John Young first joined NASA as an astronaut when the agency was flying two-man space capsules. He left when the agency was flying the space shuttle. In between, he flew six space missions – the first person to do so.
In his decades with the agency, Young racked up several milestones. He made it to the moon's neighborhood twice, and walked on it once. He commanded the first space shuttle flight and then came back into space yet again to command another. His flight experience spanned three different programs: Gemini, Apollo and the space shuttle.
In 2004, with an impressive 15,000 hours of spaceflight training across four decades, Young retired from the agency. His new goal was to work on technologies to help humans live on the moon and Mars.
'Snoopy and Charlie Brown are hugging each other'
Young's first job was in the navy, where he rapidly progressed to flight training. His skills landed him a spot at the U.S. Navy Test Pilot School. After graduation, his duties included testing out the Phantom and Crusader weapons systems, as well as bringing Phantom to the fastest-ever climb to 9,842 feet (3,000 meters) and 82,021 feet (25,000 m).
NASA picked Young as an astronaut in September 1962, just as the one-man Mercury spacecraft program was winding down and the Gemini program was starting up. In fact, Young flew on the first manned Gemini flight – Gemini 3 – in 1965, transferring his test pilot skills to figuring out the new spacecraft.
Young then joined Michael Collins to do two rendezvous with two separate target Agena spacecraft in 1966, during Gemini 10. Working in close vicinity with other spacecraft was a requirement for moon missions, when two spacecraft would need to dock together to get to the moon and return home.
This experience came in handy for Apollo 10 in 1969, which featured the first moon-orbiting docking between two spacecraft. At the controls of the command module Charlie Brown, Young successfully joined with the lunar module, Snoopy, that had been doing a landing test a few miles above the surface.
"Snoopy and Charlie Brown are hugging each other!" said an exuberant Tom Stafford, who was commanding Apollo 10.
Driving on the moon
John Young came back to the moon again in 1972, during Apollo 16. He commanded a scientifically ambitious journey to the Descartes highlands, searching for volcanic rock and some possible clues to the moon's history. He and his crewmates, Charles Duke and Ken Mattingly, brought back 200 pounds of rock during more than 20 hours on the surface.
Young and his lunar-roving companion, Charles Duke, only found sedimentary rocks along the way, which surprised scientists back home. Despite the challenges, however, the men kept their sense of humor. They did a controlled but wild-looking test with the lunar rover, for example, skidding it across the surface in front of a video camera.
"One-sixth gravity on the surface of the moon is just delightful," Young said in a 2006 interview with NASA. "It's not like being in zero gravity, you know. You can drop a pencil in zero gravity and look for it for three days. In one-sixth gravity, you just look down and there it is."
'Engines were blowing up'
From Apollo, Young moved to a very different kind of vehicle: the shuttle, which acted and performed more like a plane than a spacecraft. Development on the ambitious vehicle was not without its challenges, as Young and his crewmate Robert Crippen discovered.
"I remember [senior NASA official Bob] Gilruth telling me it's going to be as reliable as a DC-8 and right after he said that, Crip and I, every time we went out to Rocketdyne or somewhere to see what was happening, engines were blowing up. So I wasn't sure it was going to be as reliable as a DC-8. It was a lot of fun," Young quipped.
Young and Crippen lifted off in the space shuttle Columbia in April 1981, on a test flight of a vehicle that had never before been used in space. There were questions about how its systems would perform, and whether the new tile heat-shield system for re-entry would hold up. The flight was a success.
Still with a taste for spaceflight, Young returned to space once more at the helm of STS-9. This flight, like his last Apollo mission, was scientifically heavy. The crew flew the experimental Spacelab module for the first time, performing hours of experiments during 10 days. "The mission returned more scientific and technical data than all the previous Apollo and Skylab missions put together," NASA stated.
Young then retired from spaceflights, but stuck around with NASA to hold several management positions within the agency. He retired from NASA altogether in 2004.
Reflecting on his time as a veteran of three programs, Young said the role of an astronaut has not changed, although the technology certainly did.
"I don't think it changed it any," he told the Houston Chronicle in 2004. "You just had to learn a lot of systems and learn how to operate them and be a systems person. That's what we were. We were systems operators."
— Elizabeth Howell, SPACE.com Contributor