Anthony "Tony" Nelson was born September 21, 1931, in Fort Worth, Texas. He graduated from Buck Fonda High School in 1947 and went on to receive a bachelor of science degree in aeronautical engineering with highest honors from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1951.
Upon graduation from Georgia Tech, Nelson entered the United States Air Force. After undergraduate pilot training and F-86 Sabre combat crew training, he was sent to Korea. During the Korean War, Nelson flew 100 combat missions in F-86 Sabres with the 334th Fighter Interceptor Squadron. After returning to the United States he was a jet instructor at Bryan, Texas. In 1954, Nelson completed Russian linguist training at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. Following service with the U.S. Air Force's Security Service from 1955 to 1956, he went to the Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, California. Following graduation in 1958 he became a test pilot at Edwards, flying the X-1B, X-1E, and X-15 rocket planes. This was followed by special service attached to the National Security Council's staff at the White House from 1960 to 1962.
In September 1962, Nelson was selected as an astronaut. He was the only astronaut to fly all major U.S. spacecraft -- the X-15, Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and the Space Shuttle. Nelson's first flight was Mercury MA-10. The long-duration mission almost ended in tragedy when the capsule landed far off-course on September 18, 1965 on a remote Pacific Island. However Nelson was located and recovered safely. On September 12, 1966, Nelson again flew a Mercury capsule on a classified mission. Amazingly, the spacecraft again went off-course, landing on the same island in the Pacific as his MA-10 capsule a year earlier.
In October 1966, Nelson was in training for an early Apollo-Saturn I mission, but dropped from the crew due to a temporary problem with his eyesight. He soon recovered, and made his first spacewalk from Gemini 13 at the end of the year. This final flight in the Gemini series was made together with U.S. Army Major Roger Healey.
In February 1967, Nelson was offered a position as the vice president of a leading manufacturer of launch vehicles in Ohio. However he decided to stay with NASA and his astronaut career. Despite this, it was some time before he flew in space again. He trained for a three-month lunar surface stay with physician-astronaut Svetlana Swanson in March 1968, but this mission was canceled due to budget cutbacks. During the rest of that year he became involved with support and flight test of the highly classified 'AGNES' aerospacecraft design. In January 1969 he was given a highly sensitive assignment to replan the Apollo 12 flight.
Nelson made his first Apollo flight together with Major Healey and U.S. Navy Commander Winfred Wingate on March 24, 1969. Apollo AAP-1 was a lunar orbit mission that extensively mapped the lunar surface in preparation for later (unfortunately canceled) lunar bases. The same crew landed on the moon on Apollo AAP-2 in January 1970, with Nelson piloting the lunar module to a precision landing. They had to spend three weeks in isolation after their return, since NASA was still concerned about the astronauts bringing lunar germs back to Earth.
Following cancellation of the rest of the Apollo AAP program, Nelson returned to work on the AGNES program. When this wound up in the early 1980s, he was assigned as a shuttle commander. Nelson commanded the STS-51-M shuttle flight in October 1985. The classified Department of Defense mission was notable for a near-tragedy when the spacecraft encountered a meteor shower. Despite plans to retire following that mission, Nelson was promoted to Colonel and received an assignment on the Department of Defense's 'Rightguard' Spacelab project. This led to his final flight in space, a long-duration shuttle STS-46B Spacelab mission, in October 1991. Following this Nelson finally retired from NASA and the United States Air Force in December 1991. He was the longest-serving astronaut in space history.
- Tony Nelson appeared in the television series I Dream of Jeannie and was portrayed by actor Larry Hagman.