Lt. Gen. Thomas P. Stafford, USAF Ret., legendary NASA astronaut discusses the Apollo 10 moon mission he commanded between May 18-26, 1969, that paved the way for Apollo 11’s historic landing two months later discusses the importance of his mission to test the Lunar Module in lunar orbit, the need to commemorate the moon program, lessons from the massive national effort to beat the Soviets, the Trump administration’s plan to return to the moon and more with Defense & Aerospace Report Editor Vago Muradian. The interview was recorded on May 24, 2019, five decades earlier to the day, Stafford and his crew mates John Young and Gene Cernan began their return to Earth, becoming the fastest humans in history by achieving a top speed of 24,791 mph. Aside from commanding Apollo 10, Stafford was pilot aboard Gemini 6A, commanded by Wally Schirra, for the first Earth orbit rendezvous with Gemini 7, commanded by Frank Borman and piloted by Jim Lovell. Stafford also commanded Gemini 9 with Cernan as pilot as well as the US portion of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, the first rendezvous between an American and Soviet spacecraft in July 1975.
Vago Muradian: Welcome to the Defense and Aerospace Report. I’m Vago Muradian here in Washington, DC on this 50thAnniversary commemorative year of the Apollo 11, the first manned moon landing. But there were many missions that made Apollo 11 possible, and one of them was Apollo 10, and it’s our absolute honor to be talking once again to Retired United States Air Force Lieutenant General Tom Stafford, the Commander of Apollo 10.
Exactly, sir, 50 years ago from right now you were coming back from the moon.
Lt. Gen. (Ret) Tom Stafford: Fifty years ago today we left the moon.
Mr. Muradian: I think that’s positively extraordinary.
For those of us who are fans of the moon program, obviously everything is centering around Apollo 11, but some of us are a little disappointed that there wasn’t actually even more coverage, because we had Apollo 7 that passed without much recognition. There was some recognition given to the Apollo 8. But then Apollo 9 had happened, and now 10 is happening. Do you think that enough recognition is being given to the Apollo program at this point, given its importance to human history, but also America’s technological and the nation’s history?
Lt. Gen. (Ret) Stafford: No, I don’t. It was the late famous author, Arthur C. Clark, said that a thousand years from now when historians look back on the 20thcentury that they will note, yes, there were two major world wars involving developed countries in the Northern Hemisphere. But the one thing that will stand out forever, probably more than anything, will be the Apollo program and the landings on the moon.
Mr. Muradian: Why do you think it’s, aside from the fact that you played such a critical role in it, why do you think it’s so important to remember the Apollo Program?
Lt. Gen. (Ret) Stafford: It shows what this country can do in such a short period of time if it’s focused and works together in a bipartisan way, everybody’s behind it. It’s just unbelievable what we did.
Mr. Muradian: What do you think are some of the biggest lessons? You know, people remember the Tom Staffords or the Neil Armstrongs or the Buzz Aldrins and Mike Collins or Gene Cernans and John Youngs, but they tend to forget that this was 400,000 people in a national effort. And a lot of these folks were 27 years old as they were trying to make this happen I think was the average age. What were the keys to success for such a program that was so complicated, and each piece of it was reinventing the possible.
Lt. Gen. (Ret) Stafford: That’s true. But also you have to remember the leaders, the real leaders of it were experienced. Jim Webb was probably the greatest NASA Administrator. He’d been Director of OMB, the Bureau of Budgets under Truman, then Assistant Secretary of State. He had worked for big oilfield supply companies. The President or Senator Bob Kerr, when he came here. But he could pick up the phone and call the President any time. He was a magnificent Administrator.
The Deputy Administrator was Bob Seamans, the Dean of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT.
And then the Program Manager was General Sam Phillips. He never gets enough credit. Sam Phillips was a B-52 Program Manager. The B-52’s still here. And he managed the Minuteman. He’s the one that put the thousand Minuteman in the ground, which is our major deterrence. That and the B-52s. Then we got him over to Apollo which was fortunate. Sam Phillips, to me, was one of the real keys.
Mr. Muradian: And do you think that it was higher risk tolerance? What was it that allowed us to move fast not just on the Apollo Program, but so many other things. If you today said I want to put a thousand ICBMs in, it might take us 20 years. You guys managed to do that in I think less than five years as I recall.
Lt. Gen. (Ret) Stafford: Kennedy said about three weeks after Alan Shepard flew. He flew on May 5, ’61. May the 25thPresident Kennedy said in his famous speech for both Houses of the Congress, that in this decade we will go to the moon and return. It was 14 months, we’ll go. That’s the goal. But the big question is how do we go? It took us 14 months to decide. Finally this fighting between Houston and Huntsville about different ways to go with this. The Chief Engineer’s name is John Houbolt from Langley, Virginia, the Langley Research Center. His team came up and said no, the way to do it is a lunar orbit rendezvous. He convinced Seamans and Seamans knocked people’s heads together. So it was July of ’62, said this is how we will go to the moon.
Then I came on board with the second group of astronauts who would do those missions two months later. But it was July of ’62, and five years and four months. Five years, four months. We built the world’s biggest building by volume; the world’s two biggest launch pads; and the world’s biggest booster and launched it successfully. Five years and four months.
Mr. Muradian: And what do you think, though, aside from leadership, what made that possible? Was it organization? Was it clarity of thinking? Was it the fact that everybody was an expert engineer? Was it the fact that nobody was breathing down your neck? Because you were also one of the most distinguished acquisition executives in the Air Force’s history as well. What were some of the keys, do you think, that made all of that possible in such a short period of time when now the Air Force’s counterinsurgency attack program is taking longer than that to get to the point where we’re just going to build a couple of prototypes and fly them?
Lt. Gen. (Ret) Stafford: The thing was, you focus. We knew what the goal was. Then we only, it was just a few critical people that really went to it. Just like later on as Deputy Chief of Staff of the Air Force when I headed Research, Development, Acquisition. I started all those stealth programs with no [segmanated] requirement, but I knew what was needed to keep the Air Force ahead of the rest of the world.
I did the F-117A in two years and eight months. It was operational in less than four.
Mr. Muradian: So it’s possible.
Lt. Gen. (Ret) Stafford: It’s possible. But right now you have too many regulations. You have too many people at the top. Too many layers of bureaucracy. Also I think people want to be too politically correct.
We used to have hellacious arguments with some of our good friends about technical issues.
Mr. Muradian: But it worked out all right.
Lt. Gen. (Ret) Stafford: It worked out all right. You don’t take it personally. It’s talking of an issue.
Mr. Muradian: Let me take you back to the mission itself. Apollo 10 has been always regarded as among the most selfless missions. You guys came within 50,000 feet of the lunar surface, and a lot of folks said boy, that’s a long way to go and not land. But you guys still set an enormous number of accomplishments. Why is Apollo 10 in the scheme of all of these missions so historic? Because it did pave the way for Apollo 11, but folks don’t exactly understand how you guys did that.
Lt. Gen. (Ret) Stafford: We developed all the procedures to fly a lunar module and a command module. It was the first lunar module to the moon. We put all these procedures, everything down to 50,000 feet, really 47,000. And we also checked out the lunar landing radar. That has to work to update the computer or you can’t land. And we also picked out from high resolution, the best we could, these potential landing sites. Three landing sites in the Sea of Tranquility. Then all the procedures back in the rendezvous, the reentry. So we were given books to [everybody]. We spent quite a bit of time with the 11 crew but they concentrated on the power descent from, 50,000 feet down to the lunar surface, on the surface for a few hours, 50,000 feet up. We’d done all the rest. But ours, unfortunately, was too heavy to land, and they didn’t have the decent software, powered software worked out for that last 50,000.
Mr. Muradian: And explain that to us, because I think a lot of folks just think that NASA was somehow being capricious, and saying well, Apollo 11 should get the glory. But it was actually some very solid technical reasons why you guys couldn’t land as well.
Lt. Gen. (Ret) Stafford: The lunar module was too heavy. We gave Grumman $10,000 a pound for every pound they could carve out of the descent stage, which was a lot of money per pound in those days.
That, and the software to control the engine for the descent was still not completely worked out either.
But the main reason, it was too heavy.
Mr. Muradian: You’re a legendary test pilot and you did two Gemini missions, two Apollo missions, and you flew the lunar module. What was it like flying the lunar module? And how agile was it? If you’re going to, like a car guy, you were going to assess how each one of these vehicles rides and drives, how would you compare them?
Lt. Gen. (Ret) Stafford: Well, the lunar module was somewhat like the command module, but once you got rid of the descent stage, the ascent stage was pretty sporty. It didn’t weigh too much. With fuel and everything it weighed about 11,000 pounds. Then you had these four quads around with four 100 pound thrusters. So you could get a pretty good rate.
It was a lot like Gemini, really.
Mr. Muradian: And Gemini was a fun ship to fly, wasn’t it?
Lt. Gen. (Ret) Stafford: Oh, yes. It was more like an F-104 or a T-38, yeah.
Mr. Muradian: Let me ask you about why you guys picked the names that you did. Everybody understood that on Apollo 9, and for folks who didn’t know, the Apollo 10 is the mission, but you guys, once you got the two spacecraft you got to name each one of them once they separated, which is why on Apollo 9 it was named Gumdrop and Spider. That was pretty understandable, because one looked like a gumdrop, the other looked like a spider. Why did you guys pick Charlie Brown and Snoopy?
Lt. Gen. (Ret) Stafford: Well, the mission assurance and safety and reliability program in NASA got permission from Charles Schulz who drew the cartoon Peanuts to use it, and Snoopy was very very popular. So you got a Silver Snoopy for individual organizations that did very outstanding work. There was a lot of publicity. They wanted us to award outstanding things, so it helped morale, helped motivate other people. So I wanted to honor those people, so I said we’ll name one Snoopy. That was Snoopy. Then Charlie Brown just had to follow.
Mr. Muradian: And it’s amazing because I’ve had the honor of meeting some of the folks who have had Silver Snoopy’s, and they’re extraordinarily proud of that award.
Frank Borman has said, the Commander of Apollo 8, another legendary astronaut, has said that he looked at the moon program not just as an American technological achievement, but that it was legitimately a Cold War battle.
Did you and the other astronauts see it the same way as Colonel Borman?
Lt. Gen. (Ret) Stafford: Yes. It was kind of a projection of soft power. There was no doubt the Soviets were trying to get there too, and they were also trying to do first a loop around, free return to say the Soviets have been to the moon. That’s why we sent 8 up there when we did. That was a gutsy mission. George Low made the decision. He made that decision before we flew 7. Seven went good. Eight, because the Soviets every two months would try, and their booster, it was a Soyuz without the orbital ball on the front on top of a Proton.
Mr. Muradian: That’s right. Because that was the N1 that failed — oh, no.
Lt. Gen. (Ret) Stafford: The [Zan].
Mr. Muradian: That’s right, the [Zan].
Lt. Gen. (Ret) Stafford: Yeah, and they wanted, the first stages failed, second stages failed, guidance — they finally got one that went around. We didn’t know, but the parachutes didn’t work and it dug a big hole in the ground near the launch site.
Mr. Muradian: And of course the N1 booster failed, right? We were moving four times. And for the audience, 10 million pounds of thrust with 30 engines. Is this why you prefer five — fewer, more powerful engines than many smaller ones?
Lt. Gen. (Ret) Stafford: Oh, absolutely. You had 30 engines on the base of the F1. That meant 60 big pipes coming down. Liquid oxygen and kerosene. Two pipes for each engine. Where we only had 10 pipes for five engines.
Mr. Muradian: The difference between the Saturn V and the N1.
Let me ask you about the losses that you incurred. Every year there is a remembrance by many who are devoted about the loss of the Apollo 1 crew, of course, with Gus Grisham, Roger Chaffee and Ed White. But there is sometimes not as much of a recognition, for example, of Elliott See and Charlie Bassett. They passed away, which sort of paved the way for you to take command of Gemini IX. Talk to us about the people who were lost and how special they were to all of you and to the program.
Lt. Gen. (Ret) Stafford: We’re kind of a band of brothers. We were all in there, my group and I and the other people that joined. We had one mission, and that was to get to the moon in that decade. So we all felt real close, even though we competed, we felt real close to each other. It was real sad when you lose somebody.
Mr. Muradian: Let me ask you two more questions, because I know you’ve been most generous with your time.
What’s your most cherished memory of the space program? Because you had so many of them, whether they were in Gemini or Apollo before as well as after.
Lt. Gen. (Ret) Stafford: I did the first rendezvous in space to prove out the theory we could go out — that was one of the keys to how we got to the moon was rendezvous. Blue Harbor Rendezvous. We’d never done a rendezvous. I did the first rendezvous in space. Wally Schirra was with me. Then I did three different types on Gemini IX. And then of course the first rendezvous around the moon and then later on the first rendezvous with the Soviets. So I’ve done more rendezvous than anybody in the world, besides holding the world speed record.
Mr. Muradian: That’s right, because Apollo 10 still holds, and you were also the farthest humans from the moon.
Lt. Gen. (Ret) Stafford: Jim Lovell and his crew on Apollo 13, they couldn’t burn into lunar orbit so they made a lunar swing-by. So they went a little wider.
Mr. Muradian: Okay. But you still got the speed record which is important.
Lt. Gen. (Ret) Stafford: 24,791 miles an hour, or Mach 36.
Mr. Muradian: That’s extraordinary. I mean I still get giddy about it on the orbital velocity.
President Trump and the administration has announced a very ambitious plan to get back to the moon in 2024. I know that you still consult and advise with NASA. Do you think that this program is going to succeed? There is a concern that it was kind of a quick decision and there is not enough groundwork and folks are concerned about the funding. Do you think that it’s going to succeed, to take people back to the moon and keep them there as a forward base to then try to get to Mars?
Lt. Gen. (Ret) Stafford: Well, it could be successful. Very successful. If we use the right type of architecture and do things right. If we do things dumb, we won’t succeed. But you won’t use that as a base. You’ll do the testing there, and that’s the results, one thing a big study I did as Chairman for President Bush Sr, when he started. What’s happened to us in this country? See, President Bush on the 20thAnniversary of the first lunar landing said that we will return to the moon after the turn of the century. In the second decade, perhaps an expedition to Mars. So we started down that way, and NASA did a study. It wasn’t too good. So I was asked by the Vice President and the President if I would put together a group called the Synthesis Group and determine how to go there in a way that’s faster, better, safer, and lower cost.
So I put together 45 people, full time, 150 people part time. Some idealists, some academic, some aerospace companies, other industrial companies. And RAND Corporation synthesized the ideas from all over the U.S. and gave them to us. So it was a real workout mentally. I and the Vice President had a joint press conference June of 1991 about America at the threshold. And JPL did all our trajectories and weights. It’s still the Bible of how you go. And there’s different ways you can do it, but the main thing, you need a big booster. If you don’t have that, you’re not going to go. You can’t have a series of small ones.
Mr. Muradian: Are you satisfied that we’re on the right course? Obviously the Space Launch System, the SLS is in development right now. Some challenges there, of course, any time you’re developing such a big rocket. But are you convinced we’ve got the architecture and the thinking right to make sure that we get there by 2024 as planned?
Lt. Gen. (Ret) Stafford: Well, you need a big booster. You’d like to have either more lift than the SLS, but you could do it with that. But less than that it’s going to be about impossible.
Now how you approach it, I haven’t seen the final architecture.
Mr. Muradian: Let me ask you two quick questions. One a serious one, and one a light-hearted one.
First, you’re a distinguished airman. You spent a career in the United States Air Force and you’ve devoted your life to space and the nation’s security. Does the United States need an independent Space Force? Or is that something that should stay within the United States Air Force?
Lt. Gen. (Ret) Stafford: It depends on what all you put in the Space Force. If you take Space Command, Navy Space, Army Space, and the NRO and put them all together you might have enough. I haven’t studied it in-depth.
Mr. Muradian: And let me ask you the light-hearted question. So one of the best Beat Army/Go Navy stunts involved your Gemini VI with Wally Schirra as Commander, and you aboard the spacecraft. You approached Gemini VII which had Jim Lovell and commanded of course by Frank Borman. There were three Naval Academy guys up there and one West Point guy, and in your video, in your window was a proud Beat Army sign. Talk to us about how that came about. And it was just before the Army, just before or after the Army/Navy game.
Lt. Gen. (Ret) Stafford: We got delayed. We were supposed to rendezvous with the Agena in October as a target vehicle, but the Agena blew up after the Atlas booster got most of the way into orbit. It lit off and bang, it blew up. So I came up with the idea hey, VII’s going to be a long duration mission. So after, we’ll get launch VII, then the Air Force can turn around and get VI on the pad and launch it and do the rendezvous, which we did.
We started out, and unfortunately the engine shut down at T minus 0 and a fire broke out. We got hit, we had to lift off soon. It was a real touch and go situation. But we found we had two double failures that morning. Human error and, but we didn’t eject. According to the mission rules we should have ejected. We didn’t. And then we found the problems. Turned it around in a couple of days and launched. Then on December the 15th, ’65.
But while we were waiting at this time Al Shepard, we had, he was head of the Astronaut Office, Naval Academy; Wally, Naval Academy; I was Naval. We said hey, we ought to do something. We’ll be up there and Lovell can snap a picture. Give the midshipmen some hurrah. I said hey, what about Go Navy and all this. Fine. It was Wally or Al that said what about Beat Army. So okay. Stafford, you go get us a picture.
So I go down to the local drug store, got some blue papers, yellow, went through the simulator as the same dimension as the space craft. Cut it out, made a format and cut it out, and the Under Secretary cut out the letters. So I said if it goes good, I’ll have it in my data pack, I’ll pull it out and ask Lovell to take a picture of it.
Mr. Muradian: And how did the mids do in ’65?
Lt. Gen. (Ret) Stafford: I think they won.
Mr. Muradian: Sir, thanks very much. It’s always an honor and a pleasure talking to you. And I hope to see you again in this commemoration — are you doing some commemorations at the end of the day? Are you talking more about your experiences? Are all the astronauts doing a little bit more?
Lt. Gen. (Ret) Stafford: Lots of requests. I won’t honor that many. We just had one in my hometown. We had a prime or backup of every Apollo mission there. Unfortunately the ranks are thinning of the Apollo crew members, so either a prime or a backup.
Mr. Muradian: Sir, for many people you guys will remain immortal. Thank you very, very much. It’s always an honor, and I hope you have a great Memorial Day Weekend.
Lt. Gen. (Ret) Stafford: Sure will. Thank you. It’s great to see you.