John Young was a genuine hero, but he was as down to earth as they come. John never paid much attention to all the nice sidewalks around the Johnson Space Center – when he needed to go from one building to the next, he chose a direct path, right across the grass. I never saw him wade through a duck pond, but I wouldn’t put it past him. He had this unique walk as well – impossible to describe, and now we’ll never see it again.
I first saw John Young when I was a Coop student, prior to STS-1. My office was on the same floor as the astronaut office, and I remember coming up the stairs and there on the top landing were John Young and Bob Crippen, talking about a test that had been done with Shuttle tiles on the belly of an F-15. I think the topic was tile repair. Apparently, they’d flown a patch of repaired tiles, and they’d zipped right off. There was laughter between the two – I think they had decided long before that the tiles just had to work, and repair wasn’t going to be an option.
I first “flew” with John in a simulator out at the Ames Research Center in the VMS – a huge, six-axis motion simulator we were using back in the mid 80’s to develop improvements to the Shuttle’s landing and deceleration operations. We were working on bigger brakes, better tires, improved nosewheel steering, and the new drag chute. We’d shot landing after landing, with tires blowing, brakes dragging, and failures in the steering – just to see how we could handle them. I flew with a lot of guys, and one day, found myself in the right seat, pulling gear and popping the chute for John – and it was something to behold. We had a couple of cases that were simply no-wins, and physics dictated that we weren’t going to stay on the runway, no matter what John did. So he narrated as we headed through the ditch and out into the swamp… “Look out alligators, here we come!” was his cry, and when asked for his evaluation score, he gave it a 10 (that’s as low as you can get on the Cooper-Harper scale), but he was grinning about it all the time.
My last memories are of spending time with John in the Mission Control Center (MCC) Director’s Suite, the “Crow’s Nest,” that overlooks the MCC front room. It was customary for senior management and Flight Directors who were not on duty to gather there for launch and landing shifts, and comment on the weather and the decisions being made. For a lot of years, you couldn’t keep John away, and I found myself alone with him before anyone else came in on numerous occasions. We talked flying, and weather, and just all the stuff pilots talk about. He had this impish grin when commenting on the decisions of others, and despite him never saying a negative word, you could tell if he approved or disapproved.
I never saw John flustered in a real-time operation – if we were simming, and the whole vehicle was going to pieces, and there was only one way to thread the needle to come home, John was still making wry comments and remaining calm – and that calmed everyone else down, and we just did the job. I last saw John at a dedication ceremony when the MCC was named for Dr. Kraft. John was moving slow, and had some help – but his presence was magical, and appreciated. I expect that when John departed Earth for the Pearly Gates this weekend, he walked past St. Peter with an impish grin on his face and a corned beef sandwich in his pocket, looking for Gus…..