Space stories: Thomas P Stafford

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, Brummell chats to the Lieutenant general about space exploration and following his dreams

Watches & Jewellery 17 Jul 2019

Two members of the Apollo 10 prime crew participate in simulation activity at the Kennedy Space Center during preparations for their scheduled lunar orbit mission in April 1969. Astronaut Thomas P Stafford, commander, is in the background; and in the foreground is astronaut Eugene A. Cernan, lunar module pilot. The two crewmen are in the Lunar Module Mission Simulator. Credit: NASA
Crew of the Apollo 10 lunar orbit mission, photographed 13 May 1969. Left to right, Eugene A. Cernan, lunar module pilot; John W. Young, command module pilot; and Thomas P Stafford, commander. In the background is the Apollo 10 space vehicle on Pad B, Launch Complex 39, Kennedy Space Center, Florida. Credit: NASA
Astronauts Thomas P Stafford (right) and Eugene Cernan wave to the crowd aboard the aircraft carrier USS Wasp as they emerge from their Gemini-9 capsule on 6 June 1966. John C. Stonesifer (far right), with the Manned Spacecraft Center's Landing and Recovery Division, was onboard to greet the astronauts. Photo credit: NASA
3 June 1966, astronaut Thomas P Stafford, command pilot of the Gemini-9A spaceflight, is photographed during the Gemini-9A mission inside the spacecraft by astronaut Eugene Cernan, Gemini-9A pilot. Photo credit: NASA
Astronaut Thomas P Stafford is the fastest man alive, having travelled at 24,791 miles per hour on his return with Apollo 10. Photo credit: NASA
Thomas P Stafford attends the Omega 50th Anniversary Moon Landing Event in May 2019 in Florida

Fifty years ago yesterday, on 16 July, the Apollo 11 spacecraft lifted off from Kennedy Space Centre in Florida with a three-man crew. On 20 July, the craft landed on the moon and two of its crew became the first men to set foot on the moon. To celebrate, the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, we are speaking to a different astronaut every day to find out just what it takes to make it to outer space.

Lieutenant general Thomas P Stafford graduated from the US Naval Academy with honours, has five honorary doctorate degrees and has flown on four space missions. He was commander on Gemini VI and IX, and in 1975 flew on Apollo-Soyuz, a meeting in space between astronauts and cosmonauts, which helped end the Cold War. But two months prior to the Apollo 11 landing, general Stafford flew to the moon to take pictures, so that the Apollo 11 crew would know where to land. Here he tells us about following his dreams, the risks involved and how he became the fastest man alive.

Thomas P Stafford with George Clooney and news anchor Belkys Nerey
Thomas P Stafford with George Clooney and news anchor Belkys Nerey

Higher, faster

Exploration is a part of human destiny. As a little boy I always wanted to fly aeroplanes and to be a fighter pilot. I wanted the lightest plane, and I wanted to go higher and faster. I was accepted for test pilot school and became a pilot and instructor there. Then the Apollo programme came along, and the Gemini programme flew first to give us the experience for Apollo, so I did go higher and faster.

Developing the pioneering spirit

To me, it’s got to be in the individual, but it also starts at home, with parents giving a child the push, the guidance to do better at school and to go off and explore. In my case, besides that, I saw this big silver plane go across the sky in my little hometown in western Oklahoma every day. Route 66 was the main street. The first trans-continental airline went across there. I would look up as a little boy of five or six and say ‘I want to do that’. I’ve always wanted to fly.

The fastest man alive

(Thomas P Stafford set a speed record on his return with Apollo 10. The record still holds: it’s 24,791 miles per hour. Or 0.0037% of the speed of light.)

Unfortunately my two crewmates John Young and Gene Cernan are no longer around, so I’m the fastest man alive.

Risk taking

My family grew up with me being a fighter pilot and a test pilot, so space travel was just an extension of that. The risks are much higher than being in an aeroplane doing a test, but I didn’t give them a pep talk, I said I was going to have a ball up there. You train like mad, you’re disciplined and you do everything according to the flight plan. Being a test pilot is precision flying, and it’s the same way in space. In fact, this is where Omega comes in. When you go into space you’re in a circle course and the Earth turns underneath you. You can predict your trajectory a week in advance. It’s all based on time. This is why you want a reliable timepiece. We have an internal computer too. But when we’re outside we use an Omega, the only watch that met all the tough specifications, such as heat from sunlight, pure vacuum, the vibration of take-off, the whole thing.

The Speedmaster Apollo 11 50th Anniversary Limited Edition
The Speedmaster Apollo 11 50th Anniversary Limited Edition

Space fact

Since 1965, the Omega Speedmaster has been the official watch for every piloted Nasa mission, and was worn by both Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong when they became the first men on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission in 1969. It is the only piece of equipment that has been used in all of Nasa’s piloted space missions, from the early days of Gemini to the International Space Station programme of today. Every astronaut of every nationality is now issued with two models: a mechanical Speedmaster Moonwatch for EVA (extravehicular activity) and a digital Speedmaster X-33 for use in-spacecraft. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, there is a gold version of the Speedmaster that replicates a model made to commemorate the event in 1969. That edition was restricted to 1,014 units and the new edition has the same number. It also features a piece of lunar meteorite on the caseback to represent the moon.