One of NASA's most storied figures, John Young, has passed away at the age of 87, according to NASA.
For four decades, Young flew missions as a part of the space agency's most famous programs, including Gemini, Apollo and the space shuttle. He left Earth six times out of seven total missions, including two to the moon with Apollo. He got to walk on the moon during Apollo 16. Young also commanded the space shuttle Columbia's first flight, and made his final flight on the same vessel two years later. His 42 years with NASA is longer than any other astronaut.
"Astronaut John Young's storied career spanned three generations of spaceflight," said NASA administrator Robert Lightfoot in an emailed statement to the Associated Press. "John was one of that group of early space pioneers whose bravery and commitment sparked our nation's first great achievements in space."
But Young was known for speaking his mind just as much as he was for his storied missions in outer space, especially when it came to keeping crews safe. He spoke out after the 1986 accident which destroyed the Challenger shuttle and continued his criticism up to the Columbia's disintegration during re-entry in 2003.
"Whenever and wherever I found a potential safety issue, I always did my utmost to make some noise about it, by memo or whatever means might best bring attention to it," said Young in his memoir "Forever Young."
He wrote mountains of memos to personnel between the incidents, a move which was extremely uncommon at the time. His tenacity earned him a bit of a reputation, Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins reportedly referred to him as "the memo-writing champion of the astronaut office." Young continued to battle with the status quo until his retirement in 2004.
"You don't want to be politicall correct," he told the AP in an interview in 2000. "You want to be right."
Born on Sept. 24, 1930, Young grew up in Orlando, Florida. His fascination with aviation and science came early, he was known to build model airplanes and worked on a surveying team during his last high school summer. Young attended the Georgia Institute of Technology, earning an engineering degree in 1952. He would later join the Navy as a gunnery officer and serve during the Korean war before qualifying to become a Navy fighter and test pilot. He started his career at NASA in 1962 as a part of the second astronaut class, along with notables such as Neil Armstong, Pete Conrad and James Lovell.
Even after his retirement, Young pushed for the continuation of space programs, especially the shuttle.
"I really believe we should be operating [the shuttle], flying it right now, because there's just not a lot we can do to make it any better," said Young in 2004, a year after Columbia was destroyed. It would be another year before flights resumed.
But Young's imagination saw well beyond just shuttle launches, he argued for two to three times more space exploration throughout the 1990s and 2000s, including massive rocket lifts to industrialize the moon and building system to prevent Earth from being threatened by comets and asteroids.
"The country needs it. The world needs it. Civilization needs it, said Young in 2000. "I don't need it. I'm not going to be here that long."