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John Young, US astronaut and space shuttle commander, dies

Astronauts John Young (L) and Robert Crippen (R), Oct. 10, 1980
Astronauts John Young (L) and Robert Crippen (R), Oct. 10, 1980 Copyright NASA/Kennedy Space Center/Handout via REUTERS
Copyright NASA/Kennedy Space Center/Handout via REUTERS
By Natalie Huet with Reuters
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He was the only astronaut to fly with three different NASA programs, in a career spanning 42 years.


John Young, NASA’s longest-serving astronaut, who flew in space six times, walked on the moon and commanded the first space shuttle flight, has died aged 87.

NASA said Young passed away at his home in Houston, Texas on Friday night (Jan. 5) following complications from pneumonia.

In a career spanning three generations and as many NASA space programs, Young flew twice to the Moon, walked on its surface and flew the first Space Shuttle mission.

“Today, NASA and the world have lost a pioneer," NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot said in a statement, calling him the US space agency’s most experienced astronaut.

Throughout his 42-year career, Young flew six times into space: twice during NASA's Gemini program in the 1960s, twice on the Apollo lunar missions and twice on space shuttles in the 1980s.

He was the only person to fly on all three programs, and the ninth man to walk on the moon.

He was also known for pulling out a corned beef sandwich while in orbit and advocating safety reforms in the wake of the 1986 Challenger disaster, saying NASA had exposed astronauts to major risks because of pressure to maintain its launching schedule.

A veteran Navy test pilot and Georgia Tech graduate who joined NASA in 1962, Young was regarded as a savvy engineer in troubleshooting technical problems on his missions and other spaceflights.

Lightfoot said: “I participated in many Space Shuttle Flight Readiness Reviews with John, and will always remember him as the classic ‘hell of an engineer’ from Georgia Tech, who had an uncanny ability to cut to the heart of a technical issue by posing the perfect question -- followed by his iconic phrase, ‘Just asking...’

Young, who joined NASA in 1962, also served as chief of the agency's astronaut corps from 1974 to 1987. He retired in 2004.

"John was more than a good friend," former US President George H.W. Bush said in a statement. "He was a fearless patriot whose courage and commitment to duty helped our nation push back the horizon of discovery at a critical time."

Astronaut Terry Virts tweeted: "Rest In peace John Young. You were one of my heroes as an astronaut and explorer and your passion for space will be missed."

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