We Have Capture: Tom Stafford and the Space Race

Article excerpt

We Have Capture: Tom Stafford and the Space Race by Thomas P. Stafford with Michael Cassutt. Smithsonian Institution Press (http://www. sipress.si.edu), 750 Ninth Street NW, Suite 4300, Washington, D.C. 20560-0950, 2002, 224 pages, $29.95 (hardcover).

From schoolboy in Oklahoma to plebe at Annapolis, from Air Force test pilot to NASA astronaut, Lt Gen Tom Stafford, USAF, retired, has recounted one man's success in an easily read book. But it is also much more. We Have Capture is an examination of an intriguing period of history from the point of view of one of the few insiders.

Using the maturation of the US Manned Space Program as a backdrop, General Stafford gives the reader a lively tour of his personal recollections of NASA, the Cold War, detente with the Soviets, and the maturation of human interaction in space. Although his scope ranges from his childhood and the World War II era, the meat of the book covers the space race to the end of the century, particularly from the Gemini program to the international space station. Famous names and familiar visuals of space missions leap off each page. Also, Stafford nicely peppers the book with comical asides and unique stories that even trivia-savvy space hobbyists will find remarkable.

His juxtaposition of American and Soviet space stories is pointed and insightful-and makes the book unique. Several of the longer stories work on many levels: technical, historical, political, and personal. For example, on 29 June 1971, Soyuz 11's crew left Salyut, the world's first manned space station. Supposed to land just before dawn in Central Asia, the crew members completed their reentry maneuver and then fired the retro-rockets. The descent module parachuted to a landing in Kazakhstan. But when members of the recovery team arrived, they found all three cosmonauts mysteriously dead.

General Stafford then concisely explains how the men died and what the ramifications on the ground entailed, both politically and for him personally. I like the way he segues from expositor of technical detail to storyteller here. Soyuz 11's misfortune becomes another story-one about Stafford's introduction to dealing with the Soviets and meeting a lifelong friend who reappears throughout the book.

On a family vacation to Europe at the time of the Soyuz 11 accident, Stafford was unexpectedly called to duty as a diplomat-appointed stand-in for President Richard Nixon at the cosmonauts' state funeral. As a fellow space explorer, Stafford was invited to serve as a pallbearer. The funeral was a solemn event, made even less bearable by tedious Communist political speeches. Stafford noted the Soviet guards "fainting and falling to the pavement." The morning after the service, Stafford's host, a Russian cosmonaut general named Beregovoi, held Stafford's commercial plane on the flight line. As Stafford was about to board to return to his family, his host announced, "We need some vodka." When Stafford protested, the general replied that "the plane doesn't leave until I say it does" and then asked, "Do you like caviar? . . . Come here! You need a snack." As they drank, the passengers waited. The scene provides a quick, comical example of Soviet power and attitude.

Another layer to this story involves Stafford's meeting in Moscow during the memorial ceremonies with Aleksie Leonov, the cosmonaut who was supposed to have led the fatal Soyuz 11 mission. …