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.