Veteran astronaut John Young has died at 87

The astronaut's astronaut has died.

John Young, a veteran of six space missions and one of 12 moonwalkers, was 87.

Young's spaceflight record is a reflection of the glory days of racing to the Moon and the early days of establishing the Space Shuttle as the nation's new workhorse spacecraft for the future.

His first flight was aboard Gemini 3 in 1965, flying as pilot for the commander, Gus Grissom. It was during that maiden voyage of the new Gemini spacecraft that Young clearly cemented his reputation as both a proficient pilot and a playful character when he smuggled a corned beef sandwich aboard for him and Gus to munch on during their short mission.

He next flew in 1966 as commander of Gemini 10, along with pilot Michael Collins, executing a near textbook mission that was so successful in meeting all of its objectives that it remains mostly overlooked by space history buffs.

Young's third mission came in 1969 as command module pilot for Apollo 10, the dress rehearsal for the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission. Young stayed in the command module Charlie Brown while his colleagues Tom Stafford and Jim Lovell took the lunar module Snoopy to within a few thousand feet of the surface.

Flight four for Young was in 1972, when he commanded Apollo 16. He and Charlie Duke spent 71 hours on the moon collecting samples, driving the lunar rover and basically having a blast. In fact, it was during Apollo 16, as Young walked on the Moon, that Congress passed the budget that officially approved the Space Shuttle program.

Fast-forward nine years later, when on April 12, 1981, Young and Bob Crippen lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia on its maiden flight -- the first time a U.S. manned spacecraft had launched with astronauts aboard without an unmanned test flight first.

Young launched into a space a final time in 1983, commanding STS-9, the Space Shuttle program's first flight using the pressurized SpaceLab science module sitting in the cargo bay. 

Young went on to become a powerful voice representing the astronaut office, unafraid to send out memos to program managers when he saw potential safety issues. Some of these notes became infamous and, it is said, eventually led him to retire from NASA in 2004.

He remained in Houston and continued to be active in advocating for spaceflight, playing the role of a genuine American hero with dignity and humility. As his health declined, he faded from the spotlight but was never absent, thanks to all of those who worked with him and shared their stories.

-- Jim Banke

John Young gives an aerial salute to the flag during his Apollo 16 mission.


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