John Young, Spaceman

Sometimes an entire era is represented by a single career.

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)
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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.”

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