U. S. Navy Captain John Young, the only astronaut to fly spacecraft in the Gemini, Apollo, and Space Shuttle missions, died this week at age 87. Young, an engineer who grew up during the Great Depression in pre-boom Orlando, FL, was too young to serve in WWII. But he joined graduated from Georgia Tech in time to accept a commission in Navy and participate in the Korean War in the surface fleet. Following the war he became an aviator, excelling to the point that he was eventually assigned as a test pilot, and then was tapped as an astronaut at NASA, debuting as a pilot for the Gemini 3 launch in 1962.
Young transitioned from the Gemini program, which functioned as a sort of testing platform for space mission equipment and procedures, to the Apollo program–the one that was destined to put men on the Moon. Young flew on Apollo 7 into space in 1968, and then to Moon orbit in 1969. In 1972 Young became the ninth American to walk on the surface of the Moon during eh Apollo 16 mission.
With Americans regularly landing on the Moon by 1973, NASA envisioned a new launch vehicle that would enable the building of a space station and then a science station on the Moon. That launch vehicle became the Space Shuttle, and Young was instrumental as a technical manager at the space agency for that program. Unfortunately the heady days at NASA was derailed by political turmoil during the rest of the 1970s and an emphasis on national defense spending in the 1980s. Although Young flew two early Space Shuttle missions in 1981 and 1983, the destruction of the Challenger in 1986 derailed the program, and any enthusiasm afterwards for manned space exploration was permanently tabled by inward looking Democratic administrations and events related to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Nevertheless, Young served for 42 years at NASA, retiring in 2004 at the age of 74. It was an incredible career–he served his nation in peace and war, advanced mankind in terms of pushing the boundaries of the exploration frontier, and helped make space exploration a reality. In short, Young was a real American hero. Not one of these bullshit wannabe media-anointed “social justice heroes” like the anthem-disrespecting Colin Kaepernick, or a self-promoting draft-dodging-bigot sports figure like Mohammad Ali. A real hero, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with other heroes like Guion Bluford (four Shuttle missions), Ronald McNair (two Shuttle missions; killed on the Challenger), and Frederick Gregory (three Shuttle missions and one-time acting NASA Administrator).
It is unfortunate that Young lived long enough to see the dismantling and emasculating of the American space program in the 2010’s, but fortunate in witnessing the upsurge of American space interests in the guise of commercial space companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin. Just when space exploration had degenerated to an international polyglot of orbiting tin-can biological experiments and ill-conceived deep space probes, American ingenuity and the desire to explore beyond the ends of our noses has led to an explosion in space exploration activity. It seems like 1962 all over again. One would imagine that Young died with a faint smile on his lips.