NASA astronaut Tom Stafford has died. He commanded Apollo 10 lunar mission Tom Stafford commanded the first Apollo mission to dock with a Soviet craft in space. He also served as commander of Apollo 10 - the dress rehearsal before NASA's first landing on the moon in 1969.

NASA astronaut Tom Stafford, famed for U.S.-Soviet orbital handshake, has died at 93

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A veteran astronaut of NASA's early days has died. Tom Stafford flew in space four times, including a trip to the moon. He also made a historic rendezvous with Soviet cosmonauts during Apollo-Soyuz. Stafford passed away on Monday after battling a long illness. He was 93. NPR's Russell Lewis has this remembrance.

RUSSELL LEWIS, BYLINE: Tom Stafford was born in Weatherford, Okla., in 1930 and knew early on what he wanted to do.


THOMAS STAFFORD: As a little boy, I wanted to fly airplanes. And I always wanted - then later, was a - be a fighter pilot. I wanted to go higher and faster, and this was just the next logical step.

LEWIS: Stafford graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and then was a test pilot in the Air Force. NASA selected him to be an astronaut in 1962. He first flew in space aboard Gemini VI and then on Gemini IX. He commanded Apollo 10, the second time NASA orbited the moon.


JACK KING: Engines armed - five, four, three, two. All engines running. Launch commit. Liftoff.

LEWIS: Apollo 10 was the full dress rehearsal before NASA first landed on the moon two months later. Stafford, along with Gene Cernan, flew the Lunar Module to within nine miles of the surface before eventually returning to Earth. Stafford's final trip to space was a momentous one. In 1975, he and two crewmates flew an Apollo spacecraft and rendezvoused with a Soviet Soyuz.


RICHARD TRULY: Apollo, Houston. I got two messages for you. Moscow is go for docking. Houston is go for docking. It's up to you guys. Have fun.

STAFFORD: Alrighty (ph), sounds good. (Speaking Russian).

LEWIS: The Apollo and Soyuz crews docked and then shook hands. It was the first U.S.-Soviet flight and was followed by joint missions aboard the Mir and International Space Stations. Before the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project flight, Stafford spent two years learning Russian and traveling to Moscow. As he recalled in a 2016 NPR interview, he said the mission was important because it ended the space race.


STAFFORD: We proved that two countries with different languages, different units of measurement, certainly vastly different political systems, could work together to achieve a common goal.

LEWIS: Stafford left NASA after that flight and eventually retired from the Air Force as a lieutenant general. Throughout his life, Stafford said he was driven by a set of simple principles.


STAFFORD: Study hard and work hard, that's the basis. Remember, it's your attitude, not your aptitude, that will take you to the highest altitude in your life.

LEWIS: Tom Stafford, Air Force general and veteran NASA astronaut who helped pave the way to the moon and beyond.

Russell Lewis, NPR News.

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