Remembering John Young

On the morning of April 14, 1981, I woke up at 2:00 am, and then with my Rockwell International colleague Clarence Hill in tow, we picked up in Santa Monica, California a group our company (now a part of the Boeing Company) was hosting—the first delegation of Chinese space scientists to officially visit the United States. All of us then drove northward to the high desert of Edwards Air Force Base, where in a matter of hours, we would witness a milestone in space history: the first piloted landing of a human spacecraft returning to the Earth from space.

The commander of the Space Shuttle Columbia for the completion of the STS-1 mission that day was one of NASA’s finest: John Young. Young, who had already traveled into Earth orbit on two Gemini missions, and to the moon on Apollo 10, the dress rehearsal for our first moon landing, and Apollo 16, the first mission to explore the lunar highlands, and his pilot Robert Crippen, expertly guided Columbia down to a perfect landing, signaling that America was back in space to stay. Upon touchdown, the head of the Chinese delegation turned to me and with a big smile shook my hand, signaling without words his admiration for what our country, and John Young had accomplished that day.

John Young, had a lifetime of enviable accomplishments. He was a Navy test pilot, served NASA for 42 years, including heading the astronaut corps 13 years, and flew in space six times. He served as the space agencies’ safety conscience, writing, “Whenever and wherever I found a potential safety issue, I always did my utmost to make some noise about it, by memo or whatever means might best bring attention to it.”

Back in 2006, NASA and the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum hosted a tribute to John Young’s career, at which then Administrator Michael Griffin, lauded Young’s expert handling of the Space Shuttle Columbia on what he described as “the riskiest test mission NASA has ever attempted.” For that and more, our industry and nation are grateful for John Young’s incredible life of service and contributions to the exploration of space.  As Young himself said when he was new to the astronaut corps: “Twentieth century man must boldly reach out…and purposefully strive to discover the hidden secrets of our universe.” And no doubt when human explorers return to the moon, and venture onward to Mars, John Young’s spirit will carry us forward. Godspeed John Young.