Remembering John Young, an 'Astronaut's Astronaut', Gone at Age 87

Apollo 16 Commander John Young gazes across the rugged terrain during humanity’s fifth piloted lunar landing. Photo Credit: NASA

John Young, one of only 12 humans to have walked the dusty surface of the Moon, one of only three of mankind’s sons to have traveled twice to lunar distance, the only astronaut to fly aboard Gemini, Apollo and the Space Shuttle, and the first person to record six space missions, has died, aged 87. Known to posterity as “The Astronaut’s Astronaut”, Young was a titanic figure in NASA’s astronaut corps for more than four decades. His passing brings to five the total number of veteran Moonwalkers who are still with us.

Young died Friday, 5 January, following complications from pneumonia. Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot paid tribute to an astronaut who logged 34 days, 19 hours and 34 minutes in space—a mere five weeks, all told, far less than the average duration of one of today’s International Space Station (ISS) increments—but whose time beyond the gaseous veil of Earth’s atmosphere saw Young at the forefront of exploration and discovery.

Astronaut John Young. Photo: NASA

Within those five weeks of cumulative experience, he recorded 20 hours and 14 minutes of Extravehicular Activity (EVA) on the surface of the Moon. Flying Gemini 3 in March 1965 and STS-1 in April 1981, Young was the only U.S. astronaut to be aboard the maiden voyage of two different piloted spacecraft. He conducted rendezvous and docking whilst orbiting both Earth and the Moon and continued to maintain a significant presence on astronaut selection panels, long after his final spaceflight.

“Today, NASA and the world have lost a pioneer,” began Mr. Lightfoot’s remarks. “Astronaut John Young’s storied career spanned three generations of spaceflight; we will stand on his shoulders as we look toward the next human frontier. John was one of that group of early space pioneers whose bravery and commitment sparked our nation’s first great achievements in space. But, not content with that, his hands-on contributions continued long after the last of his six spaceflights—a world record at the time of his retirement from the cockpit.

“Between his service in the U.S. Navy, where he retired at the rank of captain, and his later work as a civilian at NASA, John spent his entire life in service to our country.  His career included the test pilot’s dream of two ‘first flights’ in a new spacecraft—with Gus Grissom on Gemini 3 and as Commander of STS-1, the first Space Shuttle mission, which some have called “the boldest test flight in history”. He flew as Commander on Gemini 10, the first mission to rendezvous with two separate spacecraft the course of a single flight. He orbited the Moon in Apollo 10 and landed there as Commander of the Apollo 16 mission. On STS-9, his final spaceflight, and in an iconic display of test pilot “cool”, he landed the Space Shuttle with a fire in the back end.

Aboard a recovery helicopter after their splashdown on 23 March 1965, Gus Grissom (left) became the first man to record two space missions and John Young concluded the first flight in one of the most dramatic space careers of all time. Photo Credit: NASA

“I participated in many Space Shuttle Flight Readiness Reviews with John and will always remember him as the classic “hell of an engineer” from Georgia Tech, who had an uncanny ability to cut to the heart of a technical issue by posing the perfect question—followed by his iconic phrase, “Just asking…”

“John Young was at the forefront of human space exploration with his poise, talent, and tenacity.  He was in every way the “astronaut’s astronaut”. We will miss him.”

John Watts Young, Jr., was born in San Francisco, Calif., on 24 September 1930. His family moved to Cartersville, Ga., and eventually settled permanently in Orlando, Fla. At around this time, Young began building model aircraft. It was a hobby that would remain with him throughout high school, together, it seemed, with rockets, which he chose for a speech to his classmates in the 11th grade. Young earned his degree in aeronautical engineering, with highest honors, from Georgia Institute of Technology in 1952, receiving coveted membership of the institute’s prestigious Anak Society. He joined the Navy in June of that year and, among his earliest assignments, served as fire control officer aboard the destroyer USS Laws. During this time, he completed a tour in Korea and a former shipmate would remember his coolness under duress.

Six hours after launching from Cape Kennedy on 18 July 1966, Gemini X Command Pilot John Young and Pilot Mike Collins rendezvoused and docked with Gemini-Agena Target Vehicle (GATV)-5005. It was the first of a record-setting two rendezvous to be performed during their three-day mission. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

After Korea, Young entered flight school at Naval Basic Air Training Command in Pensacola, Fla., learning to fly props, jets and helicopters, and later undertook a six-month course at the Navy’s Advanced Training School in Corpus Christi, Texas. Upon receipt of his wings, he served as a pilot in Fighter Squadron 103, flying F-9 Cougars from the USS Coral Sea and F-8 Crusaders from the USS Forrestal. He graduated as a test pilot from Naval Test Pilot School in Patuxent River, Md., then worked as project test pilot and program manager for the F-4H weapons system at the Naval Air Test Center. In early 1962, Young set a pair of time-to-climb world records. In February, he climbed 9,800 feet (3,000 meters) above Naval Air Station Brunswick, Me., in 34.5 seconds, then in April he achieved 82,000 feet (25,000 meters) from Point Mugu, Calif., in 230.4 seconds.

Selected into NASA’s second class of astronauts in September 1962, Young went on to become the first member to fly into space. In March 1965, he flew alongside Project Mercury veteran Virgil “Gus” Grissom aboard Gemini 3, the first piloted voyage of Project Gemini, which lasted four hours and 52 minutes, circling the globe three times. During the mission, Young famously offered Grissom a corned beef sandwich. A year later, in July 1966, Young commanded Gemini X, a three-day mission with fellow astronaut Mike Collins, during which the pair rendezvoused with two Agena-D target vehicles, raised their altitude to a then-record-setting 474 miles (763 km) and became the first flight to conduct two discrete sessions of EVA. Young’s third mission was as Command Module Pilot (CMP) of Apollo 10 in May 1969, an eight-day flight to the Moon, which saw the crew perform a full dress-rehearsal in readiness for the first landing on the lunar surface. Young became the first man to fly solo in orbit around our closest celestial neighbor. As well as marking the most flight-experienced spacefaring crew to date—with Young, Lunar Module Pilot (LMP) Gene Cernan and Commander Tom Stafford chalking up eight missions between them—Apollo 10 entered the Guinness Book of Records for the greatest velocity ever achieved by a manned space vehicle, reaching 24,791 mph (39,897 km/h) during the return from the Moon.

As command module of Apollo 10, John Young became the first human being to fly solo in orbit around another celestial body. Photo Credit: NASA

Three years later, Young commanded Apollo 16, the longest flight of his career. Lasting 11 days, it saw Young, CMP Ken Mattingly and LMP Charlie Duke head to the Moon. In doing so, Young became only the second human to journey to lunar distance on two occasions. He and Duke flew down to the Descartes highland plains, performing three Moonwalks, totaling 20 hours and 14 minutes. Following a stint backing up the final Apollo lunar mission, Young was named as chief of the Astronaut Office in 1974, a position he held until 1987, longer than any other incumbent.

Yet he remained on active flight status. In March 1978, he was named as part of a pool of pilots to fly the inaugural Orbital Test Flights (OFT) of the Space Shuttle and in April 1981 commanded STS-1, the very first mission of Columbia. It marked the first time that an entirely new spacecraft had been flown with astronauts aboard, having never been previously test-flown into space in an unmanned capacity. Young and STS-1 Pilot Bob Crippen truly embarked on the riskiest test flight in the entire U.S. human space program. Guiding Columbia smoothly back to Earth after two days in space, they opened the floodgates for more than a hundred shuttle crews to follow them. Young went on to command STS-9 in late 1983, which carried the European Spacelab research facility on its first flight and included the first Payload Specialists and the first non-U.S. crewman to fly aboard a U.S. spacecraft. Returning home on 8 December 1983, after ten days, STS-9 remained the longest shuttle mission for more than six years.

An excited John Young stands with George Abbey, then-head of the Flight Crew Operations Directorate (FCOD), and watch Bob Crippen descend the steps from Columbia. Photo Credit: NASA

In the pre-Challenger era, Young was assigned to a record-setting seventh mission, STS-61J, planned for October 1986, to deploy NASA’s showpiece Hubble Space Telescope (HST). However, it was not to be. For reasons discussed elsewhere, he was transferred out of the headship of the Astronaut Office in April 1987 and went on to serve in a number of increasing senior managerial positions and acting as assistant to the director of the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas. He also sat on many selection panels for future astronauts and his retirement in December 2004 brought to a close more than four decades of remarkable service to the U.S. space program.

Renowned for his deadpan humor, Young flew with many astronauts over the years. Mike Collins, his Gemini X crewmate, went on to accompany Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on humanity’s first lunar landing. Gene Cernan became the last Moonwalker, Tom Stafford commanded a joint mission with the Soviet Union, Bob Crippen went on to head the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, whilst his STS-9 crewmates included Ulf Merbold, who later became the first German to record three space missions. And yet perhaps his most famous crewmate was Gus Grissom, whom everyone nicknamed “Gruss Gus”. When asked if he had any qualms flying with Gruss Gus, John Young replied: “Are you kidding? I’d have gone with my mother-in-law!”

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