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By Abbie MacKinnon on

Remembering NASA astronaut General Thomas P. Stafford

On 18 March 2024, NASA astronaut General Thomas P. Stafford passed away at the age of 93. Stafford was the commander of the Apollo 10 mission which launched on 18 May 1969.
General Thomas P. Stafford. Source: NASA | Science & Society Picture Library

Alongside fellow astronauts Tom Stafford, Gene Cernan and John Young, Stafford was part of the Apollo 10 mission, which performed the ‘dress rehearsal’ for Apollo 11 and the first Moon landing in July 1969.

Apollo 10 tested all systems of the command and lunar modules at the Moon. Stafford and Gene Cernan flew the lunar module 14 kilometres above the surface of the Moon before returning to the Command Module.

Visitors to the Science Museum can see the Apollo 10 Command Module (nicknamed ‘Charlie Brown’) on display in the Making the Modern World gallery. This spacecraft has been on loan from the Air and Space Museum in Washington DC since 1976. The Science Museum welcomed Tom in the late 1970s when he came to visit Charlie Brown soon after it went on display.

General Stafford at the Science Museum next to Apollo 10 in the late 1970s.

NASA selected Stafford in 1962 in their second cohort of astronauts. He was part of both the Gemini and Apollo programmes, first launching to space on Gemini 6A and then Gemini 9A.

Left to right: Eugene A Cernan, lunar module pilot; John W Young, command module pilot; Thomas P Stafford, commander. Source: NASA

In 1975, Stafford took his last trip into space where his Apollo capsule docked with a Soviet Soyuz spacecraft module. There, he rendezvoused with cosmonaut Alexey Leonov for the first international partnership in space.

In addition to running a series of experiments, the mission also aimed to test the ability to rendezvous and successfully dock the Apollo and Soyuz spacecrafts together. This was important in case a rescue mission was ever needed. Stafford believed that this mission helped to end the space race between the two nations.

Astronaut Tom Stafford (in foreground) and cosmonaut Alexei Leonov make their historic handshake in space on July 17, 1975. Source: NASA

When the spacecraft docked and the hatch between the two modules was opened, Stafford and Leonov shook hands. They remained friends for the rest of their lives.