John Young, one of the most experienced astronauts in history, passed away at the age of 87 on Friday, following complications attributed to pneumonia, according to a statement released by NASA on Saturday.

Young began his historic career with NASA in 1962, when the Navy fighter pilot was among only nine chosen to carry the space agency’s banner as its second ever astronaut class.  From there, Young would go on to fly in not only the Gemini capsule, but the Apollo and even the space shuttle.  Young was the only astronaut to earn that distinction.

Today, NASA and the world have lost a pioneer,” acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot said in a statement. “Astronaut John Young’s storied career spanned three generations of spaceflight; we will stand on his shoulders as we look toward the next human frontier.”

During Young’s decade spanning career with NASA, he flew in space on six separate occasions, two of which brought him to the moon, and once, all the way to its surface.  Of the 12 men to ever walk on the moon, Young was the ninth.

It would be hard to overstate the impact that John Young had on human space flight,” said Johnson Space Center Director Ellen Ochoa, a former astronaut herself.

“Beyond his well-known and groundbreaking six missions through three programs, he worked tirelessly for decades to understand and mitigate the risks that NASA astronauts face. He had our backs.”

Young wasn’t only remembered for his pioneering work as an astronaut however.  A story about his affinity for snacks made front page news in the mid-1960s, when the pilot turned astronaut smuggled a corned beef sandwich in his spacesuit on the first manned Gemini mission.  Once in orbit, Young reportedly produced the sandwich from where it was hidden and offered his crewmate, Gus Grissom, a bite. Depending on who you ask, Grissom was or wasn’t entertained… but there’s no question that Congress wasn’t.

A couple of congressmen became upset, thinking that, by smuggling in the sandwich and eating part of it, Gus and I had ignored the actual space food that we were up there to evaluate, costing the country millions of dollars,” Young wrote in his memoir.

NASA was even forced to assure lawmakers that they prohibit the smuggling of contraband onto their rockets as a result of the incident.  Rumor has it that on the first ever space shuttle mission, which Young piloted, corned beef was among the rations carried aboard.

The Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) gets a speed workout by astronaut John W. Young in the “Grand Prix” run during the first Apollo 16 spacewalk at the Descartes landing site on April 21, 1972.

His sense of humor carrier over to that mission as well.  When asked by reporters about the performance of the shuttle on its first mission, he was characteristically light-hearted in his response.

“Everything worked, that was the amazing part … especially on re-entry when we didn’t get burned up.”

Among Young’s awards were the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, three NASA Distinguished Service Medals, the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal, two Navy Distinguished Service Medals, and three Navy Distinguished Flying Crosses.

“John Young was at the forefront of human space exploration with his poise, talent, and tenacity,” Lightfoot said. “He was in every way the ‘astronaut’s astronaut.’ We will miss him.”


Images courtesy of NASA