Sometimes an entire era is represented by a single career.
- By Geoffrey Little
- Air & Space magazine, September 2005
Johnson Space Center/NASA
(Page 3 of 7)
Like many test pilots of his generation, Young also had his eye on a contest that was just getting under way. He applied to NASA, thinking it “looked like a good way to use what we’d been trained to do,” and in 1962 got the call to join the New Nine, the group of astronauts chosen after the initial Mercury Seven. President Kennedy had just committed the nation to a lunar landing—or rather, Young says, “They said we’d try. Nobody knew we could go to the moon. They were talking about using hydrogen in the engine. The only thing I knew that burned hydrogen didn’t work too good, and that was the Hindenburg.”
Three years later, on March 23, 1965, Young and Mercury veteran Virgil “Gus” Grissom became the first two Americans launched together into space, on Gemini 3. Young was the first of the New Nine to fly.
He remembers his first look at the Earth from orbit. “I didn’t realize it [would be] so beautiful. I could hardly take my eyes off it,” he says. “I was so busy looking out the window I sort of neglected the trajectory data.” During the crew’s three revolutions around Earth, Young did look away enough to operate the first guidance computer in space, and he took the first clear hand-held photos of features on the ground.
After a rough reentry (during the parachute’s descent, Young and Grissom were thrown forward so violently that Grissom’s visor cracked), Young resolved to go right back into space. “I told Deke [Slayton, head of the astronaut office], ‘Put me on the next mission you can.’ And I guess he did the best he could.” Young commanded Gemini 10 in July 1966, with Michael Collins on board as his copilot.
Gemini 10 was an ambitious mission that rehearsed several techniques needed for Apollo: rendezvous, docking, and, for Collins, a spacewalk. Young had to be careful not to blast his crewmate with exhaust from Gemini’s maneuvering rockets while Collins was outside; he doesn’t think such a risk would even be allowed today. And another complication arose. “I think the night before the mission, Reg Mitchell [a Gemini engineer] came in and told me, ‘Oh yeah, and by the way, don’t let the sunlight hit the top of Mike’s ejection seat, ’cause the sun is so hot it will probably fire the ejection seat,” Young says. “So then I not only had to fly formation [with the docking target]…and not squirt on Mike, but I had to keep the sun off the ejection seat.”
After Gemini, Young set right to work on Apollo. In mid-January 1967, he went to see good friend Gus Grissom down at Cape Canaveral. Grissom showed him the inside of the command module, set up for his crew’s full-dress systems test. Young remembers peering inside the craft at the wiring. “There were bundles as big as my arm that were going around sharp corners, and you know as soon as you fly, going around a sharp corner with a big wire, all you’re going to do is chafe it and set if off,” he says. “I asked him [Grissom] about it, and he said, ‘I can’t say anything about it. If I do, they’ll fire me.’ That’s what he told me.”
On January 27, 1967, Young was in California running checks on the next-to-fly Apollo capsule. He remembers seeing toxic glycol leaking on the floor. Just the day before, fellow astronaut Dave Scott had been in a spacesuit pressurized with oxygen and had gotten badly shocked. “He’s very lucky he didn’t get electrocuted, burnt to death,” says Young. “Things weren’t very good in those days.”
The same afternoon, while Young was in California, Grissom, with Roger Chaffee and Ed White, perished on pad 34-A in Cape Canaveral, in what would always be referred to at NASA as simply The Fire. The bad wires had sparked a conflagration in the oxygen-soaked module.