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.”