In his heyday as a career astronaut, to imagine a character as reticent as John Young ever writing his autobiography would have been unheard of (and no doubt strongly resisted by Young himself), but now that the ex-Apollo astronauts are, shall we say, getting on in years, it seems to be almost de rigeur. Luckily for Young, and readers of this book, his publisher enlisted the author of “First Man: The Life of Neil Armstrong” to help him write it. The result is a fascinating read.
In a foreword by Apollo 11 command module pilot Mike Collins (who wrote his book years ago), he hesitates to describe Young as “unique”, considering it a “trite word”, but says “unusual” certainly fits. Amusingly, having provided a potted history of Young’s long career with NASA, he caves in: “Maybe he was even unique”, he says.
Written in the first person (as an autobiography should be), John Young tells his story from birth in 1930 to elder statesman of space in 2012. There are four parts to the story, covering his flying career, his Gemini missions, his Apollo missions and his Space Shuttle missions (two in each spacecraft). In fact, he is the only person to have flown in four different spacecraft types (Gemini, Apollo CSM and LM, and Shuttle) and to have driven a lunar rover on the Moon! Not a bad CV for starters.
The book begins with a prologue – effectively a ‘taster’ – about Young’s Apollo 16 mission, which was almost aborted in lunar orbit because of a problem with the command module. It is not clear who chose this story for the prologue, but it must have been uppermost in Young’s memories of the programme. After all, he had already been that far on Apollo 10, a presumably frustrating mission designed only to go as far as lunar orbit and not land; to be returning to the command module again without landing would have been difficult for any normally motivated person, but to someone as driven and apparently fearless as Young it would have been unbearable.
Eventually, on page 168, we learn the obvious conclusion: that the mission was allowed to continue…and very successful it was too. Of course, Young could not be allowed to ignore the ‘hot mike’ incident when his comments on the effects of “potassium-enriched” orange juice were unwittingly broadcast to Earth. After Mission Control suggested the juice was good for him, he “got a little peeved”: “Ever heard of stomach acid?”, he asked sarcastically. “I think I’ve got a pH factor of about three…because of the orange juice”. Then he turned to his crewmate and complained “I got the farts again, Charlie”, blaming the citrus overload. Duke agreed, adding: “I’ll tell you one thing – in another twelve fucking days, I ain’t never eating any more”. It’s not up there with the ‘one small step’ quote, but proof that even lunar astronauts are human!
The only criticism of the book is the poor reproduction quality of the black-and-white photos, but most have been published elsewhere (in ‘glorious Technicolor’) and they cannot dim the light of the story. There is unlikely ever to be another astronaut like John Young: he is indeed unique.
Mark Williamson, Space Technology Consultant