Sometimes an entire era is represented by a single career.
- By Geoffrey Little
- Air & Space magazine, September 2005
Johnson Space Center/NASA
(Page 2 of 7)
He has asked the question because he is gravely concerned that NASA’s management culture still allows fatal flaws. A few days later, in a set of rare interviews with the Associated Press and another with the Houston Chronicle, Young makes his point publicly by stating that the odds of a catastrophic failure on the shuttle now stand at 1 in 57, the number of flights to date divided by two fatal accidents.
When I catch up with him for an interview a month later, he elaborates. “We’ve proven 1 in 57, but who can say what it really is? I don’t think anybody has a clue what will happen next, or what unusual thing will happen that we haven’t thought about.” I ask: Will the shuttle be able to keep flying? “Hope so,” he says. “I think you gotta try. I mean, nobody ever guaranteed it was going to be risk free.”
It’s a perfect summary of NASA’s essential dilemma: trying to make the inherently dangerous business of spaceflight as safe as possible. And it’s vintage John Young: blunt and matter of fact. In a video tribute at Young’s retirement ceremony at the National Air and Space Museum in December, the actor Tom Hanks said: “John Young is one of my heroes, a man who did what had to be done, regardless of the consequences.” In the front row of the IMAX theater, Young couldn’t help but grin. In the past he’s grumbled to friends, goodnaturedly, about the fact that Hanks’ 1998 HBO miniseries, From the Earth to the Moon, skipped over his Apollo 16 mission entirely.
Young seems aware of where he stands in the astronaut pantheon: the hard-working professional, but never the star. He doesn’t seek the media spotlight, and is at his best in the company of his scientific and engineering peers. If you’re serious, he’ll take you seriously. His fellow astronauts say he also can be very funny, in a droll, you-had-to-be-there kind of way. But his reserve is hard to penetrate, even for people who have worked with him closely. Michael Collins, Young’s crewmate on Gemini 10, wrote in his memoir, Carrying the Fire, that of all the early astronauts, “John is the most uncommunicative (with Neil [Armstrong] a distant second).”
He is also, hands down, the most experienced. At the retirement tribute, Bob Crippen, Young’s pilot on the shuttle’s first flight, lauded him as “the astronaut’s astronaut,” not just for having flown six times but for his technical understanding of spaceflight. Brewster Shaw, Young’s pilot on shuttle mission STS-9 and now chief operating officer of United Space Alliance, the company that operates the shuttle, told the audience of veteran astronauts that John Young had “the most intuitive engineering mind I’ve ever seen.”
Young built his first airplane model when he was six years old: “a high-wing airplane; I think it was a Waco,” he says. As an undergrad at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he was a Naval ROTC commander and aeronautical engineering major, he showed an early interest in rocketry, if not exactly space. In 1951, as a junior, he published an article in the Georgia Tech Engineer on the German V-2 rockets built by Wernher von Braun. “I didn’t say very nice things about him, because, you know, using unguided rockets to hit civilian targets was not very nice,” he says today. “I never dreamed that he’d [von Braun] come over here and build the Saturn V.”
Initially, Young set his sights on a Navy flying career. But the Navy had other ideas, and assigned him after graduation to serve as a fire safety officer on the USS Laws, a destroyer that saw combat during the Korean War. Flight training had to wait until after the war. In 1959 he was selected for a coveted slot at Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland, home to the Navy test pilot school. There he helped wring out what would be the Navy’s first Mach 2 fighter jet, the McDonnell F4-H1 Phantom II.
In 1962, Young found out just how fast, and how high, a stripped-down Phantom could go. On a cold, clear February day, he took off from Brunswick Naval Air Station in Maine in an attempt to set a record for time to climb to 3,000 meters (just under 10,000 feet), as part of the Navy’s Project High Jump. He did it in just under 35 seconds, and says his real time was actually faster, but the “statistics guys” adjusted it for 95 percent confidence. Two months later, Young set the 25,000-meter record, taking off from Pt. Mugu, northwest of Los Angeles, and zooming to 82,000 feet in just under four minutes. In his pressure suit, he could glimpse the dark edge of space before he coasted back to land in the Mojave Desert.