Although the names Armstrong, Aldrin, Collins, Glenn and Shepard are world-wide household names in space travel, the name of NASA's most traveled space pioneer has for years remained very much in their shadow.
NASA's most experienced astronaut, John Young, died on 5 January this year after complications arising from pneumonia. He was 87.
He may have been largely unknown to the outside world, but he was perhaps one of NASA's most revered figures.
Young flew into space six times over a long career: two Gemini missions, two Apollo missions and two space shuttle missions. He was the only astronaut to fly in each of the Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle programs, and walked on the moon in April 1972 as commander of Apollo 16.
Young's career at NASA started in 1962 and finished 38 years later with his retirement in 2004.
"NASA and the world have lost a pioneer," acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot said. "Astronaut John Young's storied career spanned three generations of spaceflight; we will stand on his shoulders as we look toward the next human frontier.
“John was one of that group of early space pioneers whose bravery and commitment sparked our nation's first great achievements in space. But, not content with that, his hands-on contributions continued long after the last of his six spaceflights – a world record at the time of his retirement from the cockpit."
Johnson Space Center Director Ellen Ochoa, a former astronaut herself, paid tribute to Young. “It would be hard to overstate the impact that John Young had on human space flight. Beyond his well-known and groundbreaking six missions through three programs, he worked tirelessly for decades to understand and mitigate the risks that NASA astronauts face. He had our backs.”
Young was a navy test pilot before being selected for astronaut training in 1962, with the second intake that became known as "the New Nine." His contemporaries in that group included Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell and Ed White.
Young became the first of his group to journey into space alongside Gus Grissom in Molly Brown* in 1965. He became one of the first US astronauts to share a spacecraft, and one of the last to fly in a self-named spacecraft. After Molly Brown, NASA never let the crew name their capsule again. On that flight, Young attractred the ire of NASA for smuggling a corned-beef sandwich on board.
Young would fly also with Michael Collins in Gemini 10, became the first person to fly solo around the moon as Command Module Pilot on the Apollo 10 mission, and performed a critical role in the rescue of Apollo 13 as back-up commander.
In April 1972, Young returned to the moon with Charlie Duke and Ken Mattingly in Apollo 16 to explore the Descartes Highland. He became the ninth person to walk on the moon, and only three more: Duke, Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt would follow.
The tireless young was then assigned as back-up commander to Apollo 17, when the original back-up crew was suspended for taking stamps and a statue to the moon with them on Apollo 15. The stamps were later sold to a dealer.
With the end of project Apollo, Young threw himself at the space transportation system (STS) program that would become know as the Space Shuttle. Along with Bob Crippen, Young flew Columbia on STS-1 in 1981, and again in 1983's STS-9 mission to deliver spacelab components. It would be his sixth and last mission. He was scheduled to fly STS-61 to deploy the Hubble Space Telescope on what would have been his seventh flight, but the Challenger disaster saw a complete reschedule of the program.
Characteristically, Young was both the first and the last of the New Nine to fly in space.
Young remained on flight status until 1987, after which he became a technical director for NASA. In all, he accumulated 835 hours in spacecraft, was on six prime crews and five back-up crews.
Young's numerous awards and special honors included the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, three NASA Distinguished Service Medals, the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal, two Navy Distinguished Service Medals, three Navy Distinguished Flying Crosses, the Georgia Tech Distinguished Young Alumni Award, the Exceptional Engineering Achievement Award and the American Astronautical Society Space Flight Award.
His death leaves only five people alive who have walked on another celestial body: Buzz Aldrin, Alan Bean, Dave Scott, Charlie Duke and Harrison Schmitt.
*The reference was to main character of a Broadway musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Grissom chose it after his first space capsule Liberty Bell 7 sank underneath him on splashdown.