John Young, Spaceman | Space | Air & Space Magazine
Waiting inside the Gemini 3 capsule on March 23, 1965, John Young was about to embark on the first of six voyages into space—seven if you count Apollo 16's liftoff from the moon. (Johnson Space Center/NASA)

John Young, Spaceman

Sometimes an entire era is represented by a single career.

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John Young begins one of his last full weeks at NASA by heading to the regular Monday morning “all pilots” meeting at Houston’s Johnson Space Center. Wiry and fit at 74, a bit lower to the ground than he used to be, Young moves through the center with a determined gait. On duty, he usually wears a nondescript gray suit; off duty, he’s at home in a big black Stetson, denim jacket, and jeans, clothes that harken back to his boyhood in the farm country of Orlando, Florida. It’s December 2004, and the six-time astronaut, who has been to the moon twice, has announced he’ll retire at the end of the month.

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In the astronaut office’s meeting room, it’s all business. Most of the active-duty astronaut pilots are present, including Alvin Drew, 42, a former Air Force pilot who was born the same year Young joined NASA. The main topic today, as it has been for nearly two years, is the shuttle’s return to flight after the loss of Columbia and its crew in February 2003. Young stands up to speak, and the room goes quiet—what Drew calls “the E.F. Hutton effect.” “When he talks at a meeting, any side chatter just stops,” Drew says. “He doesn’t say anything unless it’s important.”

Drew recalls another such briefing, in the dark days right after Columbia. “The number-one job of any astronaut,” he remembers Young saying, “is to keep any other astronaut from getting killed.” Like other younger members of NASA’s space corps, Drew looks up to Young as “the corporate knowledge…. He knows what mistakes we’ve made, what mistakes we’ve made twice, and he’s there to keep us from making those mistakes a third time, or a fourth time.”

One of Drew’s first encounters with the veteran astronaut was in January 2000, when he was applying to NASA. Among the first things on the agenda was a briefing from John Young, “to give you a reality check.” Young wasted no time, showing some numbers on an overhead projector to the group of 19 candidates. “You have a 1-in-258 chance of a catastrophic failure on any given shuttle mission,” he told them. Drew wasn’t sure whether that was good or bad. Then Young put up risk numbers for air combat, “things like fighters over the top of Hanoi.” Drew was surprised by Young’s next remark: “Flying one shuttle mission is as dangerous as any 60 combat missions you would fly.”

Drew, a veteran of 90 helicopter combat missions in Panama and the first Iraq war, remembers thinking, “These were not generic missions where nobody’s shooting at you, but real ‘no kidding there’s bullets flying’-type combat missions.” Young’s statistics didn’t deter anyone in the class, he says, but it made them think.

Today in the December meeting, with the return to flight on everyone’s mind, Young is going to make them think again.

“Who here thinks the culture at NASA has changed?”

After a slight pause, Young asks for a show of hands, looking around the room at the veteran and rookie astronauts. Not one hand goes up.

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.

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.

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.”

Young’s pilot on the first flight would be a space rookie, Bob Crippen. A seemingly endless series of delays due to problems with everything from the main engines to the heat tiles made Crippen joke that by the time they eventually flew, the crew wouldn’t be Young and Crippen, it would be “Old and Crippled.”

Finally launch day arrived: April 12, 1981. It was the only time in history that a launch system made its first spaceflight with people on board. As the STS-1 astronauts sat on the pad, Crippen’s heart rate went up to 120, then, during launch, to 130, but Young’s wouldn’t break 90. “I want mine to go faster,” he told Crippen, “but it won’t. I’m too old.” Young was 50.

The two-day flight had its bothersome moments: ground control deluged them with too many messages via the noisy teleprinter; it was cold in the cabin, about 50 degrees (though Young said during his crew debriefing, “I was too proud to say anything”); the toilet didn’t function properly; and Young faced blinding sun glare, and had to use his hand as a visor much of the time. Young sloughs it all off now. “Yeah, I wasn’t worried about all that stuff,” he says. “It was incidental.” After the landing, addressing a crowd at the desert landing strip, he was uncharacteristically poetic about NASA’s new vehicle: “We’re really not too far—the human race isn’t—from going to the stars.”

In 1983, the 53-year-old Young, who now needed half-moon glasses to read the fine print of onboard instructions, commanded STS-9, the first flight of the Spacelab science laboratory. In the shuttle’s payload bay was a pressurized 20-ton module that carried 73 experiments run by seven people working 12-hour shifts. For Young, STS-9 was still very much a test flight, and it had more than its share of technical problems. During reentry, two of Columbia’s computers went out within five minutes of each other. The attitude control system suffered a failure, and one of the hydraulic power units caught fire at 40,000 feet and burned all the way to landing. At the time, recalls Young, “We didn’t know it was on fire. We had no idea. Fact is we landed on Thursday and found out about the fire on Saturday—so that’s the kind of fire to have.”

Young had now made six spaceflights, more than any other astronaut or cosmonaut. But he wanted one more. As chief of the astronaut office, he penciled himself in for another historic mission: the deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope.

Then Challenger exploded. It was a cold day, January 28, 1986. Just three weeks earlier, Young had written one of his famous memos, arguing that the shuttle should go back to landing in California instead of Florida, even though the change would add ground processing time. He was concerned that the fickle Florida weather might lead to brake failure. The shuttle program managers rejected the idea.

The day of the Challenger launch, Young was flying the weather plane, circling the pad, keeping an eye out for storms, wind, and temperature changes. From his aerial perspective, he saw it all happen. “We were holding at 20,000 feet and watching them lift off, and I got a picture of the whole thing blow—coming apart,” he says.

“Very sad. Very needless, because Leon Grabe, my old buddy, had written [about problems with the booster rockets’ joints] back in 1977. Nobody was listening. Just the same damn thing with the frigging….” He stops himself, his mind now on a more recent tragedy. “They had wing leading edge damage of some kind that was pretty bad, and nobody paid any attention to it [before] Columbia.”

On March 4, 1986, just weeks after NASA’s first fatal accident in space, Young wrote a scorching internal memo. Blunt as ever, Young enumerated safety problems dating back at least two years before the Challenger accident. “If we do not consider Flight Safety First all the time at all levels of NASA, this machinery and this program will NOT make it,” he wrote. “If the management system is not big enough to STOP the Space Shuttle Program whenever necessary to make Flight Safety corrections, it will NOT survive and neither will our three Space Shuttles or their flight crews.”

At the time, NASA forbade astronauts to speak with the media. Someone leaked the memo to a reporter at the Houston Post. Angered, NASA managers moved Young up and out of the astronaut office, to the position of the center’s Associate Director, Technical, and bumped him from flight status. Even though the commission that investigated Challenger later backed Young’s findings, he was still grounded. By that time, George Low, Bob Gilruth, and other allies in top management were gone. The Hubble mission finally flew, without John Young, in 1990.

“Young fought a lot of losing battles,” says one close colleague, who thinks the Safety-Grams eventually lost their impact. Even his Columbia crewmate, Bob Crippen, joked at Young’s retirement tribute that all NASA managers (including himself) have file cabinets overflowing with Young memos.

Though without a mission, he maintained his flight readiness status in T-38 jets and in simulators. “I did think I’d probably be reassigned to a flight, but it just didn’t happen,” Young says. In recent years, he started joking that flying another mission would be too dangerous: “Susy would kill me.” Last December, NASA’s longest serving astronaut, whom one friend calls “the archetypal extraterrestrial,” finally hung it up—being an astronaut, that is. He is still philosophically extraterrestrial, convinced that space is humanity’s ultimate escape system.

“There’s a 1-in-455 chance of a civilization-ending event in the next century,” he says, ever ready with the statistics. “We can’t avoid catastrophe; we’ve got to plan for it.” Young has come to believe that a triple threat of disasters—asteroids, super volcanoes, and ourselves—could end civilization, and soon. The 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia, he thinks, was nothing compared to what’s ahead. And he believes the technologies NASA is developing to live on the moon—inflatable structures, rapid-growth-cycle wheat, alternative energy sources—could be our salvation.

In a remarkable series of memos to NASA’s upper management in his last years at the agency, Young laid out his case for why a “single planet species” can’t survive. In one 2001 note, he made a case for returning to the moon. He signed it “John Young, Ex-Lunar Field Geologist.”

He still attends planetary science conferences, and plans to write scientific articles now that he has the time. After discussing geology and related topics in our phone interview, I say, “You sound like a scientist.” He goes silent. Then, sounding slightly offended, Young replies, “I’m not a scientist. I’m an engineer. I’m just a guy who wants to get things done and get on with it.”

I’ve come to think of John Young as a kind of test pilot for the planet, looking for ways to make the vehicle a little safer, or at least make sure we have a backup system if things go wrong. He wants us all—astronauts and Earth’s future generations—to have a nominal flight.

But as an old test pilot, he’s not going to admit taking himself too seriously, not to outsiders. When I ask why he’s still at NASA three weeks after his retirement, Young quips, “I’m just using the phone.” He plans on “hanging around” the agency for a while, and recently signed on as a consultant to NASA Headquarters.

Before signing off our interview, I ask if he has anything else he’d like to say to Air & Space readers. “Keep flying,” he answers. “It’s fun. Sure beats work.” That’s John Young, keeping it loose, no matter what.

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