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John Young
John Young speaking at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC on April 11. (credit: J. Foust)

John Young’s shuttle secret

The commander of STS-1 reveals a little-known incident with present-day implications

Most of the people in attendance at the National Air and Space Museum last Friday night for a talk by John Young—paying $15-20 a ticket for the privilege—were already quite familiar with the astronaut’s exploits from Gemini through Apollo to the shuttle program. Yet Young managed to surprise most if not all of them by offhandedly discussing an incident with the first shuttle mission that has connections with the current Columbia accident investigation.

About 40 minutes into his talk, after discussing Gemini and Apollo, Young was recounting his experiences during the STS-1 mission, notably the well-known missing tiles on the OMS pod. Then Young revealed something more. “The other day I was eating breakfast and Chris Kraft was sitting in the dining room and he told me that we buckled the right main landing gear on STS-1,” he said. “Come to find out they had a gapfiller sticking out and it ducted hot gas into the wheel well.”

“That’s as much as I know about it, I’ve told you everything I know,” Young said.

That appeared to be the first time almost anybody in the museum’s theater had heard about the incident. The person sitting next to me, well-versed in the history of shuttle missions, whispered, “Well, that’s news.” Not surprisingly, during the question-and-answer session that followed, someone asked Young for more details about the incident.

Unfortunately, Young didn’t have much more information to share. “Recently in the Columbia accident office, sitting in the meeting room, he said you had a gapfiller sticking up and it ducted hot gas into your wheel well,” he offered. It wasn’t clear whether the “he” Young referred to was Kraft or someone else. “That’s as much as I know about it, I’ve told you everything I know.” The audience laughed. “Don’t ask me what ducted in there or what got hot! I’m sure it’s not even on the corrective action reports because the last time I looked I think they deleted that.”

The rest of Young’s talk didn’t reveal any other significant secrets about his career, but was enjoyable nonetheless, as he recounted events ranging from the first Gemini mission to the shuttle, as well as his hope that NASA will resume human exploration of the Moon and beyond. Young’s humor kept the evening from getting too serious. “I get paid for having a hell of a lot of fun every day,” he quipped at one point.

Young used that mixture of insight and humor to make some subtle criticism of NASA itself at the beginning of his talk. “We’re required to expand human knowledge of the Earth and space. That is the law, the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958. That’s saying that we have to be making progress, real progress, at NASA. I told some folks the other day that with the kind of progress we’ve been making, since it’s the law, we’re lucky we’re not being put into jail.”

“But we’ll do better,” he concluded. “I can assure you that we will do better.”