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John Young is the First Big Death of 2018

John Young sits in his spacesuit, with the helmet off, the American flag off his right shoulder and a globe at his feet

John Young, the “astronaut’s astronaut” who flew on six different NASA missions over 18 years, has died at age 87. Complications from pneumonia was the cause of death.

With apologies to actor Jerry Van Dyke, we are declaring John Young the first major death of 2018. But not too many apologies, because the race isn’t really close.

The caption says it all: two guys in a space capsule, in old-time black and white

Astronauts John Young (left) and Gus Grissom prepare for flight on Gemini III. The two-man capsule lifted off for five hours in space on March 23, 1965.

John Young may not have had the fame of “firsties” like Neil Armstrong or Sally Ride, but in his way he had the most distinguished career of any astronaut in NASA’s first 50 years. He flew on six different NASA missions: two in Gemini capsules, two in Apollo missions, and two on the space shuttle. He actually was a firstie himself, commanding the very first space shuttle flight into orbit in 1981.

His Apollo 10 flight in May 1969 was a vital “dress rehearsal” for the Apollo 11 moon landing that followed two months later. Young flew the command module as the lunar lander actually detached and flew down into a lower orbit, then returned successfully.

Three guys in white suits stand around a big ol' Apollo capsule on the deck of a ship

John Young (center) poses with Apollo 16 command module pilot Thomas Mattingly II (left) and lunar module pilot Charles “Chuck” Duke Jr.

The lunar rover bounces and kicks up dust as it's driven across a gray, slightly rocky surface

Three years later, John Young became the ninth man to walk on the moon when he commanded Apollo 16. That’s him rat-racing the lunar rover across the moon’s surface in what NASA called a “Grand Prix” run.

Despite his many accomplishments, John Young is also remembered for smuggling a corned beef sandwich from Wolfie’s Delicatessen in Cocoa Beach, Florida, onto his first flight, the Gemini 3 mission with Gus Grissom. The scamp!

John Young poses in a blue jumpsuit with badges for all his flights plastered all over it. Young has gray hair and a big smile -- still slim!

John Young spent his later years at NASA working on astronaut safety and risk mitigation. He finally retired from NASA in 2004, the year he turned 74, with 42 years of space work under his belt. By then he had already been named to the National Aviation Hall of Fame, among many other honors.  He published his memoirs, Forever Young, in 2013.

Don’t miss NASA’s wonderful John Young photo gallery. There’s no shot of the corned beef sandwich, but you can never have enough of those wonderful shots from space.

Or see our full biography of astronaut John Young »


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