In the days before his first mission into space, way back in March 1965, John Young was asked by a journalist if he minded flying into orbit with the fiery Virgil ‘Gus’ Grissom as his Gemini 3 crewmate. Without blinking, the 34-year-old Young replied: “Are you kidding? I’d go with my mother-in-law!” It was an indicator not only of Young’s intense dry wit, but of his equally intense devotion to the exploration of the final frontier—an exploration which consumes 400 pages in his long-awaited memoir, Forever Young, co-authored with Auburn University history professor and Neil Armstrong biographer James R. Hansen.
Long-awaited because Young has earned himself a reputation over the past five decades which cannot be surpassed. True, there are astronauts who have flown more times into space than him. True, there are other astronauts who have walked on the Moon, besides him. True, there are astronauts who have commanded more missions and flown longer in space than him. But for sheer longevity within the astronaut business, John Watts Young is unrivaled. Selected as a member of NASA’s second intake of spacefarers in September 1962—an intake which former chief astronaut Deke Slayton once described as “probably the best all-around group ever put together”—he spent more than 40 years with NASA and flew six times, across three separate programs: Gemini, Apollo, and the Shuttle. Even Jerry Ross, who became the first human to record a seventh voyage into space, has described Young as his hero.
Young’s upbringing in the Depression era was a difficult one. Born in San Francisco in September 1930, he moved with his parents and younger brother to Cartersville, Ga., after his father was laid off. “Dad made just a few dollars a day” at a filling station, Young wrote. “All around us were families like us. Kids ran around in ragged hand-me-downs, sometimes in pants or shirts made of old scraps of cloth that had been found on the street. Most everybody was thin as rails because no one ever had enough to eat.” This setting of semi-desperation provided the backdrop and inspiration for a quite remarkable life. He remembered homemade tomato sandwiches in the summer and the classes in algebra and physics that he loved and—unusually for the time—the fact that two of his closest friends were black: Nathaniel ‘Pretty’ Green, who “taught me how to play poker”, and Rufus Brown. If these childhood events helped to shape Young, then it was his father’s advice which set him on the path to an education in the engineering sciences which would kick off his aviation career. One day he asked William Hugh Young where he should go to college. “Georgia Tech,” came the response. It offered a rigorous curriculum and, with a Reserve Officer Training Corps sponsorship, paid the $6,000 needed for his tuition, books, fees, room and board. “In 1948,” Young wrote, “that was a lot of cash—no doubt, more than my dad could have ever paid for me.”
It was at Georgia Tech that Young was introduced to the relatively new field of aeronautical engineering, but an interest in aviation had begun much earlier. As a child, he had assembled model aircraft and rockets, and it was the latter that he had chosen for a speech to his classmates in the 11th grade. Upon receipt of his degree, with highest honors, coupled with membership of the coveted Anak Society, Young entered the Navy and served as a fire control officer aboard the USS Laws. He served a tour in Korea and a former shipmate, Joseph LaMantia, remembered Young’s coolness under duress. “Though only an ensign at the time, he was the most respected officer on the ship,” LaMantia noted on the website, www.johnwyoung.com. “When we sustained counter-battery fire and enemy rounds were striking the ship, it was John Young’s leadership which kept us cool and focused on returning that enemy fire.”
Upon returning to the United States, Young entered flight school and learned to fly props, jets, and helicopters, then moved on to fighters as he took to the air in F-9 Cougars from the USS Coral Sea and F-8 Crusaders from one of the Navy’s newest supercarriers, the USS Forrestal. Shipmates and aviators alike described as “the epitome of swashbuckling aviators … he exuded confidence coupled with uncommon ability”. This ability would carry him far—as far as the Moon and back—but in the spring of 1959 such a goal remained a long way off. He was still starting test pilot school when the Mercury Seven were chosen and would subsequently work through a role as project manager for the weapons system on the F-4H Phantom II fighter, evaluating its armaments, its radar, and its bombing fire controls.
His operational duties with the ‘Phabulous’ Phantom set him in place for Project High Jump in early 1962, and he made a high-altitude flight to 10,000 feet above Naval Air Station Brunswick in Maine on 21 February in just 34.5 seconds and, six weeks later, to more than 80,000 feet in 230.4 seconds from Point Mugu in California. Half a year later, he received a call from Deke Slayton at NASA, inviting him to join the second class of astronauts—the ‘New Nine’ or ‘Next Nine’—which included such luminaries as Frank Borman, Ed White, and Neil Armstrong. In March 1965, he became the first of his class to fly into space, aboard Gemini 3, although this assignment came about somewhat serendipitously when the original crew commander, Al Shepard, was grounded by an inner-ear disorder, eliminating himself and the original pilot, Tom Stafford.
Young returned from the five-hour Gemini 3 mission—the voyage on which he famously offered Grissom a corned-beef sandwich—with an eagerness to climb aboard the next available rocket. The duo teamed again as the backup crew for Gemini VI-A, a critical rendezvous mission in late 1965, after which Young received his own command position on Gemini X in July 1966. Together with Mike Collins, he performed rendezvous with no fewer than two Agena targets: one launched specifically for their mission and another still in orbit since Gemini VIII in March.
Project Apollo, the nation’s effort to land a man on the Moon, beckoned, but the January 1967 fire which took the lives of Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee set the schedule back by almost two years. Young’s third space voyage was as command module pilot on Apollo 10 in May 1969, when he and crewmates Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan executed the so-called ‘F-mission’, staging a full dress-rehearsal for the first lunar landing, in orbit around the Moon. During this time, Young became the first person to fly solo around our closest celestial neighbor. Shortly thereafter, he was named as backup commander for Apollo 13, whose ill-fated six days in April 1970 refocused the world’s attention on waning public enthusiasm for manned missions to the Moon.
Under Deke Slayton’s three-flight crew rotation system, Young’s backup duty on Apollo 13 assured him the command of Apollo 16, although it seemed for a time that this mission might not come to pass, so deep were the cuts to NASA planned by Richard Nixon’s administration. The enormous success of Apollo 15 contributed to ensuring that the final two lunar missions remained alive, and in April 1972, Young, Ken Mattingly, and Charlie Duke flew to the Moon for what would turn out to be humanity’s penultimate piloted voyage to another world in the 20th century. Six months later, as backup commander of Apollo 17, Young almost became the first man to land on the Moon twice, when the prime commander, Gene Cernan, suffered a tendon injury and came close to being taken off the flight.
As Apollo entered its final stages, Young’s eyes were set on the future, and in 1974 he was assigned as chief of the astronaut office, replacing Al Shepard. He spent 13 years at the helm of the most elite flying fraternity in the world, supervising the training of several classes of new astronauts and overseeing the inaugural flights of the Shuttle. It came as no surprise when, in March 1978, he was assigned with Bob Crippen to the reusable spacecraft’s maiden voyage. When Columbia eventually flew in April 1981, she became the first manned spacecraft to launch with a crew aboard on her very first mission … making the gutsiness of Young and Crippen truly admirable. Even astronauts who came to dislike Young’s management style as head of the office could offer little but praise.
If Young earned fame as one of only a dozen Moonwalkers to date, his stint in command of the first Shuttle mission—and, two years later, in November 1983, at the head of the first international Spacelab flight—truly opened a door to the future. For although Challenger would irreparably ruin the misleading belief that flying in space could ever be routine, the Shuttle era offered the opportunity for more humans than ever before to experience the new frontier and provided the capabilities to accomplish ever more difficult tasks: none more so than launching and repairing the Hubble Space Telescope and building the jewel-like International Space Station.
In fact, if there is one disappointing footnote to make about Forever Young, it is that Young makes hardly a reference to his original assignment, in September 1985, to the 61J Hubble deployment mission, which would have made him the first person to complete seven spaceflights. He fleetingly mentions his departure from the headship of the astronaut office in April 1987, noting that his successor, Dan Brandenstein, “would not have been my choice”, but the years thereafter in senior management at the Johnson Space Center offered him the scope to remain involved in its day-to-day business. Other astronauts met him on the interview panel and some flew with him, either in the simulator or aboard T-38 jets. It is clear that Young—like Story Musgrave, who once told this author that “NASA made the decision for me to stop flying. I would have kept going”—would have continued on to other space missions, had he been given the chance. His retirement from NASA in December 2004 brought down the curtain on a truly remarkable 42 years in the space business.
All in all, Forever Young is an intensely enjoyable book. It is right and fitting that Young’s “life of adventure in air and space” should have been so eagerly anticipated, for it tells the tale of a man who rose from humble beginnings and achieved truly remarkable things. By the time his flying career ended, he had logged 15,200 hours in the air—nearly double the amount of any other chief astronaut—and Jerry Ross has been quick to stress that, counting Young’s liftoff from the Moon during Apollo 16, he still retains the achievement of having seven launches into space under his belt. There will doubtless be other pioneers who will guide us back to the Moon and outward to Mars in the coming decades, and the achievements of today’s astronauts are remarkable in their own right, but John Watts Young was one of the trailblazers, providing the inspiration, the leadership, and the mentoring for others to follow.