John Young, ‘Most Experienced’ U.S. Astronaut, Dies at 87

Space Shuttle mission STS-1 Commander Young speaks during press conference in Cape Canaveral
Space Shuttle mission STS-1 Commander John Young speaks during a press conference at the Visitors Complex at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida April 7, 2006. REUTERS/ Rick Fowler

By Will Dunham

U.S. astronaut John Young, who walked on the moon in 1972 and even smuggled a corned beef sandwich into orbit during a career that made him the only person to fly with three NASA space programs, has died at age 87, officials said on Saturday

Young, who went to space six times, died on Friday night at his home in Houston following complications from pneumonia, National Aeronautics and Space Administration spokesman Allard Beutel said in an email.

The former U.S. Navy test pilot was the ninth person to set foot on the moon, an experience shared by three others after Young. He eventually became one of the most accomplished astronauts in the history of the U.S. space programme.


NASA handout photo of John Young and Robert Crippen with a model of the Space Shuttle Columbia
STS-1 crew members Commander John Young (L) and Pilot Robert Crippen pose with a model of the Space Shuttle Columbia at Johnson Space Center in Houston May, 7, 1979. NASA/Handout via REUTERS


He flew into space twice during NASA’s Gemini programme in the mid-1960s, twice on the Apollo lunar missions and twice on space shuttles in the 1980s. He was the only person to fly on all three types of programs.

“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,” NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot said in a statement.


Young, described in a NASA tweet as “our most experienced astronaut,” retired in 2004 after 42 years with the U.S. space agency

The Apollo 16 mission in April 1972, his fourth space flight, took Young to the lunar surface.


NASA handout photo of Commander John Young during mission STS-1 of the Space Shuttle Columbia
John W. Young, STS-1 mission Commander, prepares to log flight-pertinent data in a loose-leaf flight activities notebook onboard the Space Shuttle Columbia April 14, 1981. Young is seated in the commander’s station on the port side of Columbia’s forward flight deck. NASA/Kennedy Space Center/Handout via REUTERS



As mission commander, he and crewmate Charles Duke explored the moon’s Descartes Highlands region, gathering 200 pounds (90 kg) of rock and soil samples and driving more than 16 miles (26 km) in the lunar rover to sites such as Spook Crater.

Recalling his lunar exploits, Young told the Houston Chronicle in 2004: “One-sixth gravity on the surface of the moon is just delightful. It’s not like being in zero gravity, you know. You can drop a pencil in zero gravity and look for it for three days. In one-sixth gravity, you just look down and there it is.”

Young’s first time in space came in 1965 with the Gemini 3 mission that took him and astronaut Gus Grissom into Earth orbit in the first two-person U.S. space jaunt.


NASA handout photo of Columbia's Commander John Young and pilot Robert Crippen training at Kennedy Space Center
Looking aft toward the cargo bay of NASA’s Space Shuttle Orbiter 102 vehicle, Columbia, Astronauts John Young (L) and Robert Crippen preview some of the intravehicular activity expected to take place during the orbiter’s flight test, at Kennedy Space Center October 10, 1980. REUTERS/NASA/Kennedy Space Center


It was on this mission that Young pulled his sandwich stunt, which did not make NASA brass happy but certainly pleased Grissom, the recipient of the snack.

Astronaut Wally Schirra, who was not flying on the mission, bought the corned beef sandwich on rye bread from a delicatessen in Cocoa Beach, Florida, and asked Young to give it to Grissom in space.


During the flight, as they discussed the food provided for the mission, Young handed Grissom the sandwich

NASA later rebuked Young for the antics, which generated criticism from lawmakers and the media, but his career did not suffer.

His May 1969 Apollo 10 mission served as a “dress rehearsal” for the historic Apollo 11 mission two months later in which Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon. Young and his crew undertook each aspect of that subsequent mission except for an actual moon landing.


Space Shuttle mission STS-1 Pilot Bob Crippen (L) and Commander John Young pose at the Visitors Comp..
Space Shuttle mission STS-1 Pilot Bob Crippen (L) and Commander John Young pose at the Visitors Complex at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida April 7, 2006. REUTERS/Stringer


Young’s fifth space mission was as commander of the inaugural flight of NASA‘s first space shuttle, Columbia, in 1981. He became the first person to fly six space missions in 1983, when he commanded Columbia on the first Spacelab trek, with the crew performing more than 70 scientific experiments.

He never went to space again. Young had been due to command a 1986 flight that was cancelled after the explosion of the shuttle Challenger earlier that year.



“John was more than a good friend,” former President George H.W. Bush said in a statement. “He was a fearless patriot whose courage and commitment to duty helped our nation push back the horizon of discovery at a critical time.”

Young was born on Sept. 24, 1930, in San Francisco and grew up in Orlando, Florida. After receiving a degree in aeronautical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1952, he entered the Navy and graduated from its test pilot school. NASA picked him in 1962 for its astronaut programme.


(Reporting and writing by Will Dunham; Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Bill Trott and Lisa Von Ahn)