He was the role model for about ten generations of American astronauts, the bridge between the Right Stuff heroes of yesteryear and the multinational corps of space explorers of today and tomorrow. John Young snuck a corned beef sandwich onto the very first Gemini flight in 1965—a very Right Stuff sort of stunt—flew another Gemini mission a year later, then flew to the moon twice during the Apollo glory days, landing on it in 1972 as commander of Apollo 16. But to me it’s what he did after all that that cements his status as the most important astronaut in NASA’s sixty-year history.
NASA in the 1970s was in the doldrums. Having met JFK’s bold challenge of landing on the moon, the agency had no follow-up. The space shuttle was a barely-funded political football that got delayed again whenever Congress thought about it. The people who had built the space program, the Mercury-Gemini-Apollo veterans—not just astronauts but people in every department, from flight ops to public affairs—headed for the exits in droves. But not John Young.
In 1974 Young volunteered to be Chief of the Astronaut Office, a rapidly shrinking command. He immediately organized the first new recruiting class in nine years, and the largest ever: thirty-nine newbie astronauts that included the first women, the first African-Americans, the first Hispanic-, Asian-, and Jewish-Americans, and the first foreign nationals from the European Space Agency. More than three-dozen hard-charging over-achievers to train for flights that might never happen.
The John Young I remember from back then, the mid- to late-seventies, had a not-quite-regulation haircut and moustache and wore bellbottom slacks, and could talk for an hour with a twinkle in his eye about mining ice at the lunar poles to supply oxygen and fuel for trips around the solar system. He was a one-man Star Trek show, combining Spock’s wonky smarts with Kirk’s enthusiastic spirit, and he made you believe it could all really happen. The fact that he’d actually walked on the moon gave the vision credibility, and he almost single-handedly kept the dream alive at the heart of the grounded space program. For year after year, for almost a decade.
When the first space shuttle became available for test flight in 1981, there was never any question who should be at the controls when America returned to spaceflight. He went up again two years later to put Spacelab into orbit, the sixth and last time John Young left the Earth for his home away from home. He will be honored and remembered for the missions he flew, as he deserves to be, but the inspiration he provided to everyone who met him is a legacy that carries on.
God speed, John Young.