An Astronaut’s Astronaut: John Young (1930-2018)

Here is the intro to a story that just about any science fiction editor I know would reject as too over-the-top:

In class that day, Mrs. Martin asked the students what they wanted to be when they grew up. Sarah Abby said she wanted to be a writer. Tim Norton said he wanted to be a teacher and a pop star.

“How about you, Mr. Young?” Mrs. Martin asked.

The boy stood up, and with cool eyes scanning his classmates, he said this. “I’m going to fly airplanes. And not just fly them. I’m going test them out. Fighter jets and experimental planes. I’m going to ride rockets into space. Not only that, but I’ll get out of the rocket and float around with the earth rolling by below me.”

Mrs. Martin was about to move on to Miss Zither, but the boy continued. “I’m going go the moon. Not once, but twice. I’m going to the be first person to orbit the moon all by myself. And I’m going to walk on the moon. I’m going to drive a car on the moon.

“And when we’re done going to the moon, I’m going to fly airplanes into space. I’ll be the first to do it. I’ll move up through the ranks until I am chief of the astronaut office. People will name highways after me.”

This implausible story might make a science fiction editor smile, but no one in their right mind would publish such an unlikely series of events. Of course, in this case, the unlikely events are all true. John Young, who died on Friday, flew six missions to space on three different types of spacecraft. He was the first person to sneak a sandwich on a spacecraft, the first person to solo orbit around the moon on Apollo 10. He was the 9th person to walk on the moon on Apollo 16. He commanded the first mission of the space shuttle Columbia, and flew a second mission on STS-9. He became Chief of the Astronaut Office after Alan Shepard retired. And snaking its way north and south through Orlando, Florida is Route 423, also known as the John Young Parkway.

I was less than a month old when Apollo 16 left pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on April 16, 1972, carrying John Young, Thomas K. Mattingly, and Charlie Duke to the moon. Almost a decade later, I was in third grade when Young commnded the first space shuttle launch. I remember being pulled out Mrs. Taft’s class to watch the launch. We slinked silently across the library of Cedar Hill Elementary school in Warwick, R.I. and into a classroom on the opposite side. A television had been rolled in on a cart for the purpose, and on that Monday morning in April, we watched the space shuttle roar to life, disppearing momentarily in an explosion of billowing white clouds, before climbing above them on three columns of orange fire. It wasn’t until much later that I learned we’d seen a taped version of the launch, a day later than the actual launch, which took place on a Sunday.

Young was an astronaut’s astronaut. I always admired him for the sense of hard work he seemed to convey. He was always preparing for a mission, whether it was one of the six he flew himself, or one of teh five others that he was assigned to as backup crew. His six missions were a record at the time–and let’s not forget that those six missions consisted of seven launches into space–he lifted off from the surface of the moon.

Young was the 9th man to walk on the moon. I have to imagine that, for the twelve men who walked on the moon, when they looked into the future, they saw themselves as the first twelve. In the future, they’d be the first of many. It is sad to me that, with Young’s passing, instead of 12 moonwalkers being alive today, only 5 remain: Aldrin, Bean, Scott, Duke, and Schmitt. This is a number that should be growing, not shrinking.