Space Sunday: in memory of John Young

John Young: Gemini (l), Apollo, shuttle and in 2002, two years prior to his retirement from NASA after 42 years with the agency (r). Credit: NASA / Getty Images

On Saturday, January 6th, 2018, NASA announced the passing of astronaut John Watts Young. The US space agency’s longest-serving astronaut during his career, Young passed away on January 5th at the age of 87. He flew in space six times across three different space programmes: Gemini, Apollo and the space shuttle.

Young was born in San Francisco, California, on September 24th, 1930, and earned a Bachelor of Science degree with highest honours in Aeronautical Engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1952. He served in the US Navy from 1952 through 1962, serving as a seaborne officer prior to entering flight training , qualifying as a jet fighter pilot in 1953. After flying front-line fighters for 5 years, he joined the US Navy Air Test Centre in 1959, evaluating fighter aircraft and weapons systems.

In 1962, Young joined NASA and was part of Astronaut Group 2 alongside Neil Armstrong first man on the Moon, Charles “Pete” Conrad, commander of the first crewed Skylab mission,  Frank Borman, commander of the first Apollo flight to the Moon (Apollo 8), James “Jim” Lovell, commander of Apollo 13, Thomas Stafford, commander of the US part of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) mission, and Edward “Ed” White, who was to be killed in the Apollo 1 pad fire. He was the first of that group to fly in space as a part of the Gemini programme, the second of America’s manned spaceflight programmes, and the precursor to Apollo and the lunar effort.

John Young (r) with Gemini 3 commander Virgil “Gus” Grissom, standing in front of the Gemini simulator. Credit: NASA

He first flight into space was aboard Gemini 3 on March 23rd, 1965, sitting alongside Virgil “Gus” Grissom, the mission commander. The primary goal of the mission was to put the Gemini capsule through its paces during a 3-orbit flight – America’s seventh crewed spaceflight (or ninth, if you count two X-15 flights). It was also the final mission  controlled from Cape Kennedy Air Force Station in Florida (Cape Canaveral Air Force Station today), before mission control functions were shifted to the newly opened Manned Spacecraft Centre, known today as the Johnson Space Centre.

The mission was noted for the “contraband” corned beef sandwich Young smuggled onto the flight in his spacesuit. Grissom knew nothing of the sandwich until Young produced it, and both men took a couple of bites each before Young stowed it again to avoid crumbs getting into the capsule’s electronics. Post-mission, Grissom commented, “After the flight our superiors at NASA let us know in no uncertain terms that non-man-rated corned beef sandwiches were out for future space missions. But John’s deadpan offer of this strictly non-regulation goodie remains one of the highlights of our flight for me.”

The sandwich incident seemed to leave Young sidelined; rather than being pencilled for a command slot, he was relegated to the role of back-up. However, with the Apollo programme starting to ramp-up, Ed White was rotated over to the Apollo 1 crew, and this opened a slot in the Gemini programme for Young to take the command of Gemini 10 in 1966. The 8th manned Gemini flight and with Michael Collins flying alongside Young, Gemini 10 was the first to perform a rendezvous with two Agena target vehicles.

The spacecraft launched on July 18th, 1966, 100 minutes after its dedicated Agena target vehicle. After a successful rendezous and docking, they re-ignited the Agena’s motor, the first time this had been done, and used it to raise their orbit from an average altitude of 265 km (145 nautical mile) to a 294 by 763 km (159-by-412-nautical-mile) orbit, ready for a rendezvous with the Agena target vehicle intended to be used by Gemini 8, which was unable to complete its mission. Collins then completed the first of two EVAs after the crew had rested, and then Gemini 10 detached from its own Agena to make a successful docking with the passive Gemini 8 target vehicle – the first such docking without any assistance in handling the target vehicle from Earth. After a further rest period, Collins performed a second spacewalk. With a double doubling, two EVAs and 10 science experiments, Gemini 10 was one of the most comprehensive space missions completed up to that time, with the capsule splashing down on July 21st, 1966.

John Young and Michael Collins, the crew of Gemini 10, 1966. Credit: NASA

For the Apollo programme, Young was initially assigned to back-up crews. However, following the Apollo 1 fire which killed Grissom, White and Roger Chaffee, the flight roster was reshuffled, and Young was placed on the Apollo 10 crew as Command Module Pilot. This mission, which also included Thomas Stafford and Commander and Eugene Cernan as the Lunar Module Pilot, was the final Apollo mission prior to the missions to the surface of the Moon, and was the second – after Apollo 8 –  to actually fly to the Moon.

Launched on May 18th, 1969, the only Apollo Saturn V mission to lift-off from Launch Complex 39B, and only one of two Apollo missions to feature crews who had all previously flown in space (the other being Apollo 11). Reaching the Moon on May 21st, 2969, the Apollo 10 crew became – and remain – the humans  who have travelled the farthest from their homes. This is because the Moon is in an elliptical orbit around the Earth, which varies by some 43,000 km (23,000 nmi) between perigree (the point closest to the Earth) and apogee (the point farthest from the Earth), and Apollo 10 was the only Apollo mission to take place as the Moon was approaching apogee, meaning the crew were some 408,950 km (220,820 nmi) from their homes and families in Houston.

On reaching the Moon, Young was left aboard the Command and Service Module (CSM), code-named Charlie Brown, while Stafford  and Cernan took the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) Snoopy to some 14.4 km (8 nmi) of the lunar surface, allowing them to overfly and survey the Apollo 11 landing area in the Sea of Tranquillity. To avoid the risk of Stafford and Cernan actually landing on the Moon, the LEM had been short-fuelled, forcing them to fire the descent unit motor to start an ascent back up to orbit. However, this initially did not go smoothly.

Due to a small series of input errors by Stafford and Cernan, Snoopy’s guidance system had the craft pointing in the wrong direction, and on engine firing, the LEM went into a violent spin. It took both men several seconds to recover control – time enough for the LEM to crash on the Moon. In the event, control was regain, the decent unit was jettisoned as its feul was expended, and the ascent stage motor carried Cernan and Stafford safely to a rendezvous with the CSM. Following the excitement of the initial ascent, Stafford reported the successful rendezvous and docking by radioing Earth with the message, “Snoopy and Charlie Brown are hugging each other.”

After Apollo 10’s return to Earth on May 26th, 1969, Young started training as back-up commander for Apollo 13. When disaster stuck that mission he played a central role in the team that developed procedures to stretch the Lunar Module consumables and reactivate the Command Module systems prior to re-entry, saving the Apollo 13 crew. Young then rotated into the Command slot for Apollo 16, with LEM Pilot Charles Duke and CSM Pilot Ken Mattingly.

Apollo 16 lifted-off on April 16th, 1972, and Young and Duke arrived in the Descartes Highlands on April 21st, 1972, at the start of the second-longest lunar surface mission (Apollo 17 being the longest). In 71 hours on the Moon, conducting three extra-vehicular activities or moonwalks, totalling 20 hours and 14 minutes, driving Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) 26.7 km (16.6 mi) and collecting 95.8 kilograms (211 lb) of lunar samples for return to Earth. Young was the ninth man to walk on the surface of the Moon, and in typical style, was exuberant throughout: jumping clear of the surface while saluting the US flag, and setting a speed record driving the LRV.

John Watts Young, Commander of the Apollo 16 mission, exuberantly jumps off the lunar surface while saluting the US flag. Credit: NASA

On his return to Earth with his crew on April 27th, 1972, Young was rotated into the position of Commander of the Apollo 17 back-up crew as a result of prime crew Commander Eugene “Gene” Cernan injuring his knee playing softball a few months before the flight, putting his fitness in doubt. Had Cernan been unable to fly, Young would have been the only man to command two Apollo lunar missions and the last man to walk on the Moon.

Following the success of Apollo 17 with Cernan commanding, Young – once considered something of a “bad boy” by NASA management thanks to his corned beef sandwich – was placed in charge of the Space Shuttle Branch of the Astronaut Office. A year later, In January 1974, he became Chief of the Astronaut Office after Alan Shephard retired.

Young was an integral part of space shuttle development programme, and oversaw crew selection procedures in his role at Chief of the Astronaut Office. As the most experienced astronaut in the corps, Young was a natural choice to command the first orbital flight of the space shuttle. His co-pilot for the flight was Robert Crippen, who had been part of the support crews for all three of the Skylab crews (Skylab 2, Skylab 3, and Skylab 4), and the  ASTP mission but who, at the time of the first shuttle flight, hadn’t actually flown in flight. Like Young, however, he had been integral to the shuttle’s design – particularly the flight systems.

Space shuttle Orbiter Vehicle 02 (OV-02) Columbia inches its way onto Pad 39A atop its crawler transporter in readiness for its maiden flight, commanded by John Young. Note the white paint coating the massive External Tank was later dropped from the vehicle in order to save weight. Credit: NASA

STS-1 (STS standing for Space Transportation System – the official title of the space shuttle system), featuring the shuttle Orbiter Vehicle 02 (OV-102) Columbia, launched on April 12th, 1981 for a 54.5 hour mission designed to initially check-out the vehicle in basic operations. The shuttle system featured a number of elements never before present with US crewed space vehicles. It was the first system which could only be tested in flight with a crew on board; it was also the first vehicle to have its thermal protection system exposed throughout the entire flight envelope; it was the first to use a thermal protection system comprising more than 1,000 silicone tiles, some of which, if lost, could result in the complete annihilation of vehicle and crew during atmospheric re-entry. Thus, STA-1 was a critical flight test.

In the event, some of the thermal protection tiles were lost from Columbia, a total of 16 from the orbiter’s OMS/RCS pods either side of the tail fin. While this area of the vehicle would experience elevated temperatures during re-entry, they were not mission-critical surfaces, and the loss of the tiles was considered non-deadly to the crew. The cause of the loss was later assessed to be due to NASA underestimating the amount of vibration and pressure produced by the shuttle’s Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs). Shock waves from the SRB thrust were deflected up into the orbiter’s tail section, shaking the tiles free. As a result, an improved water suppressant system was installed at the Shuttle launch pads to further dampen vibrations. These pressure waves also forced the shuttle’s “body flap” – an extension on the orbiter’s underbelly that helps to control pitch during re-entry – into an angle well beyond the point where cracking or rupture of its hydraulic system would have been expected. Such damage would have made a controlled descent through the Earth’s atmosphere to a safe landing impossible, and Young later admitted that had he known about this issue – he and Crippen were not informed during the flight – he would have ordered holding the orbiter at high altitude so he and Crippen could eject, with the loss of the Orbiter Vehicle.

As it turned out, the mission was completed successfully, lessons were learned, and a schedule of further flight tests – classified as missions – went ahead.

Young returned to Columbia for his last flight into space when, in November 1983, he commanded STS-9, the ninth flight of the space shuttle system, and the first to feature the Spacelab laboratory module. The flight also market the first time a European astronaut – Ulf Merbold – flew in space, and featured the largest crew flown on a single vehicle up to that point in time – totalling six people.

John Young (second from right), with the crew of STS-9, his final flight into space. From left to right: Owen Garriott, mission specialist; Byron Lichtenberg, payload specialist (standing); Brewster Shaw, pilot; John Young, commander; Ulf Merbold, payload specialist (standing); Robert Parker, mission specialist. Credit: NASA

Columbia had been specifically converted to handle Spacelab, a joint NASA / ESA initiative. These conversions  – coupled with the fact that Columbia was the heaviest of the Orbiter Vehicles – meant that the vehicle would not participate in space station operations once work commenced on the ISS. STS-9 carried with 72 scientific experiments in Spacelab, spanning the fields of atmospheric and plasma physics, astronomy, solar physics, material sciences, technology, astrobiology and Earth observations. The mission was so successful, it was extended by 10 days, making it the longest-duration shuttle flight at that time.

Following STS-9, Young had been in line to fly a seventh mission – the deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope – but was rotated off of that mission on the grounds of age after the mission was postponed in the wake of the Challenger disaster on January 28th, 1986. Still serving at the Chief of the Astronaut Corps, Young was flying a shuttle training aircraft high above Kennedy Space Centre on the day of the Challenger’s loss, functioning as a launch observation aircraft. He took pictures of the nose-diving crew cabin. When the cause of the loss became known, Young – already somewhat critical of the shuttle system – was furious and outspoken about the manner in which the O-ring / low temperature issue was handled by NASA management ahead of the launch, which included keeping information on the risks from both him and the Challenger crew. He later wrote, “If I had known these things, I would have made them aware, that’s for damn sure.”

Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, Young maintained the United States should be doing two to three times the amount of space exploration that it was doing. He believed NASA should be developing massive rockets to lift payloads to the moon and to reach Mars, and building space systems for detecting and deflecting comets or asteroids that could threaten Earth.

In all, John Young worked for NASA for 42 years, finally retiring from the agency on December 31st, 2004 at the age of 74. Even then, he remained involved in the traditional Monday Morning Meetings at the Astronaut Office for several more years. During his career, he logged more than 15,275 hours flying time in helicopter, propeller aircraft, conventional jets and rocket jets. He logged 835 hours in spacecraft during six space flights. He received more than 100 major accolades in his lifetime, including the prestigious Congressional Space Medal of Honour in 1981.

John Young died at his home in Houston of complications from pneumonia. He is survived by his second wife, Susy Feldman, his first wife, Barbara White and their two children from that marriage, Sandra and John.


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