Ulf Merbold: remembering John Young (1930-2018)

22/08/2018 478 views 7 likes
ESA / About Us / ESA history

Early this year, NASA astronaut John Young passed away, aged 87. This loss saddened the space community around the world, including fellow space explorers, perhaps especially the ones who had flown with him in space.

In 1983, ESA’s Ulf Merbold became the first non-American astronaut to fly on the US Space Shuttle on STS-9/Spacelab-1. The commander of this Shuttle mission was John Young. In this interview, Ulf Merbold pays tribute and remembers this pioneering astronaut:

Making the grade

When I found the job advertisement in 1977 in a large German daily newspaper, in which the German Aerospace Center (DLR) on behalf of ESA, offered to the chance to fly on the first Spacelab flight as a science astronaut, I was electrified.

I applied, although I had to assume that my chance of being selected was minimal. In fact, about 2000 other interested people applied. It took more than a year to get them all tested. The call from Paris, telling me that I was in the race with Claude Nicollier and Wubbo Ockels, was one of the most momentous of my life.

Happy about the success, we all signed the employment contract. Without delay, we started training. At its core was an understanding of all the experiments that had been selected for the first Spacelab flight and to learn how to operate them flawlessly.

After several years of training under the guidance of the scientists, it was up to them to decide which of us should go on and operate them in space. I became the lucky one, but I would have liked to split the upcoming flight in half with Wubbo. Around the time when decision was between Wubbo and myself, NASA announced that John Young would be commander of our flight, STS 9.

Meeting the space hero

“It could not have been better. John Young, along with pilot Bob Crippen, had been the first crew into orbit with the Shuttle, and to fly a reentry into the atmosphere and then land safely. So he knew and had mastered the most complex flying machine ever built. In view of the upcoming Spacelab maiden flight, this was an added gain in safety. My confidence that it would be successful got a substantial boost.

At the beginning of John Young’s impressive career was the first Gemini flight. Together with his commander ‘Gus’ Grissom, he had the task of practicing different orbital change manoeuvres on this mission. Although the flight was a great success, it still amuses me today that he is said to have got in trouble with the bureaucrats of NASA. Allegedly, they were upset that John had smuggled a corned beef sandwich on board. What a crime!

On his second flight with Mike Collins, it was necessary to dock their Gemini capsule to two docking targets in succession, first Agena 10, then Agena 8.

Apollo 16: John's finest hour...

The ultimate challenge for the NASA astronauts was the Apollo programme. US President John F. Kennedy had challenged his nation in 1961 to fly to the Moon and safely return to Earth in that decade. In the end, it was only John Young and Gene Cernan who were able to twice make the long journey to Earth’s heavenly companion and land on it. John’s first mission to the Moon on Apollo 10. It is noteworthy that Gene Cernan was also part of that crew.

This flight preceded the first landing attempt. Except for the actual landing, all necessary manoeuvres had to be rehearsed successfully. John was given the task of piloting the Apollo Command Module and waiting for the return of Tom Stafford and Gene in their spider-shaped vehicle, the Lunar Module (LM). They had approached the lunar surface with the LM down to 14 km altitude.

Fortunately, the LM’s upper stage engine ignited and its crew managed to dock in the lunar orbit back with John’s Command Module, although difficulties had occurred with the attitude control system of the LM. On the return flight to Earth, Stafford, Cernan and Young entered Earth’s atmosphere at a speed of 39 897 km/h, the highest speed ever reached by humans.

John’s big moment came with Apollo 16. This time he flew as Commander. His LM copilot was Charlie Duke. They landed near the Descartes Crater, the southernmost landing site of the programme. Ken Mattingly, who had been replaced on Apollo 13 by Jack Swigert, because he may have been infected with measles and showed no immunity, held the Command Module Pilot position in the Moon’s orbit. John and Charlie’s programme included installing a whole battery of scientific equipment on the Moon.

In their three EVAs, their Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV), the Moon buggy, helped them to increase significantly their radius of operation. The recorded films show how John, delighted by this newly acquired extra mobility, tries to set a lunar speed record with the LRV. In total, the Apollo 16 crew spent three days on the Moon.

The three-dollar ride

I waited impatiently for the chance to finally get to know better the great John Young. At our first meeting, he was reserved. I’m not sure even if he greeted me with a handshake. I had hoped for more empathy, but I was not completely surprised. I had previously experienced that not all Johnson Space Center staff were pleased with ESA astronauts roaming about the space mecca.

At first, this reception surprised us, even alienated us. For example, we Europeans were not allowed to use the gym that was available to NASA astronauts in Houston. Some of NASA’s science astronauts, recruited during the Apollo programme, had been training longer than Claude, Wubbo and I had been there, and were still waiting to be assigned to missions. We could understand that some people were not that excited to see us Europeans.

The reservations about ‘payload specialists’, as we were called discriminatingly, could also be seen from the fact that, unlike the ‘mission specialists’, we were not allowed to take part in the flight training in the T38 jets. Often enough, Owen Garriott and Bob Parker, the mission specialists we’d been travelling with for years, would arrive for training in these sleek jets. I would have gladly flown with either of them in the back seat of one of their planes to continue training elsewhere. I’m sure that each of them would not have minded to take me along, but after finding out that it was forbidden for them, I stopped asking them for it.

I was all the more surprised then when I found an entry on my training plan labelled ‘T38’. For a moment, I assumed there was a mistake. ‘Just do not ask’, was my second thought. With the training plan in my pocket, I arrived at the NASA hangar at Ellington Field and collected my parachute, oxygen mask and helmet, and waited for my pilot.

Even today, I remember the image of a figure approaching me from afar. Judging by the gait, it was John Young. Could I believe my eyes? John was the boss of all astronauts. He had more work on his desk than he liked. There was no doubt. It was not a mirage, I was not wrong. He had come in person and had taken the time to fly the T38 with me.

After I recovered the power of speech, we climbed into the aircraft. As the engines powered up, I heard a voice in my headset, “I'll give you a three-dollar ride.” I knew what was coming. He meant it was going to be worth it, an extra-long rollercoaster ride.

I am grateful to the Luftwaffe for giving me the opportunity to fly in the Starfighter several times. I’d also sat many hours behind the control stick of various aircraft, so I was somewhat prepared for the rolls and loops that we would soon fly. We started towards the Gulf of Mexico. After John had flown the T38 in all possible directions and orientations for a while, I asked him over the intercom: “Could I get some sticktime?” Without further ado, his answer came: “You have it.”

From the back seat, I saw his hands raised to signal that he had released the joystick. Now it was my turn to fly the beautiful bird. I remember with great pleasure how quickly the T38 moves around the roll axis. With the aileron fully deflected, it doesn’t take a second to make a complete heaven and Earth turn.

The beautiful jet is less agile in loops than rolls, the reason being the high wing loading. I quickly found out that the plane starts to shake when you pull hard on the stick. I thought, John will intervene when the g-load gets too big. He didn’t and allowed me to complete the manoeuvre. Finally, the fuel gauge forced us to fly back to Ellington.

Approaching the runway, I kindly thanked him for the time he had sacrificed for me. I told him what a pleasure it was to fly with him. By this time, we’d already extended the landing gear, and the red lamp that warned of fuel shortage was already brightly lit.

Then I heard him say, “You really enjoyed it?” Before even I could answer in euphoric voice, John pushed the power lever forward and retracted the landing gear again. After a tight circuit of airfield, we landed. After that, my world was not the same anymore. From that moment, I enjoyed John Young’s unqualified support.


Particularly profitable was John's help in orbit. In November 1983, the time had come: Spacelab 1 was in space. It was the first NASA mission with the crew working in shifts. I was privileged to work in sync with John Young and Bob Parker. While John was in the Shuttle Columbia’s cockpit, monitoring the systems and manoeuvering our spacecraft in relation to the Sun, to space, to Earth, or in a direction with respect to Earth’s magnetic field as required by the experiments, Bob and I were focused in Spacelab, busy on the experiments entrusted to us.

After more than twelve hours on shift, we came back from the lab not a little exhausted. As we came through the tunnel to the so-called Middeck, we found that John had prepared our meals for dinner. He also appeared in Spacelab quite often to offer his help. It quickly became clear to me that John was not only a pilot, but also interested in our science. Moreover, he was not averse to sharing the ‘less noble’ tasks that must be done in space. As a space hero, he could have behaved differently. He didn’t have to prepare dinner for Bob and me, or help in menial tasks.

The shared meals have remained in my memory. John’s encouragement for us to eat with him is probably attributable to his experience. We talked together and John recounted stories about his previous flights. I got to hear a lot that can not be read in any official NASA publication. Even today, I feel privileged to have met a human who has been to the Moon. Remembering that such chats took place space as we flew around Earth, even today causes me to doubt as to whether it all really happened and to think I am dreaming.

Because we had managed conserve our onboard power, we were given an extra day in space. I was particularly pleased that, as astronauts, it was left to us how we used the spare time and what experiments we wanted to repeat. I saw it as an unmistakable sign that the scientists whose experiments we had carried out in the last few days placed great trust in us. I am still happy about it today.

When our power levels on the 10th day leaned toward the reserve mark, it was time to prepare for the return to Earth. We cleaned up in the Spacelab. All parts and tools were stowed. Heavy equipment was fixed with so-called ‘launch locks’. When we had secured everything, the phrase came to mind: ‘It’s done’. We had worked on Spacelab 1 for more than five years. Now Bob Parker was waiting for me at the exit of our lab in the Middeck to leave. When we switched off the light, I felt gratitude to a machine and a little sadness.

Exploring the Spacelab had been a pleasure. Returing to the Shuttle, we closed the big hatch to the tunnel. Now it was mainly the task of John and his pilot Brewster Shaw to prepare the Shuttle for the return flight to Earth. While still in safely orbit, the necessary systems were tested in turn. Not all worked as desired. Two of our five computers failed. Only one could be reactivated.

For navigation and flight guidance, we had three inertial platforms. One of them was operating noisily before our return flight. For the members of the control team on the ground, they were worried that Columbia might be out of shape. On the radio at least, there was a lot of talk. What did John Young do? He pulled himself into his bunk and slept. I thought, as long as he does that, there is no problem.

At the very end of our 10-day mission, there was still a very serious difficulty to overcome. As we plunged into the atmosphere, a fire ignited in the stern of our spaceship. Quickly we lost two of our three Auxillary Power Units (APUs). These are systems that, among other things, maintain the pressure in the hydraulic system of our spaceship. With only the one APU left, we no longer had redundancy to move the rudder of our glider, or extend the landing gear or brake after landing.

Of course, I’m more than grateful to John and Brewster for working as a team to solve the crisis that could have brought us to ruin minutes before we set foot back on the Good Earth.

Everyone involved in the first Spacelab flight can be proud of their work. Spacelab was developed and built by ESA as a platform that upgraded the Shuttle from a transporter to a scientific laboratory, and it had worked flawlessly and met all specifications. As far as I know, none of the more than 20 subsequent missions experienced any significant difficulties. The scientific harvest of our mission was above average. There’s not enough space to list all the results.

Challenges mastered

 John Young in a portrait taken in 2002.
John Young in a portrait taken in 2002.

After our flight, John Young and I became good friends. We met up or had exchanges at every opportunity. It became clear to me that John was full of empathy for the lives of others. Anyone who takes a look at his lifetime performance will also be impressed by his track record as head of the astronauts.

His memos to management are legendary. In essence, they all had the goal of pointing out weaknesses, and not just technical ones. His concern had always been to achieve and ensure the highest level of safety on all flights into space. It is by no means ironic that he became a manager at the end of his highly impressive career, serving as Deputy Director of the Johnson Space Flight Center.

Of all the people I’ve met in the course of my many years as an astronaut, John Young impressed me the most. For me, he is the brightest star in the astronaut sky.

This article was translated and edited from the original German version.

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