Apollo Mission Commander: Thomas P. Stafford (1931—)
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“Only in America could young Mary Ellen Patten arrive in a covered wagon at Weatherford, pre-statehood Oklahoma territory and her son, Weatherford native Thomas P. Stafford, fly on four space missions in the 1960s and 1970s.
Stafford’s life from one end to the other was the stuff of leadership and legend. The Weatherford High football captain finished in the top quarter of his class at the Naval Academy. He finished number one in the newly formed U.S. Air Force’s test pilot school at Edwards Air Base in California. He then taught subsequent students and wrote two of their textbooks.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) selected him as an astronaut in 1962. Over the next 13 years, the Oklahoman carved out one of the largest and most important spaceflight resumes in history.
His first two flights, Gemini 6 in 1965 and Gemini 9A in 1966, the latter of which he commanded, pioneered the manned rendezvousing of separate vehicles in outer space. His third, 1969’s Apollo 10, which he also commanded, was a “dress rehearsal” of the fabled moon landing that occurred just two months later. It executed virtually every facet of the latter mission, including a lunar module descent to within ten miles of the Moon, except for the actual landing.
Stafford’s final mission, Apollo-Soyuz, occurred in 1975. He again commanded, this time an unnumbered Apollo spaceship. The joint project began the historic Cold War thawing process between America and the Soviet Union. When the two vehicles docked, Stafford and Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov met in the open hatch connecting the craft and shook hands. A worldwide TV audience witnessed the famous handshake.
Continuing to advance up the ranks of responsibility and authority, Stafford retired from the USAF as a lieutenant general and Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Research, Development, and Acquisition. The Stafford Air & Space Museum (https://staffordmuseum.org) in Weatherford is named in honor of Stafford. Considered one of the finest and most comprehensive air and space museums in America, it encompasses over an acre of exhibits under one roof.