An Astronaut's Tale

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John Young in his spacesuit in 1966

This is a curiously unsatisfying biography. In nearly 400 pages of text, we really learn very little about the author, John Young.

Even though he is one of the most famous of all the astronauts, having flown six missions including being one of only 12 men to have walked on the Moon, Young is a member of the test pilot school of men who learned long ago never to talk about their private lives.

The fact that he got married, divorced and remarried is mentioned in a few sentences, inserted into an otherwise uninterrupted overview of the technicalities of airplanes and spaceflight. But even the barest details as to why he got divorced and anything about his children and grandchildren is missing, although the grandkids do feature in one of the book’s photos (all black-and-white)

Make no mistake- this is a book for the techno-geek. The stage is set early in the book when he describes landing a plane on an aircraft carrier at night. “At the 180-degree point- that is, half-way around the circular traffic pattern that would bring us on to the carrier deck – we came in at 250 feet. At the 90-degree point, we were down to 125 feet. As we came around to pick up the centerline, both eyes had to be totally glued on the LSO’s flags.”

Only on one subject does he let his true feelings show, and that is his opinion of Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the Moon. While admitting Buzz is a smart guy, Young says in the same sentence that “he thought he was smarter than he really is.” Later in the book, talking about Apollo 11, he slams Aldrin for what happened on that very first manned trip to the lunar surface.

“It had been a downright shame that somehow in Apollo 11 Neil Armstrong had taken all those fantastic pictures of Buzz Aldrin with Old Glory but, for whatever reason, Buzz did not return the favor. In fact, Buzz took no pictures of Neil while they were on the surface of the Moon.”

Without actually saying so, Young makes it quite clear that Aldrin did that deliberately, perhaps because he felt cheated about being the second on the surface, not the first. It was Armstrong whose name will go down in history, but it is a photo of Aldrin everyone will see.

As a technical point, I find it annoying that the text switches between miles and nautical miles. On page 77, for example, we read that the Gemini III craft was “something like 30 miles or a little more” off its planned entry point. But on page 80, we read the overburn of the de-orbit maneuver was responsible for “about 25 nautical miles of our miss at entry.”

Aside from his thorough description of the Apollo 16 mission in 1972 that saw him walk on the Moon, Young spends much of the book about the space shuttle. Not surprising, since he piloted the very first one. He was selected because he was the best and most experienced astronaut NASA had. His dedication to the program is a great testament to his integrity.

But the latter parts of the book, when Young was head of the astronaut office, is a sad litany of things he found that needed to be fixed, but never were. There were many “safety issues I found,” writes Young, “that the shuttle program never got around to working.”

Why NASA would put its best into a position where he was consistently ignored for years is one that future historians of the space agency will do well to ponder. About the only suggestion he made that was adopted was that the space center needed to recycle its paper!

“I felt I had done my best to promote shuttle safety,” he writes plaintively. Even so, “I confess that I still feel directly responsible for the loss of our two space shuttles.”

While it is very noble of him to fall on his own sword, a careful reading of the book will make it clear that he did better than anyone else to ensure shuttle safety, and that it was the administration of the space agency that bears the moral and engineering blame for the two disasters. None of them have had the courage to write a book admitting their culpability. That’s what will forever separate them from a true American hero – John Young.

Forever Young (415 pages) is $29.95 from University Press of Florida. Visit their website: www.upf.com

Clifford Cunningham

Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist currently affiliated with the National Astronomical Research Institute. He did his PhD work in the history of astronomy at James Cook University, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. He is the author of 12 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honour by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in 1990.

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