Sometimes an entire era is represented by a single career.
- By Geoffrey Little
- Air & Space magazine, September 2005
Johnson Space Center/NASA
(Page 4 of 7)
NASA responded with a two-year, top-to-bottom redesign of the command and service modules. Young and other astronauts believe the changes saved their lives. He had always been concerned with engineering safety; even back in the Gemini days he was known for writing critical, well-reasoned memos that came to be known as John Young Safety-Grams. “That’s what test pilots are for,” he says. “They’re supposed to look at stuff and see what’s right and what’s not right, and if it’s not right, you gotta tell ’em.” In 1964, Bob Gilruth, the first director of the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, told his assistant, George Abbey (later himself director of the Johnson Space Center), to sort the mail to decide what was important. Abbey remembers Gilruth saying to him, “The one thing I want to see if it comes through is a memo from John Young. If he writes a memo, and he’s got a concern, then I’ve got a concern. He’s the best engineer I’ve got working for me.”
Young was assigned to the May 1969 Apollo 10 mission, the second to orbit the moon. It was a full dress rehearsal for the first landing, with Young flying solo around the moon in the command module for eight hours while Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan took the lunar module down to 50,000 feet above the surface. Orbiting the moon alone, Young was particularly struck by the number of craters on the far side. “Most of the backside of the moon is just highland impacts,” he says. The idea of bombardment—huge meteors smashing and shaping the lunar surface for eons—would stay with him.
After returning to Earth, Young went through rocky personal times, as did many of the astronauts during the high-pressure years of Apollo. He was divorced from his wife of 10 years, the mother of his two children, and later married Susy Feldman, who worked for a NASA contractor in St. Louis.
In those days, no one at NASA knew the odds of success for the moon landings. As Young was training to command his own 1972 landing mission, his new wife told him something disturbing. She had learned about a formal risk analysis that put the chance of survival on future moon missions as low as 20 percent. Young claims it didn’t affect his thinking, but it was upsetting to his wife, and apparently to NASA. “George Low never let anybody see those numbers,” Young says today. Low was the space agency’s deputy director at the time. “I really believe that’s why the big guys wanted to knock off [Apollo] 18, 19, and 20 [the later missions that were canceled in 1970]. Even if they’d had the money, they didn’t see the benefits of lunar surface exploration, in terms of real scientific benefits, but they thought they were going to lose some people. You know, they might have.”
Young’s Apollo 16 crew did not face anything as grave as the explosion that nearly scuttled Apollo 13, but the moon landing proved to be Young’s most difficult mission yet. He almost didn’t land at all. A problem with the command and service modules’ thrust control system in lunar orbit delayed the landing for hours while mission control assessed the risk. Finally NASA gave a “go,” and six hours behind schedule, Young and Charlie Duke separated from Ken Mattingly in the command module and descended to the surface. Even after the anxious delay, Young’s heart rate at touchdown barely broke 90 beats per minute. By contrast, most Apollo commanders’ hearts were racing as they landed; Neil Armstrong’s hit 150.
Climbing down the ladder to the lunar surface, Young talked like an explorer: “There you are: mysterious and unknown Descartes. Highland plains. Apollo 16 is going to change your image.” After four spaceflights, John Young was finally where he wanted to be—roaming the moon. He and Duke walked and drove more than 16 miles of the lunar surface. All the time, scientists on the ground kept asking if they were seeing the volcanic rocks, or basalts, that all the pre-mission science predicted would be at Descartes. Young insisted that what he was collecting was breccia, rocks made by meteor impact. When geologists later examined them, it turned out he was right. “See, you can even train a fighter pilot to be a geologist,” he joked. Lee Silver, a California Institute of Technology geologist who helped train the Apollo astronauts, was impressed: “[Young] was really more dedicated to getting maximum return from his missions probably than anybody else,” he says today. “That’s a difficult thing to say, because there were so many dedicated people. But if I had to pick one man to lead an expedition where he had both to master the medium and at the same time keep his eyes on the scientific goals, I would pick John Young.”
Before leaving the moon, Young and Duke got word from the ground that Congress had approved funding for the Space Transportation System—the space shuttle. On his return, Young immediately went to work helping to design and test the new vehicle. He went right back into the simulators, while most of his Apollo colleagues left NASA. Gene Cernan, who made the last landing during Apollo 17, told Marcia Dunn of the Associated Press that after Apollo, he “couldn’t go back in the dungeons” of simulator training. He marveled at his colleague’s staying power, joking that someday “100 million years from now, they’ll dig up [the Johnson Space Center] and find John Young at his desk.”
By 1977, just five years after the last lunar landing, Young was the sole Apollo astronaut left at NASA. When it came time to pick a commander for the shuttle’s first spaceflight, George Abbey had no hesitation in choosing Young, who also had a say in the matter. He’d been promoted in 1974 to chief of the astronaut office. Once again, though, his wife came forward with concerns. “She was very upset with the whole business. She used to work on the Minuteman down on the Cape, and they kept blowing up,” he says, referring to the missile’s temperamental solid-fuel motors. “Then she found out we were going to have two solid rocket motors on the space shuttle, and she was really upset.”