It was third time lucky when Wally Schirra – newly raised from commander to captain in June 1965, part of President Johnson’s spot-promotion of active-duty military astronauts – and Air Force Major Thomas Patten Stafford Jr boarded their spacecraft under clear blue skies on the warm morning of 15 December. Launch at 8:37:26 am was perfect, the Titan behaving flawlessly and inserting them into an elliptical orbit of 160-260 km. The bald-headed Stafford was another of NASA’s 1962 astronaut intake whom Deke Slayton described as ‘‘too green’’ to have been a realistic candidate for the Project Mercury selection. Indeed, as Slayton and his six colleagues were announced in April 1959, Stafford was barely graduating from test pilot school and his height would have rendered him ineligible anyway. Further, had it not been for the decision to increase the height limit for the larger Gemini spacecraft, Stafford would not have been picked at all.

In time, he would become one of NASA’s most accomplished astronauts, flying four times into space, including a lunar voyage and command of the joint Apollo – Soyuz mission with the Soviets. His habit of trying to speak faster than he could think led fellow astronauts to nickname him ‘Mumbles’. During Al Shepard’s training to command Apollo 14, Stafford would also take charge of the astronaut office as its chief. He was born in Weatherford, Oklahoma, on 17 September 1930, the son of a dentist father and a teacher mother, becoming an avid reader and an enthusiastic watcher of each silvery DC-3 airliner which frequently soared above his childhood home. After the Pearl Harbour bombings, Stafford took a paper round to buy parts and build his own balsa wood model aeroplanes and in 1944 he took his first flight in a two-seater Piper Cub. That flight alone, he wrote, ‘‘made me eager to become a fighter pilot and help win the war’’.

The young Stafford would not engage in combat in the Second World War, but his dream would one day come true. In high school, he excelled in football, eventually becoming captain, although he recounted in his autobiography that he was far from perfect: shooting out streetlights with a BB gun, throwing a firecracker into the police station and attempting, with his friends, to disrupt their English lessons with a cleverly orchestrated symphony of coughing. ‘‘The neighbours could always tell when I had been caught,’’ he wrote. ‘‘I would be out front painting the fence as a punishment, like Tom Sawyer.’’

His footballing abilities, though, drew the attention of the University of Oklahoma’s coach, although Stafford had also applied for, and would receive, a full ROTC scholarship from the Navy to study there. He had already undertaken some military training in 1947 as part of the Oklahoman National Guard and was even called to temporary duty when the small town of Leedey was hit by a tornado. Stafford also worked on manoeuvres to plot howitzer targets and his calculations contributed to his battery receiving an award for the most outstanding artillery unit. The following year, 1948, brought both success and tragedy: acceptance into the Naval Academy, tempered by the death of his father from cancer.

During four years at Annapolis, he was assigned to the battleship Missouri, where he met another midshipman named John Young. ‘‘We would have laughed,’’ Stafford wrote, ‘‘at the suggestion that someday we would become astronauts flying in space and circling the Moon together.’’ After graduation in 1952 with a bachelor’s degree, his decision to opt for an Air Force, rather than naval, career was inspired by his eagerness to fly the F-86 Sabre jet. He achieved his coveted silver wings from Connally Air Force Base in Waco, Texas, late the following year. By now married to Faye Shoemaker, Stafford underwent advanced training in the F-86 – ‘‘the hottest thing in the sky’’ – and the T-33 Shooting Star. He was then assigned to an interceptor squadron, based in South Dakota, and later moved to Hahn Air Base in Germany as a flight leader and flight test maintenance officer for the Sabre.

Few opportunities for promotion almost led Stafford to resign from the Air Force in 1957 and he even drafted application letters to numerous airlines. . . before deciding to stay in the service when he first saw the F-100 Super Sabre jet and the forthcoming F-104 Starfighter. “If I went to an airline,” he wrote, “I’d be flying the equivalent of cargo planes and could say goodbye to high-performance fighters.’’ He tore up the letters and was promoted to captain the following year, together with selection for the Air Force Experimental Test Pilot School at Edwards. His time there, he remembered, saw him working harder than ever before. “Each morning’s flight generated a pile of data from handwritten notes, recording cameras, oscilloscopes and other instruments. We had to reduce this data to a terse report that we submitted to the instructors and we had a test every Friday.’’ From such schools, pilot astronauts were, are and will continue to be drawn.

Stafford graduated first in his class in May 1959, stayed on at Edwards as an instructor and, over the next couple of years, oversaw a number of newer test pilot candidates, including Jim McDivitt, Ed White, Frank Borman and Mike Collins. He also met a visitor from the Navy’s test pilot school, an aviator named Pete Conrad. Additionally, he co-authored two flight test manuals: the Pilot’s Handbook for Performance Flight Testing and the Aerodynamics Handbook for Performance Flight Testing. By the spring of 1962, he was due for a permanent change of station and confidently expected to study for an advanced master’s degree in a technical field, but was picked to attend Harvard Business School; a business administration credential, he realised, would benefit both his military career and any subsequent plans he had. In April, Stafford also learned that NASA was recruiting its second class of astronauts and submitted his application. Five months later, and three days after starting his master’s degree at Harvard, he received the call from Deke Slayton that would truly change his life.