Weekly Feature

2018-01-11 / Editorials

Pioneering US astronauts fading into history books

Managing Editor

American astronauts have a sad thing in common with American veterans of World War II. Many of these men and women with the right stuff have passed away recently, leaving only their names in history books.

John Young, who walked on the moon during Apollo 16 and commanded the first space shuttle mission, died Friday, Jan. 5, 2018, at the age of 87 from complications of pneumonia, according to NASA. Young began his impressive career at the space agency in 1962, when he was selected from among hundreds of young pilots to join its second astronaut class, known as the “New Nine.”

He was the only person to go into space as part of the Gemini, Apollo and space shuttle programs and was the first to fly into space a total of six times.

A Navy pilot, Young made his first flight as an astronaut in March 1965, joining Gus Grissom on Gemini 3, the first manned flight of that program. His pioneering work had just begun. After piloting the Gemini 10 mission, he served as command module pilot on Apollo 10 and flew to the moon with crewmates Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan in a dress rehearsal for the first lunar landing.

Young made a return trip to the moon as commander of Apollo 16 in April 1972. With Ken Mattingly orbiting above in the command module, Young and lunar module pilot Charlie Duke drove 16 miles in the gangly lunar rover.

“Young’s career was full of firsts,” according to his NASA biography. “None [was] more notable than in April 1981, when he commanded Space Shuttle Columbia on its — and the Shuttle program’s— maiden flight. It was the first time a piloted spacecraft was tested in space without previous unpiloted orbital flights.”

The headline in the next morning’s Orlando Sentinel said it all: “Columbia does just heavenly.”

Then in 1983, Young commanded the first Spacelab mission. Bruce McCandless II died Dec. 21, 2017. In 1984, during the first of his two space shuttle missions, he made the first untethered free flight by using a bulky backpack called the Manned Maneuvering Unit. He became a human satellite.

Cernan, who flew with Young on Apollo 10, died Jan. 16, 2017. He was the last man to walk on the moon.

Edgar Mitchell, part of the Apollo 14 crew, died Feb. 4, 2016. He publicly expressed his opinion that he was “90 percent sure that many of the thousands of unidentified flying objects, or UFOs, recorded since the 1940s, belong to visitors from other planets.”

Grissom perished with Ed White and Roger Chaffee in the 1967 Apollo 1 launch pad fire.

Alan Shepard was the first American in space in 1961 and died in 1998. He commanded the flight of Apollo 14 and was quoted as saying, “I must admit, maybe I am a piece of history after all.” The first American to orbit the Earth, John Glenn, died in 2016. He also served as a member of the U.S. Senate.

Currently, there are 44 American astronauts “eligible for flight assignment.” At one time, there were more than 140. Yet there are no plans to build and launch a manned American space vehicle.

“Possible assignments for new hires include flights to the International Space Station aboard new commercial crew ferry ships and eventual flights to the vicinity of the moon and eventually Mars using NASA’s Orion spacecraft,” according to CBS News.

I’ll miss you all. (David F. Sherman is managing editor of Bee Group Newspapers and a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York, a group of community newspapers with a combined circulation of 286,500 readers. Opinions expressed here are those of the author. He can be reached at dsherman@beenews.com.)

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