Ad astra, John Young

Ad astra, John Young

Between 1969 and 1972, twelve men walked on the moon. This is humanity’s greatest accomplishment – that we managed to send astronauts more than 200,000 miles through the unknowns and the dangers of space, that these astronauts set foot on another world, and that they returned home safely. We did this to explore. Yes, there was an element of Cold War competition, but in the end, these missions were about science, about discovery, and about challenging the limits of possibility.

John Young has died, leaving only five surviving astronauts who walked on the moon. Their ages: 87, 85, 85, 82, and 82. Young was 87. Eight others who flew to the moon without landing are still alive; the youngest is 81. I hope that these men have many years left, but realistically, the day will soon come when no living person has set foot on the moon or even left low Earth orbit. Despite all of the advances we have made, we have not yet surpassed this accomplishment from nearly fifty years ago. NASA’s priorities have certainly changed, and they still do lots of wonderful, important work. And perhaps sending an astronaut back to the moon would serve little purpose. But I cannot avoid the sadness I feel knowing that some of our greatest heroes will soon be gone and that they will leave us without successors.

Gemini 3. Gemini 10. Apollo 10. Apollo 16. STS-1. STS-9. What an amazing career.

The image on the left shows Young in 1965, a few weeks before the Gemini 3 mission. The image on the right shows Young (seated, second from right) in 1983, about six months before the STS-9 mission. Young ultimately worked for NASA for 42 years. My words cannot do justice to his great career. Instead, let me share with you some quotes I find particularly meaningful in light of his death.

My favorite description of John Young comes from Andrew Chaikin’s A Man on the Moon:

Inside Young was an unwavering determination, an overriding sense of responsibility – to the space program, to the country, to his crew – and an almost childlike sense of wonder at the universe.

But more than this, I think, Young felt a responsibility – a commitment – to truth and to knowledge. Chaikin writes:

More than most astronauts, Mattingly thought, John Young seemed mindful of the risks of his profession. Around the Astronaut Office, his memos were well known, sounding the alarm about some engineering problem he’d uncovered. He wouldn’t rest until he knew every detail about the particular system or technique that worried him. And when he had learned all he could, then it was time to go fly – with his eyes wide open. That was the only way to handle this business; that was what made him so good. Maybe Young worried so much because he saw so clearly. But when it came down to the real question – Will you fly it? – John’s answer would always be yes.

John Young, intrepid explorer. Perhaps in looking at heroic figures from the past we see in them what we want to see. Maybe we look for the best of ourselves in them. In John Young, I see a man who lived for the thrill of discovery, a man for whom being bold was a way of life, a man who acknowledged challenges but saw past them, a man with a vision of limitless possibility. Consider the scene Chaikin describes as Young exits the Space Shuttle Columbia after its maiden flight:

Later, after the ground crews had arrived, Young emerged and bounded down the stairway to inspect his ship, punching the air with his fist like a relief pitcher who had just won the World Series. That day, Young told a crowd of well-wishers, “We’re really not too far, the human race isn’t, from going to the stars.”

Nearly thirty-seven years after that flight – and nearly forty-six years since Young walked on the moon – the stars still seem not too far off. NASA, SpaceX, Blue Origin, and others continue to push boundaries and extend our reach into the stars. But no amount of technological advancement can replace the boldness and the vision of men like John Young. We lost a great man on January 5, 2018. Ad astra, John Young. Ad astra.

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