Oklahoma astronaut earns aviation honor


Wednesday, November 26th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6



OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Thomas Stafford, an Oklahoma native who commanded both Gemini and Apollo space missions, is among 100 heroes of aviation who will be honored next month at the Wright Brothers National Memorial in North Carolina.

The presentation on Dec. 16 is part of a weeklong celebration honoring the achievements of the Wright brothers and other aviation pioneers. It will feature a re-enactment of the Wright brothers' first flight and a variety of exhibits and films.

``In the last 100 years, nothing has changed our lives more than the airplane,'' Stafford said. ``I'm very glad that I could represent Oklahoma in space travel.''

Stafford was born in 1930 in Weatherford. By age 22, he had graduated with honors from the U.S. Naval Academy and was commissioned into the Air Force.

Stafford soon became a fighter pilot. He has flown 126 types of aircraft.

On active duty, he was one of the Air Force's top test pilots. He later served as an instructor and wrote two textbooks on flight testing.

In 1962, Stafford was chosen as part of the second group of astronauts.

In December 1965, he piloted the Gemini VI spacecraft that performed the world's first rendezvous in space.

Six months later, he was commander of Gemini IX and developed rendezvous procedures that laid the groundwork for the Apollo program.

He was commander of Apollo 10 in May 1969 and performed the first rendezvous around the moon and descended to within nine miles of the moon's surface.

During re-entry from the Apollo 10 flight, Stafford set a world record by achieving a speed of 28,547 mph.

Stafford also is credited with creating early specifications for the B-2 stealth bomber in 1979.

``Every mission was a new step that had never been done before,'' he said. ``Starting the stealth fighter and the stealth bomber for our country was very significant.''

But Stafford said there is no comparison between piloting planes and flying in space.

``It's like mixing apples and oranges,'' he said. ``The main thing is not the actual mission itself, but the intense training and fighting through the bureaucracy to get things done.''

Stafford retired from the Air Force in 1979 but continued to advise NASA and the federal government on space exploration. He has led numerous government committees studying science and space, serves on the boards of several corporations and is a co-founder of an Alexandria, Va., technical consulting firm.

He also is a member of the Oklahoma Hall of Fame and the National Aviation Hall of Fame.