Thursday, 14 April 2016

Failure really wasn't an option

Space Lectures' Spring 2016 Event: General Tom Stafford.

Months and months ago the brilliant Space Lectures team in Pontefract announced that their guest in April 2016 would be a moon walker. In the autumn it was revealed that the guest was in fact Gene Cernan - the last man to have walked on the moon.  Mr Norfolkbookworm and I had booked seats long before the name was announced and were looking forward to our next trip up north.

On the Wednesday before the event I checked twitter on my lunch break to read that Captain Cernan was unwell and unable to travel.  One tweet later I saw that the team had managed the incredible...

With just 2 days before the first event they had secured another Gemini/Apollo era astronaut to travel from the USA to talk to us - General Tom Stafford.  These gentlemen are all in their eighties at least so this was incredible reading.

If I am brutally honest I was more excited to meet/hear General Stafford that I was Captain Cernan. There is a new film out all about the latter and after previous visits to the Kennedy Space Center where he was prominently featured on lots of the films I felt I knew more about him but General Stafford was more of an unknown.

When we got to Pontefract we heard that the woes with this event had continued as Stafford's plane had been delayed due to bad weather and he's made the Friday event with only an hour or so to spare. shades of Apollo 13 or what?

The compere (one day I will catch his name!) explained this, read a message from Capt. Cernan and then explained the format of the event.  We were going to see a film about Gen. Stafford's career, he'd talk for a little while, there would be a break, a raffle, an auction and then a q&a before the signing session.

Again it didn't quite go that way but this time very much in our favour. We watched the film and then Gen. Stafford talked about his four missions and subsequent career for an hour and forty spellbinding minutes!

Much to Mr Norfolkbookworm's delight much of the talk covered the often over looked Gemini program with much emphasis on how important these flights were. Having read a lot about the manned space program from this era I have come to appreciate this but it was nice to hear Gen. Stafford admit that without these flights (and all that was learnt on them) there is no way that the Apollo missions would have succeeded, especially within the time frame laid down by President Kennedy.

After the insights into Gemini 6A and 9A we then heard about Apollo 10 - the flight that did everything Apollo 11 did *except* land on the moon. Interestingly he didn't seem at all bothered that he wasn't a moon-walker, I wonder if the thrill of flying and testing new things was enough?

Gen. Stafford also flew on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, this was another overlooked mission that saw the Soviets and the Americans meet, dock and visit each others spaceships while on orbit.  Again this is a mission that fascinates me, not least because I have had the chance to meet Stafford's opposite Alexei Leonov.

Unlike many of the early astronauts Gen. Stafford continued his military and NASA career after leaving the astronaut corps and his subsequent postings remind you that the early space pioneers really were military men. I did find it interesting to hear about this side of Stafford and it reminded me that the space program only came about because of the Cold War.

It wasn't all serious stuff however, Stafford has a wicked sense of humour, and wasn't afraid to show it even when well behind the Iron Curtain in the 1970s.  I'm not sure I'd have the courage even now to set off fireworks anywhere near the UK police let alone the Soviet ones, 4th of July or not!

You got the feeling that given half a chance General Stafford would have talked quite happily for another hour or two and to be honest I'd have sat there rapt. I think the thing I will remember the most from this talk is Stafford's humour, self-deprecation and his obvious deep friendship with Alexei Leonov - all delivered in Oklahomski!

After the talk over ran it was decided to skip the q&a in favour of starting the signing, I was a little disappointed as I had two questions I would have liked to ask but I'd not have cut his talk short just to ask them!

There was still a raffle and I won a new book - oral histories from all sorts of people involved in the space program - and General Stafford kindly signed both a copy of his autobiography for us and my rocket.

I say this every time we go to a Space Lectures event but this really was the best yet and I feel really lucky that the team managed the impossible and got a true legend to come at such short notice but as this event finished with this clip from the International Space Station all I can do is look forward to the autumn with growing excitement!

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