Biography of John W. Young

"The Astronaut's Astronaut"

John W. Young, astronaut
NASA astronaut John Young flew six missions for NASA across three different programs. NASA Johnson Space Center 

John Watts Young (September 24, 1930 - January 5, 2018), was one of the best-known of NASA's astronaut corps. In 1972, he served as commander of the Apollo 16 mission to the moon and in 1982, he served as commander of the first-ever flight of the space shuttle Columbia. As the only astronaut to work aboard four different classes of spacecraft, he became known throughout the agency and the world for his technical skill and calm under pressure. Young was married twice, once to Barbara White, with whom he raised two children. After their divorce, Young married Susy Feldman.

Personal Life

John Watts Young was born in San Francisco to William Hugh Young and Wanda Howland Young. He grew up in Georgia and Florida, where he explored nature and science as a Boy Scout. As an undergraduate at Georgia Institute of Technology, he studied aeronautical engineering and graduated in 1952 with highest honors. He entered the U.S. Navy straight out of college, eventually ending up in flight training. He became a helicopter pilot, and eventually joined a fighter squadron where he flew missions from the Coral Sea and the USS Forrestal. Young then moved to become a test pilot, as so many astronauts did, at Patuxent River and the Naval Test Pilot School. Not only did he fly a number of experimental aircraft, but he also set several world records while flying the Phantom II jet.

Joining NASA

In 2013, John Young published an autobiography of his years as a pilot and astronaut, called Forever Young. He told the story of his incredible career simply, humorously, and humbly. His NASA years, in particular, took this man—often referred to as "an astronaut's astronaut"—from the Gemini missions of the early to mid-1960s to the Moon aboard Apollo, and eventually to the ultimate test pilot dream: commanding a shuttle to orbital space. Young's public demeanor was that of a calm, sometimes wry, but always professional engineer and pilot. During his Apollo 16 flight, he was so laid-back and focused that his heart rate (being tracked from the ground) barely rose above normal. He was well-known for thoroughly examining a spacecraft or instrument and then zeroing in on its mechanical and engineering aspects, often saying, after a blizzard of questions, "I'm just asking..."

Gemini and Apollo

John Young joined NASA in 1962, as part of Astronaut Group 2. His "classmates" were Neil Armstrong, Frank Borman, Charles "Pete" Conrad, James A. Lovell, James A. McDivitt, Elliot M. See, Jr, Thomas P. Stafford, and Edward H. White (who died in the Apollo 1 fire in 1967). They were referred to as the "New Nine" and all but one went on to fly several missions over the next decades. The exception was Elliot See, who was killed in a T-38 crash. Young's first of six flights to space came in March 1965 during the early Gemini era, when he piloted Gemini 3 in the first manned Gemini mission. The next year, in July 1966, he was the command pilot for Gemini 10 where he and teammate Michael Collins did the first double rendezvous of two spacecraft in orbit.

When the Apollo missions began, Young was immediately tapped to fly the dress rehearsal mission that led to the first Moon landing. That mission was Apollo 10 and took place in May 1969, not quite two months before Armstrong and Aldrin made their historic trip. Young didn't fly again until 1972 when he commanded Apollo 16 and achieved the fifth human lunar landing in history. He walked on the Moon (becoming the ninth person to do so) and drove a lunar buggy across its surface.

The Shuttle Years

The first flight of the space shuttle Columbia required a special pair of astronauts: experienced pilots and trained space fliers. The agency chose John Young to command the maiden flight of the orbiter (which had never been flown to space with people aboard) and Robert Crippen as the pilot. They roared off the pad on April 12, 1981.

The mission was the first manned one to use solid-fuel rockets, and its objectives were to get to orbit safely, orbit Earth, and then return to a safe landing on Earth, as an airplane does. Young and Crippen's first flight was a success and made famous in an IMAX movie called Hail Columbia. True to his heritage as a test pilot, Young descended from the cockpit after landing and did a walk-around of the orbiter, pumping his fist in the air and inspecting the craft. His laconic responses during the post-flight press briefing were true to his nature as an engineering and pilot. One of his most-quoted lines answers was to a question about ejecting from the shuttle if there were problems. He simply said, "You just pull the little handle".

After the successful first flight of the space shuttle, Young commanded only one other mission—STS-9 again on Columbia. It carried the Spacelab to orbit, and on that mission, Young stepped into history as the first person to fly into space six times. He was supposed to fly again in 1986, which would have given him another space flight record, but the Challenger explosion delayed the NASA flight schedule for more than two years. In the aftermath of that tragedy, Young was very critical of NASA management for its approach to astronaut safety. He was removed from flight duty and assigned a desk job at NASA, serving in executive positions for the rest of his tenure. He never flew again, after logging more than 15,000 hours of training and preparations for nearly a dozen missions for the agency.

After NASA

John Young worked for NASA for 42 years, retiring in 2004. He had already retired from the Navy with the rank of captain years earlier. Yet, he remained active in NASA affairs, attending meetings and briefings at the Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston. He made occasional public appearances to celebrate important milestones in NASA history and also made appearances at specific space gatherings and a few educators meetings but otherwise remained largely out of the public eye until his death.

John Young Clears the Tower for the Final Time

Astronaut John W. Young died from complications of pneumonia on January 5, 2018. In his lifetime, he flew more than 15,275 hours in all kinds of aircraft, and nearly 900 hours in space. He earned many awards for his work, including the Navy Distinguished Service Medal with Gold Star, the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, the NASA Distinguished Service Medal with three oak leaf clusters, and NASA Exceptional Service Medal. He is a fixture in several aviation and astronaut halls of fame, has a school and planetarium named for him, and received Aviation Week's Philip J. Klass award in 1998. John W. Young's fame extends well beyond his flight time to books and movies. He will always be remembered for his integral role in space exploration history.

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Petersen, Carolyn Collins. "Biography of John W. Young." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Petersen, Carolyn Collins. (2020, August 27). Biography of John W. Young. Retrieved from Petersen, Carolyn Collins. "Biography of John W. Young." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).