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Review: Forever Young

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Forever Young: A Life of Adventure in Air and Space
by John W. Young with James R. Hansen
University Press of Florida, 2012
hardcover, 432 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-0-8130-4209-1

“‘Unique’ has become such a trite word that I can no longer use it to describe John Young. But ‘unusual’ certainly fits, even in a group that, if not unique, was at least close to it.” So writes former astronaut Michael Collins in the foreword to Forever Young, a memoir by fellow astronaut John Young. And, arguably, either “unique” or “unusual” is a fitting description of the man who flew six space missions, including the first flights of both Gemini and the Space Shuttle, and is one of only 12 people to date to have set foot on the Moon. That experience alone should make for a fascinating life story. Yet Forever Young, written with Neil Armstrong biographer James Hansen, falls a bit short of those lofty expectations.

Young was born in San Francisco (his father, working in the construction business, helped build Hangar One at Moffett Field, now part of NASA’s Ames Research Center) but spent most of his formative years split between Florida and Georgia. Attending Georgia Tech on a Navy ROTC scholarship, he graduated with a degree in aeronautical engineering and, after a brief detour serving on a destroyer, went on to become a naval aviator and test pilot. In 1962, NASA selected him as part of its second class of nine astronauts, “The New Nine.”

Most of the other astronauts of Young’s era left NASA after Apollo, but Young elected to stay and do “whatever I could to keep flying in space.”

The bulk of Forever Young covers Young’s career as an astronaut. Young got his first flight, on Gemini 3, when medical issues grounded Alan Shepard, who had been slated to fly it along with Tom Stafford. Gus Grissom was the backup, along with Frank Borman, but Young ended up flying with Grissom after Borman told chief astronaut Deke Slayton “he did not think he could work with Gus,” as Young recalls. That flight successfully demonstrated the Gemini spacecraft, although it is commonly remembered for Young sneaking a corned beef sandwich onto the flight. “In my view, the hubbub was completely unnecessary and blown totally out of proportion,” he says of the reaction—which included a Congressional hearing—to the stunt. “[I]n fact, the corned beef was the third sandwich that had been carried on a spacecraft,” he states, without mentioning the previous two occurrences.

That incident, though, didn’t adversely affect his career in the astronaut corps, as he went on to command Gemini 10 (with Collins as his crewmate) and then serve as the command module pilot for Apollo 10. In the book, he says that he was among a small handful of astronauts who were “absolutely being groomed” for the key Apollo missions. While he didn’t get selected for the historic Apollo 11 mission, he notes in the book he was “very glad” that was the case, as he was spared the frenzy of attention that the crew got upon its return from this historic flight. He did get his shot at the Moon on Apollo 16, commanding that mission and spending over 20 hours walking (and driving the lunar rover) on the surface of the Moon.

Most of the other astronauts of Young’s era left NASA after Apollo, seeking new careers in the private sector or, in a few cases, politics. Young, though, elected to stay at NASA and do “whatever I could to keep flying in space.” That meant working on the development of the Space Shuttle as chief of the astronaut corps, making sure the astronauts’ perspective was taken into account in the design of the vehicle. That led to commanding STS-1 with Bob Crippen, a mission that was, in retrospect, extraordinarily risky given the lack of uncrewed test flights prior to the launch and the limited information about how a vehicle like the shuttle would perform, particularly during launch and reentry. Former NASA administrator Mike Griffin called STS-1 “the boldest test flight in history,” a description that Young says “might have been just that.”

Young flew the shuttle again in 1983, commanding the STS-9 mission. That was his final space mission, “though I never wanted it to be.” A sense of foreboding envelops his description of the shuttle missions leading up to the Challenger accident, as the pace of missions builds for the “operational” shuttle program (a designation, Young argues, should never have been applied to the Space Shuttle, and especially not after just four test flights) and the astronaut corps is kept largely unaware of the O-ring issues with the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters that would ultimately doom Challenger and its seven-person crew.

Collins was “bright, capable, classy, and incredibly funny,” while Armstrong was “a neat bundle of some unique personality traits.” Aldrin, on the other hand, “got on people’s nerves” and “thought he was smarter than he really was.”

Young long had a reputation for flagging what he saw as safety issues with spacecraft, writing them up in memos (a characteristic that dated back to his time as a pilot working test flight programs for aircraft) that often, he said, went unheeded. In May 1987, Young was reassigned from the position of chief astronaut to a new position as a special assistant to the director of Johnson Space Center. “My criticisms had been found to be too newsworthy for NASA to continue to tolerate,” he explained. (His replacement as head of the astronaut office was Dan Brandenstein, “who would not have been my choice,” he says, without elaboration.) That did not diminish his zeal for writing up safety or other issues in a “mountain of memos,” as that chapter of his book is titled, until he retired in late 2004.

Forever Young might best be described as a “technical memoir.” Young devotes considerable technical detail to the preparations for and flights of the missions he was on or otherwise was involved with. He doesn’t shy away from delving into detailed, acronym-laden engineering discussions or mission statistics; at one point, recounting some of the pre-Columbia shuttle missions, he even specifies the descent rate and touchdown speed of several of them. That technical information is likely appreciated by space enthusiasts, but a more casual reader may feel a bit overwhelmed.

However, in sharp contrast to the detailed technical content in the book, Young offers few insights into his personal life. Meeting and marrying his first wife, Barbara, while in the Navy, gets just one brief paragraph. His later divorce from her and remarriage also gets one paragraph, oddly wedged into a larger discussion of preparations for Apollo 16. Young doesn’t go into much detail about his interactions with fellow astronauts, beyond his insights into the crew of Apollo 11. Collins, his Gemini 10 crewmate, was “bright, capable, classy, and incredibly funny,” while Neil Armstrong was “a neat bundle of some unique personality traits.” Buzz Aldrin, on the other hand, “got on people’s nerves” and “thought he was smarter than he really was.”

Forever Young could also have benefited from another round of editing and fact-checking. There are a number of errors in the book, from Collins’s foreword that refers to Young as the commander of Apollo 15 (instead of 16) to a reference to “the LM’s entire three-legged landing gear” (the lunar module had four legs) to incorrect dates. Other sections may simply be dated: at the end of the chapter about the approach and landing tests performed by the orbiter Enterprise, he says that, once the Smithsonian gets the retired shuttle Discovery, Enterprise might be loaned out to other museums. In fact, Enterprise has already been delivered to its new home, the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum in New York, a decision made a year and a half ago.

In the epilogue to Forever Young, Young offers a spirited defense of the Bush Administration’s Vision for Space Exploration and how NASA implemented it under Griffin—although he was concerned that the Orion spacecraft was too heavy to be launched by Ares 1—and a criticism of the plan’s abandonment by the Obama Administration in 2010. Young clearly believes that the US should return to the Moon, for purposes ranging from planetary defense to development of lunar-based solar power, but like much of the advice and recommendations in his past memos, he seems resigned to the conclusion that his recommendations won’t be heeded, at least any time soon (elsewhere in the book, he says he believes the next people to walk on the Moon will be Chinese.) Despite the book’s flaws, one will likely agree after reading it that Young was indeed an unusual and unique individual who played a key role in NASA’s human spaceflight program over several decades.