Thursday 12 December 2019

Obituary: John Young

Nasa astronaut whose celebratory lunar ‘grand prix’ on the moon was witnessed by a global audience

John Young salutes the American flag in 1972 at the Descartes landing site during the first Apollo 16 lunar excursion. Photo: AP
John Young salutes the American flag in 1972 at the Descartes landing site during the first Apollo 16 lunar excursion. Photo: AP

John Young, who has died aged 87, was the longest-serving Nasa astronaut, making two flights to the Moon and piloting the first test flight of the Space Shuttle; he also advocated making contingency plans for the partial evacuation of the earth in the event of a threatened asteroid collision.

By the time he was due to command Apollo 16 in April 1972, the Soviet Union’s Lunokhod robot was exploring the Sea of Rains and sending back thousands of pictures as well as soil analyses. Doubts were expressed as to whether the cost of a fifth American Moon landing was justified, and the astronauts themselves wanted to counter such misgivings by landing in the rugged Aristarchus area near the lunar south pole.

Nasa chiefs thought this was too risky, and Young and his companions, Ken Mattingly and Charlie Duke, had to be content with aiming at the mountainous Descartes region, which geologists hoped — in vain — would prove to be volcanic.

It was just as well, for the flight was plagued with mechanical problems. On arrival, the separated command and lunar modules were ordered to keep circling the moon while Mission Control decided whether they should make an emergency return to Earth using the lunar module as a lifeboat.

Young and Duke were eventually given the go-ahead to land, and a global audience witnessed their three excursions aboard the lunar rover, including a celebratory “lunar grand prix”, during which Young drove the rover in circles at its top speed of 10mph, skidding it to test wheel grip.

The rover’s camera was left behind so that geologists at Mission Control could continue to scan the surface long after the astronauts left. It continued to operate until the bitter cold killed its batteries.

John Watts Young was born in San Francisco on September 24, 1930, and brought up in Orlando, Florida, where he graduated from high school. After reading Aeronautical Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, he joined the US Navy, serving in a destroyer during the Korean War, after which he was sent on flight training.

As a test pilot, he set records for altitude climbs in the Phantom jet fighter, and rose to the rank of captain. Selected by Nasa for the second intake of astronauts in 1962, his six missions enabled him to achieve multiple firsts.

On his debut flight in the two-man Gemini spacecraft in 1965, Young operated the first space-borne computer, but earned an official reprimand for smuggling a corned beef sandwich on board.

His career was revived when the crew of Gemini 10, the last in the series, were killed in a plane crash, and Young and Michael Collins replaced them.

Young’s third flight was aboard Apollo 10, which flew around the moon in May 1969 and staged a rehearsal of moon landing procedures.

He piloted the command module while his fellow astronauts, Thomas Stafford and Eugene Cernan, swooped down to within eight-and-a-half miles of the surface, proving that Apollo 11 could land two months later.

After his own successful moon landing, Young spent the following six years helping to design and develop the Space Shuttle, and piloted the first test flight, followed by the first horizontal landing of a spacecraft in the Californian desert. His last mission was in 1983 and was the ninth space shuttle flight and the first joint Nasa-European Space Agency flight, carrying in the payload bay the European-built Spacelab, with a German, Dr Ulf Merbold, becoming the first non-American to fly with Nasa.

Although he made no further space flights, Young remained on Nasa’s list of “active” astronauts until finally retiring at the end of 2004 when he was 74. This extended tenure entitled him to continue flying T38 jet trainers, and many young astronauts, including the British-born Michael Foale, who was to become America’s most experienced spaceman, would acknowledge their debt to him.

Young never ceased to warn that the Space Shuttle was a highly dangerous vehicle to fly, and was sharply critical of the administration when, in 1986, Challenger exploded on lift-off, the first of two shuttle disasters.

Young, who died on January 5, is survived by his wife Susy and a son and a daughter from a previous marriage.

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