The astronaut who became NASA’s conscience
John Young was the astronaut other astronauts wanted to be. In his 42 years in the space program, NASA’s longest-serving astronaut went to space six times, walked on the surface of the moon, and commanded the first space shuttle. But astronauts revered Young for reasons beyond his years of experience. Haunted by a 1967 launchpad fire that killed his first spaceflight partner, Gus Grissom, and two other astronauts, Young became an outspoken voice for astronaut safety. “Whenever and wherever I found a potential safety issue,” he wrote in his 2012 memoir, “I always did my utmost to make some noise about it.”
Raised in Orlando, Young showed an early interest in aeronautics, building model airplanes as a child, said the Houston Chronicle. “His decision to join NASA was inspired by President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 call to land a man on the moon,” which he watched on TV while serving as a Navy test pilot. Selected for the space program the following year, Young was soon making history, said The Washington Post. He was part of the first two-man space flight in 1965 with Grissom—but was reprimanded by NASA officials for smuggling a corned beef sandwich aboard Gemini 3. “In 1972, as commander of Apollo 16, Young became one of only 12 astronauts to set foot on the moon.” With crewmate Charles Duke, he drove a buggy 16 miles across the lunar surface.
Nine years later, Young commanded the Columbia space shuttle “in the first flight of a reusable spacecraft,” said The New York Times. The shuttle orbited Earth 36 times, then touched down at Edwards Air Force Base, “the first landing of a spacecraft on a runway.” In 1983, Young made his final space mission, commanding Columbia on a 10-day mission. “For all his service with NASA, Mr. Young could be a harsh critic of the agency.” After the Challenger shuttle exploded in 1986, killing seven astronauts, Young wrote blistering memos accusing the agency of cutting corners. Yet he remained a staunch believer in space exploration. “Our ability to live and work on other places in the solar system will end up giving us the science and technology that we need to save the species,” he said in 2000. “I’d hate to miss all that fun.”