Space pioneering astronaut John Young dead at 87

John Young, a pioneering astronaut who was the only person to participate in 3 NASA manned space programs, is dead at the age of 87.

Young walked on the Moon in 1972 on Apollo 16. He is the only astronaut to visit the Moon twice - the landing in 1972 and also on Apollo 10, which orbited the Moon in 1969 and was a dress rehearsal for the Apollo 11 Moon landing. 

Young also flew 2 missions for the Gemini, two-man capsule program, and also flew 2 shuttle missions.


Young’s first time in space came in 1965 with the Gemini 3 mission that took him and astronaut Gus Grissom into Earth orbit in the first two-person U.S. space jaunt.

It was on this mission that Young pulled his sandwich stunt, which did not make NASA brass happy but certainly pleased Grissom, the recipient of the snack.

Astronaut Wally Schirra, who was not flying on the mission, bought the corned beef sandwich on rye bread from a delicatessen in Cocoa Beach, Florida, and asked Young to give it to Grissom in space. During the flight, as they discussed the food provided for the mission, Young handed Grissom the sandwich.

NASA later rebuked Young for the antics, which generated criticism from lawmakers and the media, but his career did not suffer.

His May 1969 Apollo 10 mission served as a “dress rehearsal” for the historic Apollo 11 mission two months later in which Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon. Young and his crew undertook each aspect of that subsequent mission except for an actual moon landing.

Young’s fifth space mission was as commander of the inaugural flight of NASA’s first space shuttle, Columbia, in 1981. He became the first person to fly six space missions in 1983, when he commanded Columbia on the first Spacelab trek, with the crew performing more than 70 scientific experiments.


He never went to space again. Young had been due to command a 1986 flight that was canceled after the explosion of the shuttle Challenger earlier that year.

“John was more than a good friend,” former President George H.W. Bush said in a statement. “He was a fearless patriot whose courage and commitment to duty helped our nation push back the horizon of discovery at a critical time.”

Young was born on Sept. 24, 1930, in San Francisco and grew up in Orlando, Florida. After receiving a degree in aeronautical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1952, he entered the Navy and graduated from its test pilot school. NASA picked him in 1962 for its astronaut program.

Young clearly had the "Right Stuff." He flew the very first Gemini mission with Gus Grissom, who later died in the Apollo 1 fire. He also flew the very first space shuttle mission. Only the very best test pilots are chosen to take up new aircraft, and Young is the only astronaut to be chosen to test two major NASA space programs.

Young was part of the second group of astronauts chosen. It was the "original 8" and "second 12" as the astronauts were referred to at NASA. 

Suffice it to say, Young grew up with NASA when the space agency dreamed big dreams and sending people into space was exciting and new. Now, we have to beg a ride to the International Space Stations from the Russians. The stark contrast between NASA of the 1960s and 70s and today only points up the depths to which the space agency has sunk.

It's not that NASA doesn't do some incredible stuff. The Kepler Space Telescope has been scanning the universe for planets orbiting other stars and has discovered at least 2500 new worlds. The Mars rovers are still working after more than a decade of exploration, making fantastic and unexpected discoveries about the red planet. The New Horizons trip to Pluto was a spectacular success, sending back data that scientists will be studying for decades.

But the heart of NASA was always in manned space flight. Today, it appears that SpaceX, the company created by Elon Musk, is about to send humans into space aboard its Falcon rocket sometime this year or next. Other private space companies are not far behind. The future of manned space flight probably belongs to private corporations, although NASA continues to develop a new rocket and capsule system. That program is years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget -- another sign that NASA is no longer on the cutting edge of spaceflight.

Perhaps its best this way. It's very expensive to launch humans into space and if private companies can do it for less, NASA should get out of the way.

The death of John Young makes many of us nostalgic for the glory days of NASA. But the torch has been passed to a new generation of pioneers who will be standing on the shoulders of giants like Young as they go where no one has gone before.


If you experience technical problems, please write to