6/25/11

Why Astronaut John W. Young is the most badass human in recorded history.

I love space. I love space with a fervor typically reserved for twelve year old girls (and 25 year old gay men) at a Justin Bieber concert.

I am constantly thinking about space travel, literally. If you ever see me staring off in to the distance, brow furrowed, mouth twisted into a tiny smirk; odds are I'm thinking about manned spaceflight (most likely the Apollo program). Ever since I was a little boy I have been fascinated with the human adventure in space, there is something so promising about the whole thing. I can say with great certainty that space travel has inspired me more so than the most impressive piece of artwork, than the greatest written word. Hands down, nothing can top space in my mind. Nothing.

Sitting atop the great mental Ziggurat of space in my imagination, there is one man. One man so mythical in his proportions that as a kid it was hard for me to believe he really existed. He was like Pete Venkman to me, a character devised by a person's imagination for the simple purpose of telling a story. Well the difference being, this man was real. Really real.

His name is John W. Young.

"Hey there."
John W. Young, born in San Francisco in September of 1930. Spaceman, in the truest sense of the word. No one could have known at the time, but baby John was on a path of greatness that would be unrivaled by any human being even 80 plus years later.


In the course of his Astronaut career John Young flew almost every spacecraft that had been built, went to the Moon a few times and helped to save Apollo 13 in order to make sure that Ron Howard would have something to do before Arrested Development started.

An engineer, a pilot, a scholar. A surly bastard, a hero, a genius. Yes, all of the above.

Today I'd like to share with you a few hallmarks of this great American's career, in order to familiarize you with someone you probably have no idea expanded the boundaries of human understanding forever (no joke!).

There is too much to cover for just one article, so I'll try to go through the highlights and give you the coolest nuggets I can think of.

1.) John Young smuggled a corned beef sandwich in to space.

You read that right.

On March 23rd 1965 Gemini III lifted off from the Cape on it's way to space in order to perform the first Orbital Maneuvers in manned spaceflight. Added note:  In order to pronounce "Gemini" like the astronauts say it like this, gemi-KNEE.

The launch went off without a hitch for America's 7th spaceflight (the seventeenth overall at that point, if you count early upper atmosphere test flights of the X-15), Virgil "Gus" Grissom and John Young rode atop a Titan rocket on their way to make history.


Gus Grissom was a bit infamous in the NASA ranks at the time, for accidentally blowing the hatch on Liberty Bell 7 (his Mercury capsule) and sinking it. So in honor of this event he named Gemini III's capsule the "Molly Brown", in hopes that it would be unsinkable. This was the first and only time a Gemini capsule got named, so really drink that in. No, really drink it in. Ok, good. Now we can move on.

Everything was going according to plan (minus a few mechanical failures here and there) when about two hours in to the flight the following conversation was overheard by the CapCom (capsule communicator, not Street Fighter):

Grissom: "What is it?"
Young: "Corn beef sandwich."
Grissom: "Where did that come from?"
Young: "I brought it with me. Let's see how it tastes. Smells, doesn't it?"
Grissom: "Yes, it's breaking up. I'm going to stick it in my pocket."
Young: "Is it?"
Young: "It was a thought, anyway."
Grissom: "Yep."
Young: "Not a very good one."
Grissom: "Pretty good, though, if it would just hold together."
Young: "Want some chicken leg?"
Grissom: "No, you can handle that."
Grissom: "What was the time of that booster again? What elevation?"


Now reading that, it may not seem like much, but this was a big fucking deal to NASA. So much so, that NASA thought about grounding John Young permanently (They wouldn't do that to Gus, as he was technically a hero per his Mercury 7 status.).

The press had a bit of a field day with the story (and rightfully so, considering how awesome it is) and started spreading it around. At that point spaceflight wasn't as "common" as it's become today, people used to go APE-SHIT over astronaut stories. Much like today's media, the most sensational things get the most coverage and soon John Young's sandwich was in bed with the communists. Here's a quote from then NASA administrator Jim Webb:

"The training program should have been so impressive to these men that they would not have done a thing like that. I do not agree that you can tolerate this kind of deviation from what is clearly the purpose and requirement for success on these flights."

Unconfirmed reports state that there was buzz around Star City (Baikanur) in Kazakhstan that the Americans had no regimented astronaut training or regulations, which made those Commie bastards think they had an edge on us! Well, the Russians totally did have an edge on us, the beat us to nearly every first in space (mainly because instead of engineering a problem to death they just skipped the engineering and went straight to the death. Which I plan to cover in another update, but check this out in the meantime.).

John caught a lot of heat over this incident, but luckily it didn't end with him getting grounded.

Now you may be asking "How the fuck did this all go down?","Did NASA not do a pre-flight contraband check?". Remember, this was the Wild Wild West of Aerospace, when there were no rules and only a handful of dedicated dudes trying to kick ass on the future of flight.

Here's the "unofficial" version of how it went down:

Wally Schirra (another famous Gemini astronaut and notorious practical joker) wasn't scheduled for flight training the day of the launch and knew how much John Young hated the prospect of eating the "space" food.

Morsels!
Who could blame JY? I mean the Gemini food looks like bags full of stuff that came OUT of people, not something that should be put IN them. So ol' Wally went to a local deli and bought the infamous corned beef.

Now there are conflicting reports about Deke Slayton's (head of the astronaut office) take on the sandwich, but some say he let John take it, most say he was unaware. Either way, the space-wich was stealthily added to John's kit and the rest is, well fuck, mentioned above.

2.) John Young was "all up in" the Apollo program.

Ok, so you had Gemin-KNEE, which was essentially a bunch of test flights to show that we could go places other than really high up in our own atmosphere. That was great stuff, with lots of groundbreaking science and exploration, but it was merely the tater-tot appetizer to the big meatloaf main course that was the Apollo program.

I prefer to call it "making love".
Apollo was a mission so grand in it's scale that trying to sum it up on one sentence would be foolish. You need a kick ass phrase to describe it instead; "Incredibly fucking epic."

May 25th 1961 then President John F. Kennedy made a big announcement, probably the biggest proclamation in the history of civilization. He let the world know, we were going to the Moon.

I recommend that you listen to the whole thing HERE.

No one knows what Kennedy's motivation TRULY was. There is a lot of speculation that it was a calculated political move, others claim he was just an avid Space-nut. I really feel like the true answer is neither. I think the real reason that Kennedy issued the challenge to go to the Moon because of one man:

"I'm not wearing pants."
Lyndon B. Johnson.

When he wasn't pulling out his dick in foreign countries, he was going to bat for America's future in space. Johnson had a wicked hard-on (oh I love writing about LBJ) for getting America in the front of the space pack. He worked hard to give the burgeoning industry a voice and to get lawmakers to see the benefits of having a robust space program. I mean fuck, Johnson Space Center ring a bell?

Of fucking course they put that thing behind the sign. LBJ approves.
LBJ really pushed for the Apollo program and it made a big difference on the President's view of the thing. So during his speech Kennedy didn't mince words, he told us we were putting a man on the Moon by the end of the decade. That didn't give us much time.

It turned out that about 500,000 Americans didn't have much going on, so we were able to get the ball rolling on visiting our closest neighbor. Thank God that when we got up to 499,999 people involved there was still room for one more. John W. Young.

AKA Badass
John was put on the backup crew for Apollo 7, maybe as a little slap on the wrist for the space-wich. Apollo 7 was the first manned Apollo mission (it took NASA a while to recover from the Apollo 1 fire that killed Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee and America's first space-walker Ed White) so it was a pretty big deal! Luckily for history the Apollo 7 flight went off without a hitch and moved John Young a bit closer to the Moon.

John's next step in Apollo was Apollo 10, the second manned flight to the Moon. John flew the command module around the Moon solo, while Gene Cernan and Tom Stafford farted around in the LM testing it out. Apollo 10 also set the record for highest speed attained by a manned vehicle, 24,791mph.

So just to put Apollo 10 in perspective; John Young flew a spaceship around the Moon by himself and then went faster than any other person, ever (well him Cernan and Stafford). All this before the real shit even started!

He was also the backup commander for Apollo 13, the flight Tom Hanks was on. When shit hit the fan with 13, John Young went to work. I'll cover that in a minute, don't worry.

After 13, John Young did something that only 12 people in history have done. Joined a fraternity so exclusive that membership required you be pretty fucking amazing.

On Apollo 16 John Young walked on the Moon.

That is the motherfucking MOOOOON he's standing on!

Which leads us to our next topic:

3.) John Young did really awesome shit on the Moon!

Now John Young wouldn't travel 250,000 miles trapped in a little can eating "food" out of a bag only to get to the Moon and walk around a bit. No, he had other plans.


A big Navy salute.
Yeah, that's right. You see JY in that picture, jumping like 5 feet in the air and giving a salute. How fucking awesome does that look? I mean really, in the history of pictures with people doing awesome shit in them, you really can't top that.

You have to think about the logic on this one too, to really get an idea of how rad this is. There is John Young on the Descartes Highlands, on a different fucking planet! Charlie Duke says "stand by the flag and give me a big navy salute". John Young not only delivers the salute, he jumps as high as he can in the fucking air! On the Moon! I mean, holy shit! He does this for no practical scientific purpose, but just to get the raddest picture a human being will ever take. And BAM, he nails it. So fucking rad.

Ok, ok. I'm getting off topic here. Sorry about that, I just love that fucking picture!

So not only did they take a bunch of glamorshots on the Moon, they did tons of science and exploration as well. Apollo 16 had the luxury of fast transport, they had the lunar rover.

Watch it go!
The Lunar Rover was essentially an electric car, with four independent electric motors that powered each wheel. It could go pretty fast, but no one knew quite how fast it could get going on the Moon. Not until John Young showed up that is.

John put the rover through it's paces. Really. He was cruising so fast in the thing that Charlie Duke later joked that all four wheels rarely contacted the ground at the same time. NASA really couldn't do much to stop John from getting rad with the rover, so he and Charlie had a bit of fun.


John got that bad-boy up to speeds exceeding 30mph, which may not sound like much for Earth driving, but 30mph in one-sixth gravity is pretty fucking amazing.

Not only did JY get to race around on the Moon, he got to break things while he was there as well! There is nothing quite as "punk rock" as smashing shit, so John Young got punk-as-fuck on the Moon.

For the Apollo landings, they had a package of experiments that the Astronauts launched once they were doing an EVA on the surface. It was called the ALSEP and some of the instruments in those packages still send us useful data today. Well all except the one from Apollo 16 that is.

When John went to deploy 16's ALSEP, he tripped on a chord and broke the shit of the experiment. Which, in turn, made a bunch of scientists back on Earth shed a single tear. To John's credit, it was really hard to get around in the Spacesuit! Check it out:


So not only was there a bunch of falling down on the Moon, John Young did the two most awesome things the Moon has ever been a party to.

John Young cursed and farted on the Moon. A lot.

When you read the transcripts of the communications between Earth and Apollo 16 there is a lot of truncated material and for a good reason. John Young really had gas.


Go ahead and try and tell me that he's not your favorite Astronaut now too.

4.) John Young saved Apollo 13's ass.

So I'm not going to spend forever on this one, since you know the fucking story from the movie. One thing that didn't get covered in the film enough for my tastes, was JY's involvement.

As a backup crew you run the same training as the "prime" crew just on a different shift. So while Jim Lovell was getting ready for what he though was going to be a walk on the Moon, John and crew were getting ready in case one of the prime guys broke a leg. That meant that John Young was contemplating every contingency, getting familiar with every system. As much as badass as he was, he was also an incredibly talented and versatile engineer, with a mind like a focused laser. You had to be not only an accomplished pilot, but a great student of engineering to work on the Apollo program, there wasn't room for slouches.

When Apollo 13's cryo-tank blew and oxygen was getting low in the freezing death-tube a group of engineers got together at a room in Houston and went to work on how to get a square peg in a round hole, literally.

This Square Peg does not have a nerdy Sara Jessica Parker.
The "scrubbers" that removed carbon-monoxide from the recycled cabin air in the lunar module were only set to work for a few days for two people. When John Young proposed the idea of using the LM as a make-shift lifeboat, the one problem was clean oxygen as instead of the two people the LM was made to support, it was going to be three people for about four times the duration of the LM's initial mission. It was suggested that the Command Module's scrubbers be moved from the CM to the LM in order to facilitate the LONG trip home. It was a great idea except for the fact that the LM's scrubbers were round and the CM's were square. It was an engineering mistake that NASA would never repeat.

John Young corralled every piece of material the Astronauts had with them (including every part of the ship that could be safely removed and all toiletries etc.) and the engineers got to work. A few hours later the produced what you see above, a duct taped masterpiece. They assembled a filter system using only spare parts that not only got Apollo 13's crew safely home, but also worked 90% as efficiently as the original equipment. So there, John Young helped save three humans 200,000 miles from Earth. Beat that Clooney.

"Already did. Twice. And I made this."
5.) John Young is pissed!!!

John Young walked on the Moon, he almost did it twice (as backup for Apollo 17 he almost replaced Gene Cernan who was close to being sidelined with a knee surgery, which would have made John Young the last man on the Moon). Once John had been there, he wanted to go back. That seems to be a common thing with the Moon-Walkers, wanting to go back. John just takes it to a whole new level, by trying his best to get people to understand that hindrances of being a one-planet species. Here he is on SuperVolcanoes:



His whole thing is based on the idea that at any time there could be an extinction level event that we would have no escape from. John Young has dedicated many years to getting this point across to the world, but people just don't seem to be listening. READ THIS.

His whole philosophy is summed up pretty well in this quote from a lecture he gave, ""If you want to see an endangered species, get up and look in the mirror.". Going to the Moon wasn't as much a spiritual experience to John as it was to the others, for him it seemed to be a wake-up call about just how fragile our planet is in the grand scheme of things. Ever since he got back, he's been formulating ways to get us off the planet and save ourselves from what he feels is an inevitability.

Here is a good interview with the Houston Chronicle that has John talking about the Moon and how ridiculous it is that we haven't gone back. Check it out, as it's best to hear the argument straight from the man's mouth.

John Young is right and we're foolish for not listening closer to what he has to say. His prospective is unique to a group him and eleven other men. All of which has expressed the same concerns for the safety of our planet. These men are the ONLY people to have seen the entire Earth in one glance, they have traveled farther from home than anyone else. And yet we treat them like museum pieces and don't offer them the courtesy of learning from their incredible experience.

John just wants us to go back. I want us to go back. Cosmologically the Moon is incredibly close and it's ours. And by "ours" I don't mean America's or Russia's, I mean all of us. When we look up at night,  we are all witnessing the same thing. We see a place that could offer the jumping off point for living up to our destiny as a species. We see a land so intrinsic to our very way of thought that we often take it for granted. But, we've been there. We've touched it, Astronauts will tell you about the smell of the Lunar soil (like struck matches). We have a group of men that can RECALL the place, not just imagine it. To me there is no greater benchmark for Human achievement and no better testament to a versatility and capacity for understanding. Human civilization has always thrived on exploration, it's hard-coded in our DNA. So why stop with Earth?

We have the chance to gain experience from the most traveled men in history. We have a unique opportunity to learn every time one of them opens their mouth, we just have to shut-up and listen.

John Young is telling us something now and after all you just learned about him, how could you not give a shit?

Take that Clooney.

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