Today, I was deeply saddened to learn that one of my favourite astronauts, John Young, has passed away at the age of 87. And in this post, I’d like to briefly go over what a truly exceptional career he had.
John Watts Young was born in 1930, and was brought up in Orlando, Florida for most of his childhood. Entering the US Navy in 1952, he eventually trained as a test pilot, and would set two time-to-climb world records in the F-4 Phantom II jet. Then, in 1962, he was selected as one of NASA’s second group of astronauts, the New Nine, which also included Neil Armstrong and Jim Lovell. Young would remain at NASA for the rest of his working life.
In March 1965, Young became the first member of his astronaut group to fly in space, flying alongside Mercury Seven astronaut Gus Grissom on Gemini 3. This was the first manned flight of the Gemini program, which would test everything required for the planned Apollo missions to the Moon. Grissom and Young became the first astronauts to perform a manouver to adjust their spacecraft’s orbit – however, Young also got into trouble after the flight when it was found he had smuggled a corned beef sandwich onboard, which might have clogged the instruments with crumbs! Happily, Young remained in the flight rotation and was made commander of Gemini 10, making his second spaceflight in July 1966 with Michael Collins as his co-pilot. They performed the second ever docking in space with an unmanned Agena Target Vehicle, then used its engine to climb to a then-record altitude of 412 miles.
From there, it was onto the Apollo program. In May 1969, Young headed off to the Moon as command module pilot of Apollo 10, the flight that would test all necessary manouvers before the first actual landing on Apollo 11. Young had the task of flying the Command Module “Charlie Brown” solo in lunar orbit, while his crewmates Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan flew the Lunar Module “Snoopy” down to within 9 miles of the lunar surface. As it turned out, Young would be one of just three astronauts – the other two being Cernan and Jim Lovell – to visit the Moon twice. After serving as Lovell’s backup for the fateful Apollo 13 mission, Young returned to the Moon in April 1972 as commander of Apollo 16. While command module pilot Ken Mattingly remained in orbit, Young and his lunar module pilot Charlie Duke landed in the Descartes Highlands; over three moonwalks lasting over 20 hours, they set up experiments and explored the site, aided by their Lunar Rover. While they were there, they received news that Congress had approved funding for the Space Shuttle program; what they couldn’t know was that Young and Mattingly would be the only Moon-going astronauts to fly the Shuttle into space.
After the end of the Apollo program, Young remained at NASA while many of his fellow astronauts moved on to other things. When it was time to select the crew for the first Space Shuttle mission, Young was the most experienced man still in the Astronaut Office and the clear choice to command the flight. On 12th April 1981 – twenty years to the day since Yuri Gagarin made the first manned spaceflight – Space Shuttle Columbia was launched into orbit, where Young and his co-pilot Bob Crippen spent two days putting the orbiter through its paces, before a successful runway landing at Edwards Air Force Base. Young was the first man to fly in space five times – and in November 1983, he became the first to fly six times too, when he commanded Columbia again on STS-9.
Even that wasn’t supposed to be the end: Young was in line to command another Space Shuttle flight, which would deploy the Hubble Space Telescope. But the destruction of Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986 shattered NASA’s timetable. Soon afterwards, Young – who had openly criticised the management decisions which contributed to the disaster – was transferred out of the Astronaut Office. Although he would not fly in space again, he continued to work at NASA until he finally retired at the end of 2004, aged 74.
As you can see, Young accomplished a great deal, and it’s very sad that we’ve lost such an exceptional astronaut. It’s also sad that of the twelve men who have ever walked on the Moon, only five are now still alive. In his later years at NASA, Young was an advocate for going back to the Moon, and I still hope we will do so in the next decade or two.