Oklahoma astronaut receives Russian ‘Order of Friendship’ medal

WEATHERFORD, Okla. – An Oklahoma astronaut is receiving recognition from halfway across the globe.

On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that his nation has awarded the “Order of Friendship” medal to former U.S. test pilot and astronaut Lt. General Thomas P. Stafford.

The medal was given to Stafford for his “great contribution to developing cooperation in the field of space exploration between the Russian Federation and the United States of America.”

As the pilot of Gemini 6, Stafford conducted the first successful rendezvous in space with another orbiting vehicle.

On Stafford’s final mission in 1975, Stafford commanded the American side of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project that would rendezvous and dock with a Soviet Soyuz-19 spacecraft. It culminated in the historic ‘handshake in space’ between U.S. and Soviet astronauts. Many historians feel this joint mission led to the beginning of the end of the Cold War. For his efforts, Stafford was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

“What made Tom so effective during the ASTP program is that the Soviets trusted him, and so did the Americans,” said Chris Kraft, a long-time NASA flight director and administrator.

At the age of 87, Stafford still travels to Moscow to work with his Russian counterparts to oversee the operation of the International Space Station.