America lost one it’s greatest explorers, astronaut John Young, one of the best and most liked of all NASA’s unique space fliers.
Apollo 16 moonwalker Young died at age 87 of complications of pneumonia and Alzheimer’s. Until his illness, he was one of the great ambassadors of space exploration. His six spaceflights included two Gemini missions, two Apollo trips to the Moon and two Space Shuttle launches.
I met John Young twice, 20 years apart, and they were encounters I’ll never forget. He told me the Moon smelled like gunpowder, and the fluffy soil was itchy, like fiberglass. And when you hear the stories from the space workers and his fellow astronauts, you’ll realize what a special man and indispensable asset John Young was to the success of the American space program.
NASA had a public memorial service for Young at the Kennedy Space Visitor Complex on Jan. 11th, attracting tourists, space lovers and three of his good friends; KSC Director Robert Cabana and four-time Shuttle pilot/commander; and retired Shuttle pilots Jon McBride and Mike McCulley. Each hand-picked for space duty by Young, their praise went beyond his capabilities as a spaceman and emphasized his leadership and loyalty.
“John Young was one of my heroes,” said KSC Director Cabana. “He was a great man and a true American.” The former Shuttle commander said he was trained by Young and had a “quest for safety and attention to detail.” When he was named Chief of Astronauts, Young became famous for his frequent memos called “Youngrams” that told it like it was about the space vehicle and astronaut performance.
Shuttle pilot Jon McBride flew in 1985 and retired to pursue business during the down-time following the Challenger accident. He is a fixture at the Florida visitor complex giving public talks and tours and having fun bragging about being West Virginia’s only astronaut. McBride called John Young “one of the world’s greatest human beings. To me, he was Mr. Astronaut.”
Mike McCulley said Young “had 51 percent of the say in who became a pilot” when you went to the intense interview part of being an astronaut. He recalled a flying with Young in the astronauts’ taxi, the two-man T-38, around KSC on a moonlit night. “I asked John what it was really like on the Moon. He is known for his long answers, and after an unusually long pause, he finally replied, “It was a weird place.”
The Moon Race of the 1960s was a flowing work in progress as everything was invented along the way. Each Mercury, Gemini and Apollo mission pushed the knowledge of space travel to the next level, most times successfully and a few times tragically. The glory of riding a rocket to space is attained after hundreds of hours of training in spacecraft simulations, learning in actual spaceships, rehearsing events in real-time. Dozens of smart people training the astronauts on flight hardware, guidance computers, survival systems and living in space suits had unique, daily access to the early astronauts of the Apollo era. Some of the two dozen astronauts were more helpful in these training sessions than others; some were easy learners, some were not. Some astronauts were easy to get along with, others were difficult. Astronaut Young was one of those that everybody liked and drew the respect from his working peers.
What do the American people need to remember about John Young? First might be his incredible bravery. Twice he flew maiden voyages of NASA spaceships: the first two-man Gemini flight with Gus Grissom; and the first launch of a Space Shuttle, the untested Columbia.
Second thing to remember is John Young is one of only three humans to make two trips to the Moon. Apollo 10 in May1969 was a dress rehearsal and did everything Apollo 11 did but land; on Apollo 16 in April 1972 he camped out 3 days on the Moon with Charlie Duke. The other astronauts to see the Moon up close twice are James Lovell, 87, Apollos 8 & 13; and Gene Cernan, deceased, Apollos 10 & 17.
Almost everyone has seen a photo of John Young on the Moon. He is saluting the American flag, moon ship Orion and the Rover in the background. Young is 3 feet off the ground, the lunar video showing him jumping up not once, but twice in exuberance to salute our nation’s flag.
Young’s complete space resume of six flights was finally eclipsed by two Americans and a Russian taking their seventh rocket rides. He joked he also had seven rocket launches—the blast off from the Moon’s surface counting just as much! He was training for his seventh mission, a Hubble Telescope maintenance mission, when Challenger derailed the timeline and he ended up stuck behind the desk as Chief of the Astronaut Office until 2004. He continued his advocacy for a return to the Moon and a plan to send humans to Mars.
There are many brave and outstanding people that have pioneered America into space, leading us to the orbiting International Space Station and its occupancy for the past 18 years. John Young was one very best and admired by all. His memory lives among the stars, never to be forgotten in the history of NASA.