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Pioneering Astronaut Famed For Orbital Handshake With Soviets Dies at 93

NASA
NASA

The legendary NASA astronaut Tom Stafford, who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for his famed handshake in space with a Soviet cosmonaut amid Cold War tensions, died Monday at 93, his namesake museum announced.

Stafford died in Indian Harbour Beach—a coastal city fittingly located in the heart of Florida’s “Space Coast,” just 20 miles south of the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

The director of the Stafford Air & Space Museum in his hometown of Weatherford, Oklahoma, told News 9 that Stafford died after battling an “extended illness.”

Stafford led four missions into space, which included many historical firsts in space travel—like his Apollo 10 mission in 1969 that saw him become the first person to ever pilot a lunar module into orbit. The success of that trip led NASA to proceed with its Apollo 11 mission—the moon landing that included Neil Armstrong’s legendary first steps on July 21, 1969.

Tom Stafford shakes the hand of a Soviet cosmonaut in space.

The historic handshake in space between Leonov, left, and Stafford, right.

NASA

Perhaps Stafford’s most famous mission was also his last. It came in 1975, when he orchestrated an in-flight rendezvous and docked with a Soviet spacecraft after months of planning and coordination. That mission, decades into the Cold War, was memorialized by a photo of Stafford shaking the hand of the cosmonaut Alexey Leonov—a snap that circulated far and wide at the time, leading to decades of cooperation between the competing space agencies.

After leaving NASA, Stafford continued to serve in the U.S. Air Force at Edward’s Air Force Base in California and at Area 51 in the Nevada desert, a base that remains shrouded in secrecy.

After retirement, The Oklahoman reported that he remained an “influential and trusted adviser” to NASA, the defense sector, and several U.S. presidents.

In a tribute posted to social media on Monday, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson wrote that Stafford had returned to the “eternal heavens which he so courageously explored as a Gemini and Apollo astronaut as well as a peacemaker in Apollo Soyuz.”

“Those of us privileged to know him are very sad but grateful we knew a giant,” he said.

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