John Young was an astronaut's astronaut—quiet, reticent, and utterly reliable in space. During his long and incomparable career as an astronaut, he flew three different vehicles into space: the Gemini capsule, the Apollo capsule, and the space shuttle. He died Friday night, at the age of 87, from complications of pneumonia.
With a tenure that spanned 42 years, Young had the longest career of any astronaut. He piloted the first fight of a Gemini spacecraft, alongside commander Gus Grissom, commanded another Gemini mission, then flew two Apollo missions to the Moon, and finally commanded the first and ninth flights of the space shuttle. During Apollo 16, he spent 71 hours on the surface of the Moon, and also flew the lunar module. With his passing, just five living human beings have walked on the Moon: Buzz Aldrin, 87; Alan Bean, 85; Dave Scott, 85; Charlie Duke, 82; and Harrison Schmitt, 82.
After earning a degree in aeronautical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1952, Young joined the US Navy. He was not eligible for the initial Mercury class of astronauts in 1959, but he was a member of the next nine selected in 1962, a legendary class that included Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell, and others who flew many of the Gemini and Apollo missions.
A hardworking guy
The first chief of the astronaut office, Deke Slayton, had high praise for Young in his autobiography Deke! "John was one of the unsung heroes of the Astronaut Office, a real hardworking guy who did whatever you asked him to, no problems. The only thing that held him back was that he was not comfortable with public speaking; he tended to freeze up and give one-word answers."
Much later, after he had become chief of the astronaut office himself, Young played an important role in the selection of crews for space shuttle missions. He still had a quiet manner at this time, and the large class of 35 astronauts chosen in 1978 would joke about this by noting how he always kept his eyes down on his papers during meetings. "Does anyone know the color of John's eyes?" they would ask.
Perhaps not, but there was little fear in those eyes and little question about Young's capability to fly a spacecraft. Gemini 3 was set to be the first crewed flight of a NASA spacecraft that could carry not one, but two people into space. Mercury veteran Gus Grissom was going to be one of them, but after he nixed NASA's initial choice for his pilot (Frank Borman), Grissom had no qualms about John Young as a replacement. The pair flew three low Earth orbit missions and launched the Gemini program on a successful trajectory. Two years later, after Grissom died in the Apollo 1 fire, his pallbearers were his fellow Mercury astronauts—and Gemini crew mate John Young.
In 1969, Young served as the command module pilot for the Apollo 10 mission, a dress rehearsal and the last flight before the actual lunar landings. Three years later, he returned to the Moon, this time as commander of the mission to the surface. As the second lunar landing with an electric rover, Young and Charlie Duke visited distant craters and giant boulders while collecting nearly 100kg of Moon rocks to bring back to Earth.
By the time NASA chose the crew for the first space shuttle flight, STS-1, Young had been with the space agency for nearly two decades. He was an obvious choice, recalled Bob Thompson, the program manager for the shuttle who oversaw its development throughout the 1970s and through the first flight in April, 1981.
"We have lost a great individual," Thompson told Ars Saturday. "He was the obvious choice for STS-1. Very professional and a strong background from other programs."
Young was brave, but he also had a healthy respect for the risks of spaceflight. After she returned from her first spaceflight, Sally Ride would often paraphrase Young when asked if she was afraid during the moments preceding launch: "If you show me a person who's not a little nervous before launch, I'll show you a person I wouldn't want to get into the same room with."
In the end, only one astronaut has ever made the pioneering crewed flight of two different orbital spacecraft, which Young did in 1965 and then again in 1981. "NASA and the world have lost a pioneer," the space agency's acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot, said Saturday. "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."