posts).  If you have the slightest interest in attending astronaut space lectures, then this not-for-profit group will blow your mind in bringing legendary Apollo, Gemini and Space Shuttle astronauts. Tom Stafford is definitely a space legend. The simple fact is that from that golden age of space flight, all the men that have flown to the moon are now in their 80’s. These events are always sold out.  It’s time to get my space face on and meet the space ambassador Tom Stafford.

Astronaut Tom Stafford as command pilot of the Gemini 9A
Astronaut Tom Stafford as command pilot of the Gemini 9A

The lecture starts with a video, starting with background in Oklahoma and a summary of his long and illustrious career,  before coming out to greet the audience.  Tom Stafford may give the appearance of a frail elderly gentleman but when he speaks he won’t stop, his breath of knowledge and memory of the cold war space race and beyond is stunning.  This post will be lengthy with laughs along the way. I’ve done my best to record what I can and have separated into space eras.  This is Tom Stafford in his own words…

The Space Race

It’s a real pleasure to be here in the UK again, I’ve been here many times before, I always say its one of my favourite countries to come to, the natives speak English over here.  It’s a pleasure to be here at short notice, my dear friend Gene Cernan is under the weather, he called me on Wednesday and wanted to know if I could be here.

Tom Stafford at Space-Lectures
Tom Stafford at Space-Lectures

Humankind has always look up at the sky, and looked up particularly at the moon, the sun, the stars, where did they come from,will we ever go there?  Maybe a few people wrote about it but it was impossible.  However things have progressed over the years. To me, the defining moment was when the Soviet Union was when they put up the first satellite, Sputnik. America was this democracy, always fighting with each other among the parties, we are one of reaction, not a positive action but once we get our mind to things, the whole country gets behind it.  So as a result of Sputnik, congress pushed President Eisenhower and formed NASA.

Lyndon Johnson was not what you would call a space buff, he did start Project Mercury, the Soviet Union had already started although we didn’t know that and the defining moment came after President Kennedy, who saw the worldwide acclaim that Yuri Gagarin got on April 12 1961 when he did an orbit around the Earth and the acclaim on May 5th 1961 with Alan Shepherd went 115 miles up and 200 miles down range. So what he turned to was the National Space Council which was headed by Vice President Lyndon Johnson, he knew he had to get a winner and asked what could we do to get ahead of the Soviet Union in science, technology and also beat the Soviets.  So the Vice President gathered all the best heads at NASA, Von Braun, Gliruth, Silverstein etc and got back to Kennedy with 3 scenarios:

  • Fly a free return trajectory, fly by the moon and come back although we don’t think there is a way we can beat the Soviets doing it.  This was exactly the type of mission the Soviets had in mind.
  • There is a 50% chance we can beat them going into an orbit around the moon.
  • However we think definitely, that if we go and land a man on the moon and come back we can beat them, and this will push us ahead.

So May 25 1961, (Kennedy announced) that in this decade we will land a man on the moon and safely return.  I’m sure glad he had that second bit there.  We were going to go to the moon but how do we go to the moon?  There were several different ideas.  Dr Gilruth suggested a large booster, about 2 1/2 times bigger than a Saturn V and do a direct landing. Dr Von Braun had other ideas, he wanted 2 smaller ones, at least 50% larger than a Saturn V, put one in orbit, then the second one in orbit, rendezvous and then do direct ascent to the moon and direct ascent back.  Both ideas had very big boosters. However a team headed by Dr John Houbolt came up with an idea of a way to drastically reduce weight, less costs, faster and safer, which was to have a lunar orbit rendezvous.

In July 1962, NASA announced to the world, that we would use Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR) to carry out Kennedy’s goal of landing on the moon and returning.  On my birthday in 1962 I was very lucky to be selected in the second group of nine astronauts where our job was to fly the Gemini program and Apollo.

LOR explained by Houbolt
LOR explained by Houbolt


Gemini is lost in history to a lot of people but it was so important, the first time we had a computer on-board a manned spacecraft, on-board radar, be able to do a rendezvous, demonstrate walking in space i.e. extra vehicular activities, support 2 people for 14 days and have a guided re-entry to a precise point, all of which we needed for Apollo. It would also get the crews trained for the techniques of rendezvous and docking.

Gemini was such a crucial program, without it, Apollo could have been a disaster.

All that we learned we incorporated into Apollo. I was originally chosen to be on the first Gemini crew with Al Shpeherd but he was grounded with an ear problem, so Gus Grissom chose John Young and they were chosen, Wally Schirra selected me and we were the back up crew.  We trained long and hard and about 3 days before we were interrupted with a newsflash that the Soviet Union had just had a cosmonaut walk in space, Alexi Leonov.  We saw him outside and pushing off and we thought it looked simple.

Later I got to know him real well on Apollo-Soyuz (ASTP), I could speak some Russian, him some English, we were having dinner together before the mission, we’d had a few drinks, he told me how he nearly got killed out there,how his suit had ballooned.  I said I’d sure wished we had known that.

So Gemini 3 went up, did 3 orbits, Gemini was in good shape, I was originally scheduled for the first spacewalk, it was going to be simple, just open up the hatch, stand up, turn around a little bit and get back down.  But after Leonov did that, NASA had to respond. So Ed White went out for 22 minutes and when he started to come back in, his suit ballooned.  The critical link for those of you that have seen Gemini spacecraft is your height. We had practised in the zero G air-plane, the commander would grab hold of you, called the ‘alles-oop’ manoeuvre, he’d pull down as hard as he could and with the other hand take the hatch flush and lock it down. When Ed White tried to get back in, his suit had ballooned so much, but I guess his adrenaline was really flowing that day, his heart rate went over 220 beats a minute. We nearly lost him,we could have lost McDivitt too. We still didn’t understand how to train, walk, work in space or do specific items.

Astronaut Thomas P. Stafford during Gemini 6 training
Astronaut Thomas P. Stafford during Gemini 6 training

Pete Conrad and Gordo Cooper went in Gemini 5 for a a long duration mission, 8 days, so we were getting nearer the time it would take to get to the moon and back. Then next was Gemini 6, Wally Schirra and I would do the first rendezvous with an Atlas Agena rocket.  The idea of rendezvous had been around for many years but nobody had ever done one.  What we had planned to do originally was to use the least energy, for those who study orbit mechanics, a Hohmann Transfer. When you go around the Earth, you do 25700 feet per second, if you add 1 foot per second, 180 degrees later, you’ll raise your orbit about 1/2 mile.  The lower you get the faster you go around, the higher you get the slower you go. So we thought we’d do a series of Hohmann Transfers to catch up with the target vehicle.  The problem is there are wide dispersion at the end of that 180 degree turn.

One of the members of mission planning analysis called Wally and I over, showed us Russian document called The Concentric Theory of Rendezvous of Three Bodies.  I couldn’t read a word of Russian but could see the diagrams and knew it had some merit. We got the document translated and used the Russian ideas.  All this was published in open literature.

The Atlas went up, the Agena went up but the Air Force (US) had goofed up with the sequencing but putting oxidizer first then fuel which a no-no. Should always be fuel first then come in with oxidizer and shut oxidizer off first, if you don’t you can have some bad consequences – combustion instability, explosion in the thrust chamber.  So here’s Wally and I in October 1965 with no target vehicle. We had Gemini 7 that was going to go up in a 2 week mission in December so why not put a radar transponder on Gemini 7, take Gemini 6 off the pad and as soon as Gemini 7 launches, put 6 back on the pad, launch them 12 days later and do a rendezvous.

Gemini 7 as seen by Gemini 6 during rendezvous
Gemini 7 as seen by Gemini 6 during rendezvous

Gemini 7 went up and we got ready to go 9 days after.  we were a T Minus 3 seconds when  the engines went off and started to shake, rattle and roll and the engine shut-down at exactly T Zero and we had the lift off symbol. By mission rules we were supposed to eject, we knew nothing about 100% pure oxygen. Wally and I had been soaking in pure oxygen for nearly 2 hours – you’d have probably seen 2 Roman Candles coming off the Gemini spacecraft. We knew by the seat of our pants we had not lifted off. It was his responsibility to pull the D-ring and my responsibility to back him up. We didn’t and then a fire broke out and for that we were on a hot mic, and that where I was quoted as saying “aw shucks.” That was a close miss, the closest we ever had and we had the lift off symbol. We had a dead man’s curve of about 0.75 seconds before the pyrotechnics went off and we would probably would have had a hard time making it.

On the 12th day after Gemini 7 we finally lifted off. We had a rudimentary computer, had a closed loop with the radar, computer and inertial platform but what happens if we lose the radar, the computer or the platform? So we worked out a series of nomographs, my job as the right seat pilot was to work those and figure out what would happen if it did. We worked on some slightly eccentric orbits, when we were below the target, worked out at a  given angle and feet per second to raise your orbit up. We used inertial line of sights, kind of the same way an aircraft works.

It worked like a piece of cake, we rendezvoused right on schedule. Also when the computer went I was taking data points, the radar locked on about 270 miles. By that time I had my solution about two minutes before the on-board computer had its solution. I told Wally we could use my solution right now and we could make it up on mid courses. We were coming in about 30 feet per second, brought it down to 15 and then stopped about 10 feet from Gemini 7. We flew around and started easing in, we couldn’t dock, to about 1 foot to 18 inches.  Just like flying formation acrobatics, when you are there it’s real easy to stay there.  Gemini was a great design.

The Agena target vehicle described by the Gemini 9 crew as an "angry alligator. "
The Agena target vehicle described by the Gemini 9 crew as an “angry alligator. “

On Gemini we flew 10 missions in 18 months, it was go, go, go.  I chose Gene Cernan to be my pilot, we were the back up for Gemini 9 and do the wrap up mission on Gemini 12. Elliott See and Charlie Bassett were later killed in an air crash so we had to take over the mission. We were going to have along duration spacewalk, an Air Force (US) experiment of a rocket pack. Cernan was to use the rocket pack of hot gas thrusters and so that it didn’t burn through his space suit, he had a mesh covering to protect him.

What we didn’t have was a de-fog solution on our visor. I told Cernan to concentrate on the EVA and I would concentrate on the spacecraft. The Atlas took off but the range officer had to blow it up.  We recycled a nose section from Gemini, 2 x 25 lb thrusters with a target docking adaptor called the Augmented Target Docking Adaptor.  On June 3rd 1965, Cernan and I lifted off.  With the ATDA they didn’t get a shroud deployed symbol, we didn’t know what to expect. We got up there and could see the two halves of the shroud, I was trying to describe it to the ground and said it looked like an “angry alligator.” I also called it a few other things too.

Gene Cernan and Tom Stafford discuss their Gemini 9 scrub
Gene Cernan and Tom Stafford discuss their Gemini 9 scrub

We couldn’t dock with it but we did the early phase rendezvous, first optical rendezvous and first ballistic overhead rendezvous which was to simulate a command module coming down to pick up a low level lunar module disabled in low lunar orbit. it’s one thing to do a rendezvous when you’re looking at the stars but when you are coming down over head, the more you pitch down, the faster the Earth is coming by, it doesn’t feel like 160 miles up, fells more like a couple of hundred thousand feet. You are really moving and nearly get vertigo.  Then came the spacewalk. we had a 25 foot umbilical, a bigger chest pack with batteries and water evaporator, no liquid cooled garments alike Apollo.  Gene Cernan was to do the first spacewalk for 2 hours in this rocket pack at the back of the Gemini.  This is one episode Gene Cernan and I never wanted to do again.

I had an incident occur as we were suiting up that morning, Deke Slayton, my boss walked in, he ordered the suit technician out of the room and said….

Tom, I want you to know NASA management has decided if Cernan dies out there, you’ve got to bring him back, we cannot afford to have a dead American astronaut floating around in space.

I blew my stack, 2 1/2 hours before launch and you’re pulling this on me, we’ve never talked about it, not discussed it with Cernan, never thought about the contingency plans.  Do you understand to come back, I’ve got to have the hatch open, what do you think a 400 lb rocket pack on a 150 foot tether is going to do on a 3000 lb re-entry vehicle? We’ve never practised that. How could I get through that, supposing I did, would he get caught up in the drogue chutes.  I was really pissed by then and said…

Deke, when those bolts blow and that Titan lifts off, I’m the Commander, I’ll make the decision, understand that. 

And with that, I slammed my visor down and stormed out.  Cernan was waiting for me and on the way up, he said to me “Hey Tom, what was Deke taking to you about?” I said “Geno, he hopes we have a real good ride.”  We scrubbed out that morning because of the Agena.

The Gemini 9 Spacewalk from hell

We finally get up for the EVA, Gene gets out, stands up and starts with his 25 foot umbilical cord. The Gemini spacecraft is that small I couldn’t put my feet together, it was cramped. Had more room in the front seat of a VW bug. He was going out at the end of the tether and Newton’s Law, for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. He’d come swinging back and start to twerk the spacecraft that I had to control.

He was really huffing and puffing, I was looking at a rear view mirror of him, he goes to the back of the spacecraft, the sun is going down and he says “Tom, my back is killing me.”  I asked what was wrong and he said his left side was starting to burn up.  What had happened was the 7 layers of insulation on spacesuit, a small section had separated away, so the sun was going right in and he received a second degree burn on his back.  He was trying to get into this astronaut manoeuvring unit (AMU) but as soon as the sun goes down his faceplate fogs over.  He’s blind and can’t see. Tried to use the AMU which had its own radio and we had lost one way of a two-way communication. We worked out he could hear me so I told him to get back on two-way communications.

The hatch was sticking and from Ed White’s experience, we had a simple mechanism, an aluminium T-bar to slam the hatch down. So we were coming across Australia at night-time, could see the Southern Cross coming up, here I am 130 miles up, my suit is pressurised, the hatch is sticking, my buddy is feet behind me and he can’t see. I said to Gene that when the sum comes up, within 10 minutes if you don;t get de-fogged, we’re calling it quits and you’re going to get back in the spacecraft. The sun comes up and he doesn’t de-fog, so we called it quits yet he couldn’t see. Fortunately we did have a rail on top of the Gemini adaptor section and I had to direct him to how to get hold of that bar.

He was walking hand over hand, got him to swing his body round to the left, grabbed his feet that were dangling in, put his feet in the ejection seat well and tried to get him in the general direction of the sun but that fog would not burn off. Had to try and get him to clear his faceplate with his nose by pushing as hard as could against it.  We had his umbilical cord snaking all around, not much room in Gemini, managed to get his feet below the instrument panel, but his suit had ballooned up like Ed White and Alexi Leonov had. His head was still a couple of inches out so grabbed the hatch and slammed it down and locked it home.

Gemini 9 recovery
Gemini 9 recovery

Gene told me his legs and back were killing him and he told me to get the pressure up quick. When the pressure was up, he opened his faceplate up and his face was completely pink like he’d been in a sauna. You’re not supposed to have water in the spacecraft but I just hosed him down. In that 2 hours outside, Cernan had lost 13 lbs of weight. Not a recommended way to lose weight.  We landed the next day, right off the coast of Bermuda, and they flew the suit back. That evening they poured a 1 1/2 lb of water out of his boot.

We landed, we had a way to second guess the computer, I told the Skipper of the (USS) WASP, this was way before GPS, we had a sextant for sunrise, my inertial platform is good, I think I can it right near your flight-deck. It was the first time you ever saw live TV of a Gemini coming down. We landed within 3.5 miles within the actual aim point, the closest of any Gemini or Apollo. It was quite an experience. We still didn’t know how to walk in space, from that the idea came out about training underwater.  Gemini 9 was one heck of a mission.


We did Gemini so fast, only two close calls in Gemini, the first one, with Wally and I at the shut-down when the fire broke out, the second one on Gemini 8 with Neil Armstrong and Dave Scott where they did a rendezvous and docked with an Agena. After a period of time, the whole mas started to wobble back and forth, everything looked fine so they thought it had to be the Agena.  Neil un-docks with the Agena and Gemini starts to spin up, getting as high as 1 revolution per second. Neil turned on his re-entry thrusters, which was the right thing to do. Dave Scott started to kill the channels for roll, pitch and yaw and the got the bad thruster. When it came to a full stop, all Gemini 8 had was one half weight of one re-entry thruster, the other one was gone.  They were two close calls but we made it.

Lunar Orbit Flight

There were still mistakes out there, tragically we lost the Apollo 1 crew, Gus Grissom, Ed White, Roger Chaffe in January of 1967. That set us back about 18 months. In the meanwhile, the Soviet Union was still planning a free return trajectory around the moon. They were going to build a big booster like we had except they didn’t have a big thrust engine. We had 3 technologies that made it possible for Americans to go to the moon and if we didn’t, we’d have fallen flat on our back.

  1. Back in 1955 General Bernard Schriever ordered development of a single chamber, 1 1/2 million lb thrust engine using kerosene and liquid oxygen. The bigger the thrust chamber of a rocket engine, the more susceptible it is to instability and explosion. I remember still being a Captain, test pilot at Edwards (US Air Force Base) hearing roars and seeing the night light up, and some nights you’d hear a roar and a big bang. The F1 engine was still exploding while we were still flying Gemini but they got the stability worked out and we had 5 of those F1 engines on the first stage. In 1957, the Air Force stopped the F1 engine and turned it over to NASA.  When they decoded to go to the moon , NASA picked it back up again in 1961.
  2. In 1959, two years before Kennedy made the announcement, NASA had a meeting of heads with the top engineers; what is the best fuel we can use to out of low earth orbit, turns out to be liquid hydrogen. Its the lightest element and higher the exhaust velocity. We had to learn how to produce large quantities and liquefy it, transport it, store it, transport it in a booster, quite a challenge.  The Soviets had kerosene, even though they had a bigger booster, 9.9 millions lbs of thrust, we had 7500 lbs, we could put 300,000 lbs in orbit and the Soviets could only put a little less than 200,000 lbs. On their lunar lander, its only about half the size or ours.
  3. The third one was John Houbolt and the lunar orbit rendezvous (LRO).

Those three decisions made Apollo possible. We had so many things to fix after that tragic fire in 1967, we finally flew in October 1968 (Apollo 7), Wally Schirra was Commander. Before that, the Soviet Union in the spring of 1968 had their first success: a Proton could put Soyuz on a free return. They were going to have a big booster, the N1, which weighed more than the Saturn V, which would take to lunar obit with a command service module and a lunar lander.  It was a bit Mickey Mouse as they didn’t have docking tunnel, they would have to do a spacewalk to get into their lunar module.

My good friend Alexi Leonov, he had been chosen to go. The Soviets did a lot for publicity, he’s a natural born PR person, good speaker, he was there watching N1’s blow up. The first one got up about 12000 feet and blew up, the second one got up to 300-500 feet above the pad and one of the oxidizer swallowed a bolt and exploded.  It fell back and had all this kerosene and liquid oxygen and became the largest man-made non nuclear explosion in history. Between 1/6 and 1/7 the power of Hiroshima. Alexi Leonov told me about it later, he was standing about 3.5 km away and nearly got knocked down in the blast. They tried it four times and it never worked, that was the end of the program.

Apollo 7 went great, so in December of 1968 we launched Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders on Apollo 7 for 10 orbits around the moon, a real gutsy mission. We’d gone to the moon, orbited the moon but hadn’t landed yet. We had such a head of steam and team dynamics, by the time we had started to fly and by the time we had landed on the moon, there was nine months where we flew five missions, four of those on the big Saturn, three of those to the moon. It was all the experience we had on Gemini that let us do that.

Apollo 10

When it came to my third mission (Apollo 10), there was no person really selected to be the first one on the moon, it was all on rotations, prime, back-up, prime etc. I was back up on Gemini 7, Neil was back-up on Apollo 8, Pete Conrad back-up on Apollo 9, so I had Apollo 10, Neil had Apollo 11 and Pete Conrad at Apollo 12. I flew the first Lunar Module (LM) out, with Gene Cernan as my LM pilot and John Young as Command Module pilot.

Command Module Charlie Brown in lunar orbit as seen from the LM Snoopy
Command Module Charlie Brown in lunar orbit as seen from the LM Snoopy

I thought space was so beautiful, been there twice before, all we had was Hassleblad pictures of the Earth and some short 16mm film, I pushed for live colour television. People would often ask “were you afraid out there?” Absolutely not, it you’re afraid or scared you shouldn’t be there, you’re in the wrong profession. We were fighter pilots, test pilots, we knew what the risk was, knew how to minimise risks to the best of our abilities. We’d lost a lot of friends too. The funniest feeling I ever has was after we had left the Earth, from Earth orbit you can barely see a slight curvature. We docked with the LM and when you fly to the moon you BBQ to the moon, rotating in sunlight otherwise one side would be very hot and could explode the fuel and the other side would be very cold and could freeze the fuel.

We hadn’t seen the Earth, and during that BBQ attitude, we were 90 degree to the plain of the Earth. Gene Cernan was the first one to see it, what In saw gave me a sinking feeling. The Earth was the size of a basketball and it was just shrinking away from us. I knew I was in for a long ride that day. I wanted NASA to call England, head of the British Flat Earth society and tell him that the Earth was really round. Woke up the next morning and by then, the Earth was the size of a grapefruit, every 20 minutes the Earth would go by and then sun would go by. We didn’t see the moon, we were in eclipse and knew we wouldn’t see it till we got there.

We woke up to the news, the whole world had seen the first colour TV and also that Colonel Stafford had a message from the President of the British Flat Earth Society, “Tell Colonel Stafford, yes it is round but its a flat disc.” We had so much reflective sunlight it was hard for us to see our first big stars, Sirius, Canopus.  John Young called back and said “Hey, we’ve been out here for a day and half, we still don’t see that moon but we’ll take your for it that its out here. Finally we got about 6 hours out, John could see it through his telescope, a little slither of a moon. The sun went down, we were still in contact with the Earth and it was just a big black area, couldn’t see it. We got squared away in the right attitude, two minutes before we were supposed to turn on the engine to brake into lunar orbit, suddenly the moon appears right before us.

Transferred the colour TV back to Earth so they could see the first Earthrise. You’ll never forget your first Earthrise, it’s pretty unique. Your orbit around the moon is every two hours, the moon only has 1/6 mass, your speed is slow, only 5500 feet per second, about 3700 mph, that is slow compared top Earth orbit. In comparison I though we were going to stall out.

The ascent stage of the Apollo 10 Lunar Module "Snoopy" photographed from the Command Module "Charlie Brown" prior to docking in lunar orbit.
The ascent stage of the Apollo 10 Lunar Module “Snoopy” photographed from the Command Module “Charlie Brown” prior to docking in lunar orbit.

Unfortunately, our LM was too heavy to land, our job as to go down about 9 miles above the moon, radar map, photo map, visually look out and try to pick out potential landing sites. We did that twice, went way up above John Young, up 210 miles and down 9 miles and get further behind him to phase in for the rendezvous. On the second one, we were going upside down and backwards and we were just about to lose contact with the Earth and I noticed the thrusters start to fire, didn’t know why, wasn’t yawing, looked out the window and the moon wasn’t moving in that direction, I reached down for attitude switch but missed it so went to the abort guidance system to shoot us back up to John Young, suddenly we started spinning about 50-60 degree a second.

All the attitude controls on the ascent stage only weighed about 10,000 lbs, in total we weighed 30,000 lbs so I reached over about 45 seconds early and blew off the descent stage and went to the hand controller, only had a 3 gimble platform, there was a big red dot on both yaw angles, flew around that and that’s where I was quoted as saying “golly, gee whiiz.” Got everything back in attitude and performed the first rendezvous around the moon, stayed around for another and then came back where we set the all time world speed record. That should hold until somebody goes to Mars.

Apollo-Soyuz Test Project

When I got back I replaced Alan Shepherd and became chief of the astronauts office, kept that till Al flew his flight on Apollo 14 and then I moved up to Deputy Director of Flight Crew Ops. In the meanwhile, the Soviet Academy of Science talked to the head of NASA and suggested a joint meeting with Apollo and Soyuz. I was chosen as the Commander.

With the Soviets you would not believe the secrecy, everything was state secret; oil production, wheat production etc. I was assigned in March 1972, the Soviets said they would announce their crew 6 months before. I went into Chris Kraft and Dr Lovell and said that we would need at least two years to work with the Soviets, to understand how to work with them, understand their systems, procedures and techniques. I drew my line in the sand and here’s my crew; Vance Brand as Command Module Pilot, Deke Slayton as Docking Module pilot. The press wanted the to know who the Soviet crew was and they reluctantly announced Commander Alexi Leonov and Flight Engineer Valeri Kubasov.

We found working with the Soviets tough negotiations and they signed on the line they lived up to it. With my Oklahoma accent I had a tough time learning a foreign language and the Russians always had a hard time understanding me. Under mission rules, each crew would speak their own language, the other crew would have to understand. After six months working back and forth, cosmonauts in Houston, we were in Moscow, we weren’t getting there. At a small reception I was talking to the back up commander Anatoly Filipchenko, we were having a few drinks, maybe more and we came up with the idea of I’ll speak Russian to him and he’ll speak English to me. it worked well, as when you are not fluent in a foreign language, you’ll speak it slower and more distinctly.

Soyuz 19 as seen from Apollo during ASTP
Soyuz 19 as seen from Apollo during ASTP

Even when I  speak to my dear friend Alexi Leonov over the phone, I speak Russian to him, he speaks English to me and we became very close. We were all professional pilots, no politics, its was a really great time, living there in the Soviet Union and having them come over here. Everything was censored, Pravda was a big 6 page newspaper with no ads and we were always pulling jokes on each other. Ron Evans brought over a Playboy magazine, we were having some meeting over there, open it up to the centerfold and throws it under the table and then I say in Russian “Pardon me is that yours?” They’d look under the table and Aargh!

They built a hotel for us in Star City, we moved in there and were there during the fourth of July 1974. The relationships were getting relaxed, détente, I’ll never forget a state reception with President Nixon he seemed to be semi-high when all hell was breaking loose back US because of Watergate. I remember him telling me we’d done so many things, asking me about 12,000 nuclear weapons and how many villages din India did we want to destroy. I wasn’t about to get into that discussion. I just said I hadn’t really thought of the Mr President! 3 weeks later he resigned.

Astronaut Thomas P. Stafford and cosmonaut Aleksei A. Leonov are seen at the hatchway leading from the Apollo Docking Module (DM) to the Soyuz Orbital Module (OM) during the joint U.S.-USSR Apollo Soyuz Test Project (ASTP
Astronaut Thomas P. Stafford and cosmonaut Aleksei A. Leonov are seen at the hatchway leading from the Apollo Docking Module (DM) to the Soyuz Orbital Module (OM) during the joint U.S.-USSR Apollo Soyuz Test Project (ASTP

As I said, if was the fourth of July and Ron Evans was a real joker and had brought half a case of fireworks and firecrackers. We’d had this big reception at a Dacha owned by very wealthy Russian before the revolution, out the back it had a huge courtyard, the head of the Politburo was there, Admirals and Marshals were there, we were having a great time with the cosmonauts. We go back to our own hotel and we had a few more drinks and it was time to fire the fireworks. Everything was quiet and nice so we set off the firecrackers, sounded like a machine gun going off. Then we fired sky rockets going off and noticed lights started to come on. pretty soon we saw the flashing lights of the police so Ron fired a bottle rocket firework at it, perfect shot. The police officer walks towards us, I’d had a few drinks, and said “Comrade, come here! Today is the birthday of our revolution, do you want to have a drink with us?”

It was a fun time. The Russian always kidding me about my Oklahoma accent. One of the last press conferences we had, a correspondent asked Alexi Leonov how we would work together with him replying that on this mission we speak in English, in Russian and in Oklahoma. Apollo Soyuz was a great mission, it opened up the Iron Curtain, it was the end of Apollo and a great, great era. We showed the world we had two super powers, different languages and different political systems but if you set a common goal, you can achieve it. That was my responsibility as commander from my side of the world and Alexi’s side. Alexi is like a brother to me, his Granddaughter is named after my daughters name and my grandson is named Alexi. I talk to Gene Cernan probably more than any other astronaut and I talk to Alexi about as much as I talk to Geno. He’s a great person, I see him about twice a year because of my experience with the Russians on Apoolo-Soyuz, I still go back there. It’s a really great relationship.

We pushed the administrator for an escape vehicle on the space station, at the time, we had just a Shuttle. The Soyuz is a simple vehicle and rugged vehicle, it can land anywhere – with the Shuttle if you miss the runway you’re dead. Since 2011, crews keep flying up and down on Soyuz. I didn’t know a lot about the background of what the Russians did, the idea of what it would take to go into orbit velocity, converging and diverging nozzles, multi-stages and even walking in space were all thought by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, he was really the father of modern spaceflight.

Nick Cook and Tom Stafford at Space-Lectures
Nick Cook and Tom Stafford at Space-Lectures

Tom Stafford wraps up his talk with a summary on how the modern US Air Force Stealth stealth and strike aircraft capability has been shaped by his influence. Tom Stafford has been a stunning success, an absolute pleasure, he’s given a remarkable lecture, all from memory, spoken with passion, pride over a pioneering and distinguished career, his friendships with Russian cosmonauts, particularity Alexi Leonov and the naming of each grand children provides a wonderful and personal insight.  He could quite happily have gone on talking all night, he had to be told to stop otherwise he’d be in danger of missing his fight back home. Astronaut Tom Stafford is a Space Lectures Legend.

I walk away with a great signed Gemini 6 rendezvous print and some great memories.  Here’s to the next event!  What better way to announce the next Astronauts visit in October than by one of them themselves by video clip from the ISS! Coolest intro ever!

See you in October!


Apollo and Gemini astronaut Jim Lovell

Space Shuttle astronaut Eileen Collins

Meeting Fred Haise from Apollo 13

Meeting Ken Mattingly

Meeting the Moonwalker Alan Bean


Nick Cook. Amateur astronomer, space, history, nerd, extreme dog walker, cat slave, severe tinnitus sufferer. 13.7 billion years in the making - not that much better for it.

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