Spaceflight Insider

NASA’s ‘most experienced’ astronaut, Moonwalker, John Young passes away aged 87

Gemini, Apollo and Shuttle era astronaut John Watts Young has passed away aged 87. Image Credit: James Vaughan / SpaceFlight Insider

Gemini, Apollo and Shuttle era astronaut John Watts Young has passed away aged 87. Image Credit: James Vaughan / SpaceFlight Insider

John Watts Young was one of NASA’s most experienced astronauts. He served as pilot for the first manned flight of a Gemini spacecraft, Gemini 3, as commander of the Gemini 10 mission, as Command Module Pilot on Apollo 10 and the Commander of Apollo 16. Young also served as Commander of STS-1, the daring first flight of the Shuttle Era as well as another shuttle mission, STS-9. However, Young was much more and his career was filled with accomplishments, something his colleagues reflected on upon hearing of his passing.

Gemini, Apollo and Shuttle era astronaut John Watts Young has passed away aged 87. Image Credit: James Vaughan / SpaceFlight Insider

Young passed away due to complications from pneumonia on Friday, Jan. 5 – he was 87. Image Credit: James Vaughan / SpaceFlight Insider

“Today, NASA and the world have lost a pioneer. Astronaut John Young’s storied career spanned three generations of spaceflight; we will stand on his shoulders as we look toward the next human frontier,” said NASA’s acting administrator Robert Lightfoot in a statement issued by the agency. “John was one of that group of early space pioneers whose bravery and commitment sparked our nation’s first great achievements in space. But, not content with that, his hands-on contributions continued long after the last of his six spaceflights — a world record at the time of his retirement from the cockpit.”

Young was born on Sept. 24, 1930 in San Francisco, California. He spent his early years in Georgia and then Orlando, Florida (he would graduate from Orlando High School in 1948). Young then went on to attend Georgia Institute of Technology (where he graduated from in 1952 with a Bachelor of Science degree with highest honors in Aeronautical Engineering).

Young then joined the U.S. Navy through the Navy ROTC. Young was commissioned as an ensign on June 6, of 1952. Young went on to serve as a fire control officer on the destroyer U.S.S. Laws where he finished a tour of duty in the Sea of Japan during the Korean War. 

After this time, he entered flight training, and was selected as a Naval helicopter pilot. Young gained his aviator wings on Dec. 20, 1954 and was subsequently assigned to Fighter Squadron 103 (VF-103) for four years. During this time he flew F-9 Cougars from the U.S.S Coral Sea and F-8 Crusaders from the U.S.S Forrestal.

In 1959, Young trained to become a U.S. Navy Test Pilot as a member of Class 23 and was then assigned to the Naval Air Test Center at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, located in Maryland. He served there for three years and was involved with test projects that included the evaluation of the weapons systems on the XF8U-3 Crusader III as well as the F-4 Phantom II.

In the cockpit of his Phantom II, Young set two world time-to-climb records in 1962. During which he achieved 9,843 feet (3,000 meters) from a standing start in 34.523 seconds and 82,021 feet (25,000 meters) in 227.6 seconds.

Young would retire from the U.S. Navy with the rank of Captain in September of 1976 after some 25 years of service to his country.

“Between his service in the U.S. Navy, where he retired at the rank of captain, and his later work as a civilian at NASA, John spent his entire life in service to our country. His career included the test pilot’s dream of two ‘first flights’ in a new spacecraft — with Gus Grissom on Gemini 3, and as Commander of STS-1, the first space shuttle mission, which some have called ‘the boldest test flight in history.’ He flew as Commander on Gemini 10, the first mission to rendezvous with two separate spacecraft the course of a single flight. He orbited the Moon in Apollo 10, and landed there as Commander of the Apollo 16 mission. On STS-9, his final spaceflight, and in an iconic display of test pilot ‘cool,’ he landed the space shuttle with a fire in the back end,” Lightfoot said.

Launch of Gemini 10 in 1966. Photo Credit NASA posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Young would travel twice to orbit during NASA’s Project Gemini on Geminis 3 and 10. Photo Credit: NASA

Young’s skill with aircraft earned him high praise from numerous members of the elite corps of astronauts of which he was a member and leader.

Young’s experience was comprised of more than 15,275 hours flight time in propeller-driven aircraft, jets, helicopters as well as rocket jets. He had more than 9,200 hours in the T-38 Talons that U.S. astronauts use for training and travel. His six trips into the black of space also garnered him some 835 spacecraft flight hours.

Young joined NASA in 1962 as a member of the space agency’s Astronaut Group 2. He would serve as the pilot of the first flight of the Gemini Program, Gemini 3 – replacing Thomas P. Stafford after Alan Shepard became grounded due to Ménière’s disease. He and the mission’s Commander Gus Grissom would make the 1965 mission famous for another reason, as it was Young who smuggled a corned beef sandwich onto the flight (something which also garnered him a reprimand) after purchasing it from Wolfie’s Restaurant and Sandwich Shop a couple days prior to the mission’s liftoff.

His passing caused other space flyers to reflect on their experiences with the veteran astronaut.

“Saddened by this world’s loss of John Young. A true hero, leader, and friend, and the greatest champion of exploration, flight safety, and common sense our space program has ever known,” fellow astronaut Nicole P. Stott posted via Twitter. Stott went on to share one of her personal experiences involving Young to SpaceFlight Insider. “I remember always being in awe of Capt. Young – not just because of his amazing spaceflight experience – but because he obviously felt an obligation to share his experience in a way that would make us all the best we could be. The greatest compliment I ever received as an astronaut was when I was talking to him once about my work on the Space Shuttle Program at KSC and he told me that I was a talented engineer – it still makes me smile!”

Numerous astronauts expressed their condolences on the loss of the space flight legend. When notified about Young’s passing, two-time shuttle veteran Leland Melvin stated, “I will never forget when Capt. Young and Charlie Camarda flew a T-38 to NASA Langley and listened to me talk about NDE and Optical Sensors. When he woke up he said I did a great job and that I should apply to the Astronaut Corps. From that day on, I witnessed his tireless and selfless efforts to advance our civilization. After my interview, he told me that if we stop exploring we will falter as a civilization. I just want to thank him for his example, passion, wit and humility. May he rest in peace and we shall all honor his rich storied legacy. Godspeed John Young.”

After his first flight into space, Young would again ride a Gemini capsule to low-Earth orbit as the Command Pilot of the Gemini 10 mission in July of 1966. 

While the nearly three days he spent on orbit on this mission helped increase Young’s experience, his next mission would help pave the way for one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments – our species first steps on another world.

John Young in front of T-38 Talon image credit NASA

Young would fly some 6 times into space, twice on Gemini, twice on Apollo and twice on NASA’s now-retired space shuttles before retiring in 2004. Image Credit: NASA

On Apollo 10, Young served as the Command Module Pilot for the “dress rehearsal” for the first lunar landing, which would take place on Apollo 11 in July of 1969.

Apollo 10 launched on May 18, 1969 and saw the trio of Young, the mission’s Commander Thomas P. Stafford and Lunar Module Pilot Eugene A. Cernan make its closest approach to the Moon on May 22, 1969. After Stafford and Cernan demonstrated every aspect of a lunar landing mission (except an actual landing) they rejoined Young in the Command Module and traveled back to Earth, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean on May 26, 1969. Two months later and the crew of Apollo 11 would follow the crew of Apollo 10 – but complete the journey with a landing on the Moon’s Sea of Tranquility

Young’s next flight would once again see him travel to Earth’s nearest celestial neighbor on the April 1972 voyage of Apollo 16. Young, along with Lunar Module Pilot Charles M. Duke Jr. and Command Module Pilot Thomas K. Mattingly II became the fifth crew to travel to and send astronauts to the surface of the Moon (the Moon’s Descartes Highlands). They returned safely to Earth on April 27, 1972 – where they were recovered by the crew of the U.S.S. Ticonderoga.

Young almost made history again when Cernan, who was assigned as the commander of the final manned mission to the Moon, Apollo 17, injured his knee. If Cernan’s injury had been more severe, Young would have had to serve as his backup commander – and become the first person to travel to the Moon’s surface – twice. 

While he didn’t get to land on the Moon twice, he was selected as Chief of the Space Shuttle Branch of the Astronaut Office in January of 1973. After the retirement of Alan Shepard, Young was tapped to be the Chief of the Astronaut Office in January of 1974.

Young’s next flight to space would see him travel to low-Earth orbit as the commander of the first space shuttle mission, STS-1 in April of 1981. Perhaps one of NASA’s most daring test flights, STS-1, had ejection seats that he and the mission’s pilot, Robert Crippen, would have used in the event of an ascent anomaly. Young noted that the use of these seats – would have had them travel through the Shuttle’s fiery plume. Thankfully, the use of the seats wasn’t necessary. On orbit review of the Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) pods highlighted another issue – missing thermal protection tiles. Columbia managed to survive reentering Earth’s atmosphere on that mission and the Shuttle Era began.

Young would travel once more to space, as the commander of STS-9 in 1983. Flown on Challenger, STS-9 was the first flight of a Spacelab module. Even with his sixth flight under his belt, Young was always working to further U.S. achievements in space and was poised to command STS-61-J, which would have seen the deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope on that mission. However, with the loss of Space Shuttle Challenger in January of 1986, NASA’s schedule, along with crew assignments was altered. 

On Dec. 7, 2004, Young announced that he was retiring from NASA, leaving the agency after 42 years of service at the end of that month (he was 74 at the time). Young’s loyalty to the agency was unparalleled, with him attending the Monday Morning Meeting at the Astronaut Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center for several years after his retirement.

Young passed away from complications from pneumonia on Friday, Jan. 5 – he was 87.

“I participated in many Space Shuttle Flight Readiness Reviews with John, and will always remember him as the classic ‘hell of an engineer’ from Georgia Tech, who had an uncanny ability to cut to the heart of a technical issue by posing the perfect question — followed by his iconic phrase, ‘Just asking…,” Lightfoot noted. “John Young was at the forefront of human space exploration with his poise, talent, and tenacity.  He was in every way the ‘astronaut’s astronaut.’ We will miss him.”

John_W._Young_on_the_Moon photo credit Charlie Duke NASA

Young became the ninth man to walk on the Moon as the commander of the Apollo 16 mission in 1972. Photo Credit: Charlie Duke / NASA





Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

Reader Comments

My first memory of a spaceflight when I was a small child was of STS 1, piloted of course by John Young. That amazing test flight, flown by someone who had the same name as me was instrumental in kindling my interest in space. Thank you for that John, and Godspeed. Your passing is a great loss to the Young clan.

God rest John Young. He was one of my heroes when I was growing up. What a fabulous career. We are losing many of the Apollo era astronauts now which is very sad.

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