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.”