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.