As Earth grew ever smaller below his spacecraft, Apollo 10 commander Tom Stafford made an unusual request to mission control.
The year was 1969, and his vessel was the first to be equipped with a color camera, which was beaming live images to an awestruck global audience.
“I was feeling real high,” recalled Stafford, who is now 88 and the last surviving member of the crew.
“I said: ‘Think you could call over to London and tell the president of the Flat Earth Society that he’s wrong?’”
It was a light moment during a mission of paramount importance: 50 years ago this week, Apollo 10 set off to finalize the preparations for Apollo 11’s lunar landing.
The mission’s objectives included an eight-hour orbit in a lunar module that Stafford flew down to within nine miles (14 kilometers) of the Moon’s surface.
Apollo 10 paved the way for Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind” two months later—a historic milestone and a colossal geopolitical win for the United States at the height of the Cold War.
But Stafford, a US Air Force test pilot who was among the first astronauts recruited for the newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), almost wasn’t part of the mission, after a close call a few years earlier.
Snoopy to the Moon
Perhaps Stafford’s finest hour would be the Apollo 10 mission from May 18-26, 1969.
It became synonymous with Snoopy and Charlie Brown in the minds of the public because the three-man crew named their lunar and command modules after the iconic cartoon characters.
“NASA developed a relationship with Charles Schulz, who drew Peanuts,” he explained.
The names were said to have caused some consternation among NASA management, which felt they lacked sufficient gravitas – accordingly, “Eagle” and “Columbia” were chosen for Apollo 11.
The Apollo 10 crew could have been chosen to land on the Moon, but for the fact that NASA had not shaved enough weight off their lander at the time, added Stafford.
Of course, they couldn’t actually see it until they were upon it, because it was eclipsed by the Earth on their trajectory.
“Kind of a buggy feeling – you’re going somewhere you couldn’t see,” he said with a laugh.
The mission itself was notable for the lunar module’s unexpected rolls in its descent stage – the crew was heard muttering expletives on US television broadcasts.
But they regained control and scoped out the landing site for Apollo 11 on the Sea of Tranquility.
The day after Stafford made his cheeky request to contact the British Flat Earth Society, he received news from mission control that the group had responded.
They were reading out the day’s news items, and told him: “The president of the British Flat Earth society said he appreciated the beautiful color TV images, and yes, the Earth is round but it’s a flat disk.”