Friday, 10 October 2008

We Have Capture, Tom Stafford

Thomas Patten Stafford, a USAF pilot and flight test instructor, joined NASA in the second group of astronauts in 1962. He flew two Gemini missions, and commanded Apollo 10 and the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP). He is also one of the three people to have travelled at the fastest speed ever attained by a manned vehicle - during the return from the Moon, Apollo 10's trajectory resulted in a speed of 24,791 mph.

We Have Capture is Stafford's autobiography.

If a biographer has to struggle to capture his subject's personality and character, you would imagine an autobiographer would have a much easier job of it. And it's true that We Have Capture reveals Tom Stafford's nature much better than, say, One Giant Leap did of Neil Armstrong's. Of course, there's an all too natural tendency to be less than truthful when writing about yourself - unless you particularly enjoy embarrassing yourself in public. But for a Gemini and Apollo astronaut, one of only 24 men to ever fly to the Moon, there's more than enough that's worthy of admiration in Stafford's life to fill a book without including the "warts and all".

That's not to say that We Have Capture gives a reader a real idea of what he was like as a person. It's written in a personable, affable style, and Stafford is as honest about his mistakes as he is eager to recount his told-you-so moments. But it's the achievements more than the man which are the real focus of the book. However, where We Have Capture really scores over other books about astronauts I have read is that Stafford gives a very real feel for what it was like to be there, to be in the Gemini 6-A capsule, or the Apollo 10 CSM.

Obviously, Stafford was there. But it's more than that. His descriptions include many small details - which, perhaps, a conscientious biographer might have picked up - and it is those which make his prose seem more real. For example, when describing the deaths of cosmonauts Georgi Dobrovolsky, Viktor Patsayev and Vladislav Volkov in Soyuz 11, Stafford explains:

Seeing that the front hatch was still sealed, the crew realized that the leak was probably coming from that ventilation valve, which was located under Dobrovolsky's seat. They tried to crank it shut - there was a backup master valve, but this unit, like a basic steam valve, was mounted over the crew's shoulders and took nineteen turns to close.

It's that "nineteen turns". Only someone who had spent time in a Soyuz capsule, and knew it well - as Stafford had while training for ASTP - could write something like that. It's such details which lift Stafford's book above others I've read on the subject.

Having said that, Stafford does have a tendency to drop into the language he used while at NASA. Some of it went straight over my head; such as this, while arguing with Apollo Spacecraft Program Office manager, Joe Shea:

"Inertial reference is fine for certain phases of the mission," I said, "starting in posigrade attitude with inertial attitude, When you're 180 degrees around the world, that's retrograde. It makes a hell of a difference how you apply that thrust with respect to the rotating radius vector."

After ASTP Stafford felt he was no longer needed at NASA, and returned to the Air Force. He was given command of Edwards AFB. Eighteen months later, he retired from the military, and went into consulting. He remained involved, however, with space exploration - in fact, if his take on events is to be believed, he was responsible for creating the F-117, B-2, getting the International Space Station "off the ground", saving the Space Shuttle from being cancelled after the Challenger disaster, and repairing the Hubble Space Telescope. According to We Have Capture, Stafford was probably NASA's most important astronaut - or rather contributed the most to manned spaceflight - even more so than the likes of Neil Armstrong or Al Shepard. Yet, as commander of Apollo 10 and ASTP, he's little more than a footnote to Project Apollo in the history books. Perhaps in the future his contribution will be better known by the general public. Certainly, there should be more books about him. Nonetheless, this one is recommended and belongs in the collection of anyone interested in manned space exploration.

We Have Capture, Tom Stafford (2002, Smithsonian Institute Press, ISBN 1-58834-070-8, 296pp + notes and index)

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