The Forever Astronaut


John W. Young, member of the second group of astronauts (1962),  has died at age 87.  The only person to fly Gemini, Apollo (spending three days exploring the Descartes highlands) and the Shuttle.  He served the longest span of any astronaut, was still listed as on the active roster at the turn of this century.  He was the forever astronaut.

I met John Young through Gus Grissom.  In spirit, that is.  Growing up, Gus Grissom was my favorite astronaut (back then, kids had favorite astronauts, just like favorite ballplayers).  When Gus chose John Young, over Frank Borman no less, to fly with him on the first manned Gemini flight in 1965, Young became a favorite, too.  And proved Gus was right.  Young’s exuberance, as well of that of Charlie Duke, roving the lunar highlands in April 1972 stays with me.  That same spirit was on display after Young, with Bob Crippen, landed Columbia after the first Shuttle flight almost exactly nine years later.  As I recorded in my journal, “After about an hour [post-landing], John Young bounded out.  He was smiling and walking all around like a little kid who couldn’t contain his energy.  Hell, it was like he was still floating in space!”

I was at the Cape for the launch of his last mission, STS-9, the first flight of Spacelab, on November 28, 1983.  “Clouds were overhead, but high and not threatening.”  Ignition, and Columbia rose from a cloud of its own making, leaping and rolling as it cleared the boiling smoke.  The Shuttle from 3.5 miles away looked tiny above the smoke column it generated.  As it gained altitude, I described it as looking like “a spider spinning a long strand of web behind it.”

Young, age age 53, had not lost any of his exuberance.  Here’s how I described the launch in the January 1984 issue of Countdown magazine:

Let’s start with John Young.  Ol’ John was making his sixth flight.  You’d think the man would be blase about spaceflight by now.  Just listen to him:

SPACECRAFT:  That [launch] was really super, isn’t it?  Boy it was a beautiful flying machine and just got up there just like everybody said it would.

CAPCOM:  I understand, John.

SACECRAFT:  And that is really some ride.  I want to tell you, it hadn’t changed a bit.  It’s the smoothest way to fly to fly you ever saw.


STS-9 was not supposed to be his last flight.  He was set to command the 32nd mission of the Shuttle, STS-61J, the deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope, launch scheduled for August 18, 1986.  Challenger changed all that, and with the long delay in flights, John Young never got his seventh ride.

I like to think he finally got that flight, is riding the stack towards high orbit right now.

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