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John Young has had moondust under his fingernails...

by Billy Watkins - June 1999

1999 Billy Watkins, a features writer for the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger interviewed John Young at the Johnson Space Center in Houston in June, 1999. His story follows.

HOUSTON, Texas - John Young has had moondust under his fingernails.

He has stood on the moon, 236,000 miles away among rocks that are 4.6 billion years old, and looked at the Earth suspended in darkness. He took three moonwalks, drove 16 miles in a moon buggy, and slept three nights on the lunar surface.

And yet he's hardly recognized in public.

"My wife can go to the grocery store, and they'll take her check with no problem," Young says. "When I go, I have to show my driver's license, my credit card."

He laughs. "But that's OK. I didn't get into this to be famous. I got into it to do a job."

Had the pecking order fallen differently, Young might have been the first human to set foot upon the moon. Instead, that honor fell to Neil Armstrong on July 20, 1969, and Young's turn came in April 1972 aboard Apollo 16. He was the ninth earthling to walk on the moon - a number that suits him just fine.

...I'm glad it wasn't me...

"I'm glad Neil and Buzz (Aldrin) got to do it first," says Young, 68. "For one thing, people would've tried to make a big wheel out of me. And another thing is, I would've never been able to fly the Shuttle. So I'm glad it wasn't me."

While Armstrong and Aldrin were grounded from further spaceflight - America would take no chances on losing its lunar pioneers - Young went on to fly the first Space Shuttle mission in 1981 and the first Spacelab mission in 1983.

Young is the only one of the 12 astronauts to walk on the moon who is still flight eligible. Alan Shepard, Jim Irwin and Pete Conrad are deceased. The other eight left the space program for various reasons.

Young carries on because he still thinks he can contribute to the program, still believes there's much to be done. He is heavily involved in the development of the X-33, a half-scale model of a reusable spacecraft that soon will be tested at the Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis. That's typical of his attitude - stay focused on the future.

That's also why it's hard to get much out of him about his time on the moon. He speaks of his three days there the way a normal person would talk about a vacation to the Smoky Mountains.

It was fun, he says.

We had a great time, he says.

But surely at some point he said to himself, "I can't believe I'm here." Didn't he?

"I never thought 'I can't believe I'm here,' " he says during a rare interview, dressed in a gray suit and sitting at a table in the Lyndon B. Johnson conference room at the Johnson Space Center. A few feet away, in a glass case, is the U.S. flag that was flying over the White House the moment Armstrong put the first bootprint in the lunar soil. "Not once the whole time. At least I didn't. I just thought we were behind in our timeline the whole time.

"You know, time on the moon is so precious. They booked about 125 percent of what we could do, so Charlie (Duke) and I were always behind. We wanted to be here and couldn't quite make it there.

"They didn't give us time to sit out there and think. You looked at your checklist and said, 'I've got to go over here and turn that boulder over and dig underneath it.' You did that, then you looked to see what you had to do next. Plus, we had spent hundreds of hours simulating it. My pressure suit became just like an old set of longjohns to me."

Two unusual things he does remember about his time in the moon's Descartes highlands, which is near the left cheekbone of the "man in the moon" as viewed from Earth:

1) The sounds, or lack of them, in the moon's vacuum during his three excursions outside the lunar module. "The only sounds you hear on the moon are your pumps and fans running," he says. "And if you don't hear them, you know you're in a world of hurt."

2) The dastardly taste of orange juice laced with potassium.

On Apollo 15, astronauts David Scott and Jim Irwin suffered heart irregularities while on the moon due to a lack of potassium in their diets. So Young and Duke were told to drink as much of the orange juice as they could stand.

At one point, according to the official flight transcripts, Young turned to Duke and said: "I haven't eaten this much citrus fruit in 20 years. But I'll tell you one thing, in another 12 (expletive) days, I ain't ever eatin' anymore."

Young smiles when asked if orange juice is a steady part of his diet these days. "Oh yeah," he says, his voice not quite convincing. "It's good for you."


Lee Silver, a geologist who taught astronauts how to explore the moon, calls Young "the archetypical extraterrestrial."

In layman's terms, that means he's a stud among the astronauts, and his legend is grand. Fact: Young's heart rate at the time of touchdown on the moon was 90 beats per minute. By comparison, Armstrong's was 150.

Young, a former Navy test pilot, flew two Gemini (two-man) missions. He was the first astronaut to operate a computer in space, on Gemini 10 in 1966. He was the first human to orbit the moon alone, aboard Apollo 10 in May 1969. As soon as he returned from Apollo 16, NASA made him the backup commander on Apollo 17. Young was chosen to take the Shuttle on its maiden voyage.

He was selected in 1986 to fly the Shuttle a third time, to deploy NASA's pride and joy - the Hubble telescope. But then the Challenger disaster occurred, seven astronauts died, and Young wasn't bashful about speaking his mind about how safety was being compromised by a hectic launch schedule.

Young was removed from the flight rotation, many suspect because of his public comments. He says the prospects of him commanding another mission don't look good.

"I don't think I'll get another flight," he says matter-of-facty. Then his face brightens. "But about 10 minutes ago, I was in the Shuttle simulator. Visual systems weren't working, but I made the landing anyway. Anytime you can make a landing on the needles (instruments) without any visuals, then you haven't forgotten how to do it."

He continues to look ahead, only peering back to "take what lessons I learned and try not to make those mistakes again." "

Every time I look at the moon, I just can't believe we're not still going there...

So that's why every time John Young looks up at the moon, he doesn't think about his bootprints there or the rocks he gathered. "Every time I look at the moon, I just can't believe we're not still going there, that we don't have a base there right this minute," he says.

He hopes all the attention the 30th anniversary of Apollo 11 gets this week will stir interest in going back to the moon.

"To think that 12 people went there and figured out the moon is ridiculous," he says. "We really don't know anything about the moon. It has the secrets of the Earth's lost youth. It has the secrets of the sun in its upper atmosphere. We need to go find out what's been going on.

"If we're ever going to really explore our solar system, the moon is where we've got to start. Make all the mistakes there. You've got to learn how to work in unhospitable places where there are temperature extremes. You do that by going back to the moon and working there.

"You can go anywhere in the solar system from the moon with 1/20th the energy it takes to get there from Earth because of the low-gravity field. It just makes sense to go back there and study it, build a base there, then set our sights on Mars."

Young says flights to Mars will be "the greatest achievement of this species in the next century."

Here's his reasoning: "In the past 30 years, I think exploration of space has shown us that we have a new endangered species out there - and that's us. There are some bad things going on in our solar system that are absolutely normal out there."

Such as large asteroids that could strike Earth and destroy all human life.

"Yes, we're talking about stuff like Armageddon," he says, referring to the movie about a team of drillers-turned-astronauts who are called on to destroy an asteroid before it hits Earth. "And we're the only people in the country working on a motor that could move an asteroid. The Department of Energy is working on a nuclear thermal engine that could power the motor. The way you do it is, pick up the asteroid way far out. What better place to see this than from the moon? If it's headed toward Earth, put the motor on there, put the power pack on there, and just move the asteroid out of the way."

"We've spent trillions and trillions of dollars to avoid World War III," he says. "And we've hardly spent anything on space exploration. Yet we've found out now that we're just as much in danger from our space environment as we are World War III. In fact, what's going on out there is inevitable. It's always been like that. It's just that we're smarter and we know about it now."

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