The Astronauts Astronaut

John Young was out of this world when he learned that NASA's plans for a reusable manned spacecraft called the Shuttle had finally won Congressional approval.

It was Sunday 23 April 1972 and the 41-year-old Young stood in the sun-drenched desolation of the Cayley plains, participating in the penultimate Apollo lunar-landing mission. A short, dark-haired man with a quiet, country-boy drawl, he had been an astronaut for 10 years and even now, on his fourth spaceflight, showed little desire to do anything else. In fact, when he first set foot on the Moon two days earlier -becoming only the ninth person to do so - his words included the enigmatic phrase, "I'm glad they got ol' Brer Rabbit, here, back in the briar patch where he belongs.''

Some Apollo historians have explained the quote by identifying Young himself with Brer Rabbit and the briar patch with his love of space exploration. If this was the case, it could hardly have been more fitting, for until 2002 Young held the record for having been launched into space more times than any other human being, with an impressive six missions under his belt. Even the respected Shuttle astronaut Jerry Ross, who finally broke the record, has pointed to Young as his personal hero. Truly, John Young has become 'The Astronauts' Astronaut'.

He came to NASA in 1962, a little over a year after President John F. Kennedy had promised to land a man on the Moon before the end of the decade. Even at the age of just 32, Young's credentials as a test pilot were already impressive: earlier that same year, he had set world time-to-climb records in the F-4 Phantom fighter. His first four spaceflights were devoted to accomplishing, step-by-step, the complex chain of objectives - engineering tests, rendezvous and docking exercises and risky spacewalks - needed to achieve Kennedy's goal.

His first flight, in March 1965, was a short, five-hour 'hop' on board the first two-man Gemini spacecraft, which did little more than whet his appetite. During the mission, he and Commander Gus Grissom had the task of showing that the Gemini, which would be used to rehearse procedures needed for lunar missions in the relative safety of Earth orbit, was spaceworthy. The flight succeeded and Young returned with a reputation as something of a practical joker, having craftily smuggled a corned beef sandwich - Grissom's favourite fare - on board the Gemini before launch and offered it to his partner while in orbit.

A year later, he was back in space on board another Gemini; this time as Commander, teamed with rookie Mike Collins. Their three-day mission featured rendezvous with two unmanned Agena target rockets, one of which boosted them into a higher orbit, en route to the other. Collins also made a spacewalk to recover micrometeoroid material affixed to one of the Agenas. On Young's third mission, Apollo 10 in May 1969, he and his crewmates conducted a rehearsal of the first lunar landing in orbit around the Moon. This set the stage for Armstrong and Aldrin's "one small step'' two months later.

Three years after his return from Apollo 10, and as one of NASA's senior astronauts, Young finally stood in the unrelenting glare of the lunar Sun, in a place where the temperature difference between daytime and nighttime could top 400 Celsius, and joined an elite club of moonwalkers that even today numbers no more than a dozen. In the wake of such a stupendous achievement, one could be forgiven for expecting Young's astronaut career to end after his return to Earth. Surely he could do few other things in his professional life to match or possibly upstage a Moon landing?

Young could not have felt more differently and unlike so many of his fellow astronauts, who left NASA for pastures new, he was eager to tackle America's next challenge in space. His devotion was perfectly epitomised that Sunday in April 1972 when, as he stood amidst the grandeur of the ancient lunar mountains, his breathing harsh and laboured after a long day's work in a bulky spacesuit, he received a call from Mission Control. It was from a rookie astronaut named Tony England, who was acting as the control centre's liaison (nicknamed the 'Capcom') with the men on the Moon.

''This looks like a good time for some good news,'' England began. ''The House passed the space budget yesterday, 277 to 60, which includes the vote for the Shuttle.''

Immediately, and in unison, Young and fellow moonwalker Charlie Duke exulted, "Beautiful! Wonderful! Beautiful!" Then Young quietly added, ''The country needs that Shuttle mighty bad. You'll see.''

Four days later, Young, Duke and the third member of their crew, Ken Mattingly, splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, their 11-day mission over. For Duke, it would be the end of his astronaut career; following a foray into the world of business, he became a born-again Christian and later described his experiences as being so much more fulfilling that walking on the Moon was ''the dust of my life'' in comparison. Both Young and Mattingly, on the other hand, remained with NASA and each would command two Shuttle missions during the course of the 1980s.

By the mid-1970s, Young had retired from the US Navy with the rank of Captain and was able to concentrate fully on his new duties as chief of NASA's Astronaut Office and immerse himself in the development of the Shuttle. It seemed inevitable, with his breadth of expertise, that he would be a leading contender to command its maiden flight into orbit; by the middle of 1978 it was official and he began training with rookie astronaut Bob Crippen for what would be his fifth mission overall and, in many ways, the most challenging of his entire career.

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