Galactic gala honors past, present of LI air and space

Gemini man: Veteran astronaut and retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas Stafford aboard the Cradle of Aviation's replica Gemini capsule.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

After four trips to space, a front-row seat for the breathless Apollo 13 rescue and some relatively ho-hum years as a U.S. Air Force airman and test pilot – Arctic interceptor missions, midair collisions, yawn – Thomas Stafford doesn’t surprise easily.

And the retired Air Force lieutenant-general – who’s graced numerous aerospace-industry boards, once simultaneously oversaw NASA and USAF test facilities at Edwards Air Force Base and has flown just about everything with wings, foreign and domestic – doesn’t overuse his superlatives.

So when a guy like that, with a passport that bounds from Oklahoma to Germany to Russia to Washington to within nine miles of the Moon, the first brigadier general to fly in space, with and a chest-full of gold and brass, when that guy is impressed, that’s astronomical.

And Stafford was “so impressed” with the Cradle of Aviation Museum, which welcomed the heroic NASA veteran and two other giants of government and industry Nov. 14 as guests of honor at the 2019 Air & Space Awards Gala, the museum’s annual soiree (and big fundraiser) focused on aviation, aerospace and space innovation.

Parton me: Cradle of Aviation President Andrew Parton (left) with award-winner Huntley Lawrence.

Joining Spirit of Discovery Award-winner Stafford at the podium were Perry Youngwall (Leroy R. Grumman Award), president and CEO of Melville-based aerospace distributor Transaero, and Huntley Lawrence (Aviation Leadership Award), director of aviation for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

That one-two punch displays Long Island’s present-day aerospace power. But at the Cradle of Aviation, yesterday soars highest.

Some of general aviation and the Space Race’s most amazing innovations were created on LI, as evidenced by the museum’s abundant historical collection – and many of those ingenuities had personal meaning to Stafford, as reflected in his comments.

“I am so impressed with this museum,” the astronaut said at the annual gala. “This museum is absolutely unbelievable … what you have done here in the past 20 years is unbelievable.”

High praise indeed from the 1952 graduate (with honors) from the U.S. Naval Academy, who was already a seasoned U.S. Air Force veteran in 1962, when he was selected among the second group of astronauts to train for the Gemini and Apollo missions.

Perry Youngwall

In 1965, Stafford flew into space as part of the Gemini 6 mission, completing the first rendezvous of manned spacecraft in orbit. He blasted off again in 1966 as commander of Gemini 9 before commanding 1969’s Apollo 10 mission, the penultimate moonshot – there, 31 orbits and back – before the epic Apollo 11 landing.

He returned to the final frontier once more, as commander of 1975’s Apollo-Soyuz Test Project flight, recorded as the first joint U.S.-Soviet space mission. Stafford was a brigadier general at the time – the first member of his Naval Academy class to earn three stars – and thus became the first U.S. general officer in space.

After returning to Earth for good, Stafford commanded the U.S. Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards AFB in California, among other test ranges, and continued to fly until his retirement from active service in 1979. All told, the pilot logged more than 500 hours in space and has flown 120-plus types of fixed-wing and rotary aircraft, in addition to three spacecraft.

Stafford’s post-service career has included stints on the Gibraltar Exploration and Gulfstream Aerospace corporate boards, among others, as well as the chairmanship of a NASA committee focused on long-term Moon and Mars missions and other special assignments.

Tight space: The Cradle of Aviation packed them in Nov. 14.

His myriad adventures to infinity and beyond have given the retired general several unique perspectives, many of which came back to life at the Cradle of Aviation Museum – including the tense Apollo 13 mission and the critical role of the Lunar Module, designed by Grumman engineers on Long Island.

The aborted 1970 moon landing was “the longest week of my life,” noted Stafford, and “everyone at Grumman should be proud” of the work they did bringing the Apollo 13 crew home safely.

“That little Lunar Module they had did such a wonderful job,” he said. “With its propulsion, in this environment, in keeping those three people alive … and it was built right here in Long Island, nearby in Bethpage.

“Apollo 11 was great, sure,” Stafford added. “But Apollo 13 was our finest hour.”

He’s actually been closer: Stafford got within nine miles of the Moon’s surface.

The Cradle of Aviation would seem to agree. After a 2019 jam-packed with celebrations marking 50 years since Apollo 11, the museum is already planning multiple events to honor the golden anniversary of the Apollo 13 adventure – including an April 23 celebration featuring astronauts Jim Lovell and Fred Haise Jr. and Mission Director Gene Kranz, among other notables.

Like other museum programming, that event will be made possible, in part, by the amazing turnout at last week’s gala and fundraiser, noted Cradle of Aviation President Andrew Parton.

“[The gala] was another magical night when we were able to salute a true American hero, Gen. Tom Stafford,” Parton said in a statement. “He serves as a true inspiration and a shining example of the importance of remembering the great achievements of the Apollo space program.”