From Sky to Space: John Young, the Astronaut’s Astronaut

By Benjamin Vermette

When you think of great human achievements, you may think of the Pyramids and other human-built wonders of the world, or of Einstein’s General Relativity theory and other complex products of pure intellect, but you must not omit the moon landings. In fact, landing on the Moon was – in my opinion – by far the greatest triumph humankind ever accomplished. It required an unprecedented amount of organisation and perseverance in order to bring to life, in an extremely limited and troublesome timeframe, the dreams and wonders of every human to touch that little grey ball in the night sky.

To set foot on the Moon, you need a bunch of people – some scientists, some directors and other administrators, some politicians, a ton of engineers, but mainly, you need precisely that: a foot. A lot of people volunteered their foot, but in the end, only 24 feet were chosen, and they were those of (in order of walking on the Moon): Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, Pete Conrad, Alan Bean, Alan Shepard, Edgar Mitchell, Dave R. Scott, James Irwin, John Young, Charles Duke, Jack Schmitt and Gene Cernan. Out of those 12 men, only four still live today (Aldrin, Scott, Duke & Schmitt); a couple of months ago, seven were still walking among us.

When Eugene Cernan passed on January 16, 2017, I thought I’d write a piece about his life he was, and still is, one of my favorite astronauts. And when I heard the passing of John Young on January 5, 2018, I thought I couldn’t go on without at least addressing his career. But before doing so, let me honorably mention Alan Bean, fourth man on the Moon, who died on May 26, 2018, at age 86. An artist who depicted his out-of-this-world experiences through paintings, Al Bean will be remembered as a humane, down-to-earth astronaut.  Now, here is a too brief account of the life of another of my favorite astronauts, John Young.

John W. Young (1930 – 2018)

There is always that one guy who never wants to be in the spotlight no matter how successful he is; just like an uncomplaining dark horse, riding along the toughest roads known to men, and doing it without complaint. John Young was that kind of guy, possessing enough skills and working hard enough to be arrogant, but never being so.

John Young in 1969

John Young in 1969

Young was born in San Francisco on September 24, 1930, although his family and him quickly moved to Cartersville, Georgia, before moving again to Orlando, Florida. He always described himself as an “old country boy from the south”. His inherent passion for aviation became evident at an early age, as one of his pastimes was to build model airplanes. He then went on to earn a Bachelor of Science in Aeronautical Engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology, before entering the U.S. Navy through the ROTC program in 1952.

In 1954, he earned his aviator wings to fly F9F Cougar jets for VFA-103, the famous Jolly Rogers squadron. Four years later, Young became a part of the United States Naval Test Pilot School Class 23 where he set two time-to-climb records with the F-4F Phantom II, climbing 9,843 & 82,021 feet in respectively 34.52 & 227.7 seconds. He was in fact a very skilled pilot. As fellow astronaut and former NASA administrator from 2009 – 2017 Charles Bolden recalled, Young and Robert ‘Hoot’ Gibson were the two best pilot he ever met: “Never met two people like them. Everyone else gets into an airplane; John and Hoot wear the airplane. They’re just awesome.”

Later in 1962, Young was selected alongside Neil Armstrong among the ‘New Nine’ group of astronauts, three years after the original Mercury Seven. In preparation for an eventual spaceflight in the Gemini program, Young and his fellow colleagues trained 16 hours a day, doing exercises ranging from land & water survival to mental & physical fitness. During those harsh days of training, he started to gain the reputation of the modest, hard-working man who seems to make all the tough jobs effortless.

In 1965, he finally flew in space for the first time on Gemini 3, the first manned Gemini mission, with his friend Gus Grissom, who later died on Apollo 1 during a capsule fire on the launch pad in 1967.

Gemini 3 is a classic mission in the history of space exploration; a lot of things happened. Although the mission was a near-textbook one on technical terms – in Young’s words: “Gemini 3 was truly an excellent engineering test flight of the vehicle” – it had a minor incident concerning a … corned beef sandwich. Unsatisfied with the food served in space, Young decided to smuggle a corned beef sandwich in his suit, without warning anyone until he actually started to eat it in orbit. Unlike NASA and people on the ground – who were heavily concerned that the crumbs of the sandwich could mess with the electronics on board –  Grissom thought that it was quite a joke, taking a few bites himself: “John’s deadpan offer of this strictly non-regulation goodie remains one of the highlights of our flight for me.”

John Young and Gus Grissom

John Young and Gus Grissom

Gemini 3 was the mission that gave John Young his name. Flying in space was not common in those days – Gemini 3 was only the seventh manned US spaceflight – so astronauts, upon their arrival on Earth, had a traditional welcome parade in the streets of New York and held public appearances with the President. Passing from a southern introvert to a superstar in days was a radical transformation – one that Young wasn’t prepared for. But still, he clung to his reputation of the least emotional man on Earth by showing no signs of fear, and by seeming everything but unprepared.

Soon, the glamorous days were over and Young had to get back to training. He was preparing for another spaceflight, and doing so by logging countless hours in T-38 Talon jets (each astronaut was given one for personal use). It was said that flying the T-38 wasn’t ‘risky’ enough for the astronauts, that they thought it wasn’t ‘spaceflight-like’ enough (a T-38 wasn’t nerve-racking as much as a small capsule on top of a missile). So, the legend says that Young invented a challenge that later became a matter of honour for these spacefaring men: flying the T-38 on an near-empty fuel tank. Today, this practice would be prohibited, but it still shines light on the character that was John Young: a fearless man who always wanted more – the definition of living life at its fullest!

A bit more than a year after his first spaceflight – in July 1966 –  Young was to leave humanity’s cradle for a second time; this time, as commander of the Gemini 10 mission with fellow astronaut Michael Collins. Gemini 10 had a tough mission plan: they had to rendezvous and dock with an Agena booster in low-earth orbit, then use this booster to climb temporarily to almost 800 km of altitude, then drop the booster and meet with a second one (left in space during the Gemini 8 mission), and then wrap up and come home. This mission was set in order to test three critical objectives needed to eventually land on the Moon: rendezvous, docking & EVA (extra-vehicular activity – spacewalk). Note that the difference between rendezvous and docking in space is that the latter necessarily implies that two spacecraft physically connect to each other, while the former only means that the two spacecrafts meet at a reasonable distance from each other (usually around 15 meters). As the mission comprised some of the trickiest maneuvers ever attempted, Young’s wife didn’t want him to go. In a typical John Young manner, he apparently replied: “It’s my job.”

John Young and Michael Collins

John Young and Michael Collins

Even though the second rendezvous with the Agena booster at 800 km of altitude was completed without electronics, or, in Young’s words, completed “by eyeball, the kind of old technique that you would use in pre-World War I days”, the mission was a success.

But now, the Gemini days were over –  it was time for what all those years of preparation were all about: the moon landings, or the Apollo era.

Two months before Apollo 11’s mission in July 1969 – the historic one when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first wandered on the Moon – John Young, Gene Cernan and Thomas Stafford flew on Apollo 10 on what was to be a “dress rehearsal” for the first moon landing. As Young piloted the Command Module in orbit around the Moon, Cernan and Stafford flew the Lunar Module to about 15 km off the lunar surface – the point where the powered descent would begin on the actual moon landing. Gene Cernan once told journalists that NASA intentionally cut in the Lunar Module fuel tank in order to prevent the crew from actually landing on the surface; had they not, Neil Armstrong probably wouldn’t be as popular.

In 1972, John Young had his fourth and most prominent spaceflight: he commanded the fifth moon landing, Apollo 16.  Along with Lunar Module pilot Charlie Duke, Young spent 20 hours on the surface on the Moon, driving the Lunar Rover for about 30 km and collecting 211 pounds of lunar rocks and thus becoming the ninth person to walk on the Moon. While Young and Duke where collecting rocks and raising dust on the surface, Command Module pilot Ken Mattingly was orbiting above, performing observations of the surface of the Moon.

Ken Mattingly, John Young and Charlie Duke

Ken Mattingly, John Young and Charlie Duke

As mentioned, John Young was one of the calmest and most fearless astronauts. Those characteristics were heavily displayed while he was sitting inside the capsule on top of the gigantic Saturn V rocket right before Apollo 16’s liftoff: “I found out from the flight surgeon later on that my heartbeat was 144 at liftoff,” said Charlie Duke. “John’s was 70.” In his 2012 autobiography Forever Young: A Life of Adventure in Air and Space, John Young wrote that he “was either calmer than I thought I was or, as I later noted in the space shuttle, I was too old for my heart to go any faster.”

Later in 1972, Apollo 17 became humanity’s last manned mission to the Moon. NASA’s focus shifted from the Moon to Low Earth Orbit, passing from the big and mighty Saturn V rocket to the smaller, reusable Space Shuttle. The thing with the Shuttle was that it had to be landed like an airplane. That meant that NASA couldn’t fly an unmanned mission first to test it – usually, NASA would fly the rocket alone a couple of times before putting astronauts in it. So, for that kind of first mission, you needed a calm, experienced and skilled astronaut to fly and land the Shuttle. And you guessed it, John Young, who now was NASA’s Chief of the Astronaut Office since 1974, was chosen to command the first shuttle mission, known as STS-1, in 1981.

Nine years after his last spaceflight, Young would successfully fly and land what astronauts refer to as the “flying brick” (the Space Shuttle) with co-pilot Bob Crippen.

Nine years after his last spaceflight, Young would successfully fly and land what astronauts refer to as the “flying brick” (the Space Shuttle) with co-pilot Bob Crippen.

Later on, the Shuttle went on to carry seven astronauts at a time, but in a hazardous mission like this, NASA thought risking only two lives was more than enough. Even Mission Control couldn’t do much more than to wish Young and Crippen plain luck: “John, we can’t do more from the launch team than say, we wish you an awful lot of luck. We are with you one thousand percent and we are awful proud to have been a part of it. Good luck gentlemen.”

Mission Control’s wish was fulfilled, as John Young landed Space Shuttle Columbia in what was Crippen’s “softest landing [he’s] been into”.

BBC Coverage of the landing of STS-1. The clip starts about 3 minutes after blackout ends.

Young made his sixth and final spaceflight in 1983 as commander of STS-9, a mission that carried Spacelab’s first module to space. He was assigned to fly on STS-61-J and to make a record seventh spaceflight, but the Challenger disaster in 1986 delayed launch schedule.

Young worked for NASA until he took his retirement in 2004, thus becoming the longest-serving astronaut ever.

He passed from complications of pneumonia on January 5, 2018, at the age of 87. His life of conquering both sky and space and of never-ending service to NASA demonstrates his genuine spacefarer character, while his modesty and perseverance show the gentleman he truly was. A cold-blooded pilot like no other, the uncomplaining dark horse will be remembered, although his desire to never be in the spotlight contributed to his fame not being proportionate to his skills.

To my favourite astronaut; may you stay, John, forever young.