John W. Young, American Astronaut


John W. Young

American Astronaut

 By JR Hafer, aviation writer

John Watts Young was Navy test pilot and aeronautical engineer and among the first few chosen to become astronauts. He was born on September 24, 1930 in San Francisco, California.  At 18 months old, due to the Great Depression, he moved with his family to Orlando, Florida, where he attended grade and high school until graduation in 1948.   

John Young Walked was the ninth person to walk on the Moon, and enjoyed the longest career of any astronaut. 

In March 1965 Young flew on the first manned Gemini mission, (Gemini III), with Virgil “Gus” Grissom  (Lt Col, USAF, (Gus was the second American to fly in space, and the first member of the NASA Astronaut Corps to fly in space twice, later died in a fire on the launch pad in January 27, 1967), Gemini III was the first manned mission in NASA’s Gemini program, the second American manned space program. * 

*(publisher’s note: see my article: “Gus Grissom” within   

John Young attended Georgia Institute of Technology and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in aeronautical engineering and graduated with the highest of honors from the prestigious college in 1952; while attending, he became a member of the national military honor society Scabbard and Blade and Sigma Chi fraternity. After graduation John elected to join the regular U.S. Navy. (Regular; as opposed to Naval aviation). 

During the Korean War Young served as fire control officer on the destroyer USS Laws in the Sea of Japan in for a time in 1953. 

He applied and was accepted for flight training and was later assigned to Fighter Squadron 103 (VF-103) for four years, flying F-9 Cougars off the carriers: USS Coral Sea, F-8 Crusaders and the USS Forrestal. 

Young was assigned to be trained at the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School in 1959, Naval Air Test Center at Naval Air Station Pawtuxet River. 

Joining NASA in 1962, Young was the first of the Astronaut Group 2 to fly in space. Young replaced Thomas Stafford as pilot of Gemini III when Alan Sheppard, the original commander, was grounded by Ménière’s disease, an inner-ear disease, (that was later surgically corrected before his subsequent Moon flight), Stafford originally on Gemini III but with Shepard removed Stafford was reassigned to back up pilot for that mission. Making Young and Grissom the first crew for the manned flight of the Gemini III spacecraft in 1965, Young scored another space “first” by smuggling a corned beef sandwich onto the spacecraft a feat for which he was officially reprimanded. 

I again witnessed a bit of history being made in early 1965 I was aboard the USS Intrepid CVS 11, an aircraft carrier that began preparations for a vital role in NASA’s first manned Gemini flight. This program was named Gemini III. 

On March 23 1965 Lt. Commander John Young and Major Gus Grissom in their space capsule splashed down some 50 nautical miles from the USS Intrepid after the history’s first controlled re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. The Fiery re-entry ended Grissom and Young’s nearly perfect three-orbit flight around the world aboard Gemini III. 

Being a member of the USS Intrepid Photolab and crew Photo-staff I waited on the 02 level for the Navy helicopter to lift the spacecraft on deck and then Grissom and Young exited the Capsule. (That is the way I remember it). However, the official reports say differently though… (as I am of advanced age now, perhaps memory fails me, so let’s go with the official account): “The helicopter flew lifted Grissom and Young to the Intrepid for medical examination and debriefing. Later, Intrepid retrieved the Molly Brown and returned the spacecraft and astronauts to Cape Kennedy. (I remember returning them to Jacksonville). 

Young later trained as a backup pilot for Gemini VI-A, however, after the “sandwich episode”, for a time it would have seemed that the NASA folks were not sure what to do with Young. 

Group 2 astronauts with flight experience were quickly moved to Apollo, while other astronauts such as Scott Carpenter and Gordon Cooper were sidelined for lesser infractions. The assignment of Ed White, the Gemini VII backup commander, to Apollo created an opening for Young as commander of Gemini X in 1966. The mission called for first dual rendezvous with two Agena target vehicles; and his pilot, Michael Collins, at which time performed two individual EVA spacewalks. 

Young was assigned to an Apollo crew in 1966 with Thomas Stafford and Eugene Cernan. This crew was assigned as backup to the second manned Apollo mission, which was planned before the Apollo 1 fire. 

After the fire, both crews were assigned to the first actual manned mission of Apollo 7 which flew in October 1968. In May 1969, this crew flew to the Moon on Apollo 10. While Stafford and Cernan flew the Lunar Module in lunar orbit for the first time, Young flew the Command Module solo. Apollo 10 set the record for the highest speed attained by any manned vehicle at 24,791 miles per hour during its return to Earth on May 26, 1969. 

John Young was backup commander of the troubled mission in Apollo XIII, which the Moon landing was aborted because of an explosion in the Service Module. He had a central role in rescuing the Apollo XIII crew by participating in the team that developed procedures to stretch the LM consumables and reactivate the Command Module systems prior to re-entry. 

By rotation, Young became commander of Apollo XVI, and was an enthusiastic student of geology while preparing for the mission. Apollo XVI lunar landing was almost aborted at the last moment when a malfunction was detected in the SPS engine control system in the service module. On the surface, he took three moonwalks in the Descartes Highlands with Charles Duke on April 21, 22 and 23, 1972 this made John Young the ninth person to ever walk on the surface of the Moon.

Young set a speed record with the Lunar Rover. He carried with him the badge and flag of the Sigma Chi fraternity, now on display at Sigma Chi’s headquarters in Evanston, Illinois. 

Young’s final assignment in Apollo was as the backup commander for Cernan on Apollo XVII, after Cernan injured his knee playing softball a few months before the flight. Had the injury been more severe, Cernan would have been medically dropped from the flight and Young would have commanded the last two Apollo Moon landings. 

A close confidant of Johnson Space Center (JSC) official George Abbey,[citation needed] in January 1973 Young was made Chief of the Space Shuttle Branch of the Astronaut Office. In January 1974, he became Chief of the Astronaut Office after the retirement of Alan Shepard. Young was openly critical of NASA management following the Challenger disaster,[citation needed] and in April 1987 was made Special Assistant to JSC Director Aaron Cohen for Engineering, Operations and Safety. NASA denied that his criticism triggered the move. In February 1996, he was assigned as Associate Director (Technical) JSC. 

Young flew two missions of the Space Shuttle, including commanding the program’s 1981 maiden orbital flight, STS-1, and STS-9 in 1983, which carried the first Spacelab module. He was in line to make a record seventh flight on STS-61-J to deploy the Hubble Space Telescope in 1986, but the Challenger disaster earlier that year had delayed NASA’s schedule. 

Young worked for NASA for 42 years and announced his retirement on December 7, 2004. He retired on December 31, 2004, at the age of 74, but continued to attend the Monday Morning Meeting at the Astronaut Office at JSC for several years. 

On April 12, 2006, Young appeared at the 25th anniversary of the STS-1 launch at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, along with pilot Robert Crippen. The two spoke of their experiences during the flight. 

In 2012 Young published an autobiography, Forever Young: Forever Young:

A Life of Adventure in Air and Space, John W. Young with James R. Hansen,  

ISBN 13: 978-0-8130-4209-1,  Published by; University Press of Florida 

( see website

He married Barbara White and had two children with her, Sandra and John, but they were divorced in 1972 after 16 years. He later married Susy Feldman, and lives in the Houston suburb of El Lago, Texas.


By JR Hafer, aviation writer

JR 28



Leave a Reply