John Young, 'most experienced' US astronaut, dies at 87

Jan 6 (Reuters) - U.S. astronaut John Young, who walked on the moon in 1972 and even smuggled a corned beef sandwich into orbit during a career that made him the only person to fly with three NASA space programs, has died at age 87, officials said on Saturday.

Young, who went to space six times, died on Friday night at his home in Houston following complications from pneumonia, National Aeronautics and Space Administration spokesman Allard Beutel said in an email.

The former U.S. Navy test pilot was the ninth person to set foot on the moon, an experience shared by three others after Young. He eventually became one of the most accomplished astronauts in the history of the U.S. space program.

He flew into space twice during NASA's Gemini program in the mid-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 types of programs.

28 PHOTOS
Astronaut John Young through the years
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Astronaut John Young through the years
UNITED STATES - MAY 08: Young flew on the Gemini 3 and Gemini 10 missions in 1965 and 1966 before becoming part of the Apollo team. He was the Command Module pilot on the Apollo 10 lunar orbital mission in May 1969, the dress rehearsal for the actual Apollo 11 Moon landing, and became the ninth man to walk on the Moon when he flew on Apollo 16 in 1972. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)
John W. Young, Commader of Apollo 16, salutes the United States Flag as he leaps from the surface of the Moon near the lunar lander. | Location: Descartes landing site, The Moon.
(Original Caption) Washington: Chief astronaut John Young testifies before the presidential commission probing the Challenger disaster. Young and others said NASA has to fix communications problems and find a way for crews to bail out if in trouble.
UNITED STATES - JUNE 10: Apollo 16, carrying Apollo astronauts John Young - Commander, Thomas Mattingly - Command and Service Module pilot and Charles Duke - Lunar Module pilot, lifted off from the Kennedy Space Centre, Cape Canaveral, Florida, on 16th April 1972. It was the fifth successful Apollo lunar landing mission and astronauts Young and Duke became the ninth and tenth men to walk on the Moon. Mattingly remained in lunar orbit while they were on the surface. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)
NASA astronauts John Watts Young (left) and Robert Laurel Crippen, the crew of the STS-1 mission on the space shuttle 'Columbia' (NASA Orbiter Vehicle OV-102), give a thumbs up from the cockpit of the shuttle at the Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida, 20th October 1980. (Photo by Space Frontiers/Getty Images)
14th April 1981: The prime crew commander, John Young and the pilot, Robert Crippen, with a model of the Space Shuttle orbiter Columbia. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)
Astronaut John Young gives the Lunar Roving Vehicle a speed workout in the 'Grand Prix' run during the third Apollo 16 extravehicular activity at the Descartes landing site, Moon, April 23, 1972. (Photo by NASA/Underwood Archives/Getty Images)
Technicians assist astronauts John Young (R) and Robert Crippen (L) in suit-up operations in Kennedy's Operations and Checkout Building on the morning of Space Shuttle Columbia's first orbital flight on April 12, 1981. / AFP / NASA / - (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
Astronauts John W Young (right), STS-1 prime crew commander, and Robert L Crippen taking notes during a briefing following their 'Columbia' Space Shuttle mission, April 14th 1981. (Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
(Original Caption) Cape Canaveral, Fla.: Space shuttle astronaut John Young, L, is pensive as Columbia pilot Robert Crippen tells members of the news media that 'it felt just great' to sit in the spacehip's seats during a successful dry count down test earlier in the morning. The shuttle, covered with a service structure, sits on pad 39A in the background.
Astronaut John W. Young, Commander of the Apollo 16 lunar landing mission, collects samples at the North Ray Crater of the moon, 23rd April 1972. The Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) is parked behind him. (Photo by Space Frontiers/Getty Images)
NASA astronauts John Watts Young (left) and Robert Laurel Crippen, the crew of the STS-1 mission on the space shuttle Columbia (NASA Orbiter Vehicle OV-102), 29th April 1979. They are holding a small model of the orbiter. (Photo by Space Frontiers/Getty Images)
(Original Caption) Apollo 16 Pacific Recovery Area: Waving to well-wishers, Apollo 16 astronauts, l-r, John W. Young, Charles M. Duke, Jr., and Thomas K. Mattingly II leave recovery helicopter following splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, 2:45 p.m. EST April 27, 1972, 2,778 kilometers (1,500 nautical miles) south of Hawaii.
The crew of the Apollo 16 space mission (amd their wives) celebrate backstage at a performance of 'A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum' at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, New York, New York, June 7, 1972. Visible are astronaut John W. Young (center, fore) and his wife Susy (center left, fore), astronaut Thomas K. Mattingly (behind and between the Youngs), and astronaut Charles Duke Jr. (far right) and his wife Dorothy. Also present are show cast members including star Phil Silvers (1911 - 1985) (third right, fore) and then-US Ambassador to the United Nations and future American President George H. W. Bush (second left). (Photo by Tim Boxer/Getty Images)
Houston Space Center: Close up of astronaut John W. Young in civilian clothes. (Photo by Bettmann/Corbis/Getty Images)
16th May 1972: Apollo 16 spacecraft containing the lunar astronauts, John Young, Thomas Mattingly and Charles Duke Jnr landing in the Pacific ocean, 1,500 miles south of Hawaii. Three parachutes slow its impact. (Photo by NASA/Central Press/Getty Images)
Looking aft toward the cargo bay of NASA's Space Shuttle Orbiter 102 vehicle, Columbia, Astronauts John Young (L) and Robert Crippen preview some of the intravehicular activity expected to take place during the orbiter's flight test, at Kennedy Space Center October 10, 1980. REUTERS/NASA/Kennedy Space Center/Handout (UNITED STATES - Tags: SCI TECH) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
UNITED STATES - MAY 03: Apollo 16 astronauts Thomas Mattingly, John Young and Charles Duke, in casual clothes with a lunar globe. Apollo 16 was launched on 16th April 1972 and Young and Duke became the ninth and tenth men to walk on the Moon. Young had previously flown on Apollo 10, the dress rehearsal for the first landing mission, while Mattingly had been due to fly on the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission, but had to withdraw shortly before the flight having contracted German measles. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)
Astronaut John Young (Photo by Time Life Pictures/NASA/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
(Original Caption) Astronaut John W. Young is to be the command module pilot for the Apollo 10 lunar orbit mission, scheduled for launch from KSC on May 18th. Young will remain behind in lunar orbit while Thomas P. Stafford, commander, and Eugene A. Cernan, lunar module pilot, detach the lunar module and drop to within 10 miles of the Moon's surface.
(Original Caption) Houston, Texas: Closeup of astronaut John W. Young, crew commander of Space Shuttle Orbiter Columbia.
UNITED STATES - APRIL 15: This banner is held by astronaut John Young inside the Apollo 10 spacecraft on its way to the Moon. Charlie Brown was the code name for the Apollo 10 Command Module, the Lunar Module was code named Snoopy. Crewed by Young, Thomas Stafford and Eugene Cernan, Apollo 10 successfully completed a lunar orbital mission in May 1969 as the dress rehearsal for the actual Apollo 11 Moon landing, which took place two months later. The Command Module pilot for Apollo 10, Young also flew on the Gemini 3 and Gemini 10 missions, on Apollo 16, becoming the 9th man to walk on the Moon, on the initial test flight of the Space Shuttle SM1 and on Shuttle Mission SM7. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - APRIL 12: Crewed by Young, Thomas Stafford and Eugene Cernan, Apollo 10 successfully completed a lunar orbital mission in May 1969 as the dress rehearsal for the actual Apollo 11 Moon landing, which took place two months later. The Command Module pilot for Apollo 10, Young also flew on the Gemini 3 and Gemini 10 missions, on Apollo 16, becoming the 9th man to walk on the Moon, on the initial test flight of the Space Shuttle SM1 and on Shuttle Mission SM7. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - APRIL 11: Gemini 10 was launched on 18th July 1966 and made 43 orbits of the Earth on its three-day mission during which it docked with an Agena target vehicle. The achievements of the Gemini missions were vital for developing the Apollo programme that put the first astronauts on the Moon in 1969. Both Collins and Young flew on Apollo missions. Collins was the Command Module pilot who remained in lunar orbit while Neil Armstrong and Edwin ?Buzz? Aldrin became the first men to walk on the Moon. Young flew on Apollo 10, the dress rehearsal for the first landing, and also on Apollo 16, when he became the ninth man to set foot on the lunar surface. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)
Portrait of American astronaut John Young, pilot for Gemini 3, 1960s. (Photo by NASA/Interim Archives/Getty Images)
NASA Astronauts Virgil 'Gus' Grissom and John Young, upon Completion of Gemini 3 Space Mission, Portrait, 1965. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
John Watts Young (b1930), NASA astronaut, c1990s. John Watts Young is a former NASA astronaut who walked on the Moon on April 21 1972, during the Apollo 16 mission. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 10: Left to right; Eugene Cernan, Thomas Stafford and John Young in spacesuits in front of a representation of the lunar surface. Crewed by these three astronauts, Apollo 10 was launched on 18th May 1969 on a lunar orbital mission, the dress rehearsal for the Apollo 11 moon landing mission which took place two months later. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)
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"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," NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot said in a statement.

Young, described in a NASA tweet as "our most experienced astronaut," retired in 2004 after 42 years with the U.S. space agency.

The Apollo 16 mission in April 1972, his fourth space flight, took Young to the lunar surface.

As mission commander, he and crewmate Charles Duke explored the moon's Descartes Highlands region, gathering 200 pounds (90 kg) of rock and soil samples and driving more than 16 miles (26 km) in the lunar rover to sites such as Spook Crater.

Recalling his lunar exploits, Young told the Houston Chronicle in 2004: "One-sixth gravity on the surface of the moon is just delightful. It's not like being in zero gravity, you know. You can drop a pencil in zero gravity and look for it for three days. In one-sixth gravity, you just look down and there it is."

Young's first time in space came in 1965 with the Gemini 3 mission that took him and astronaut Gus Grissom into Earth orbit in the first two-person U.S. space jaunt.

It was on this mission that Young pulled his sandwich stunt, which did not make NASA brass happy but certainly pleased Grissom, the recipient of the snack.

Astronaut Wally Schirra, who was not flying on the mission, bought the corned beef sandwich on rye bread from a delicatessen in Cocoa Beach, Florida, and asked Young to give it to Grissom in space. During the flight, as they discussed the food provided for the mission, Young handed Grissom the sandwich.

NASA later rebuked Young for the antics, which generated criticism from lawmakers and the media, but his career did not suffer.

His May 1969 Apollo 10 mission served as a "dress rehearsal" for the historic Apollo 11 mission two months later in which Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon. Young and his crew undertook each aspect of that subsequent mission except for an actual moon landing.

Young's fifth space mission was as commander of the inaugural flight of NASA's first space shuttle, Columbia, in 1981. He became the first person to fly six space missions in 1983, when he commanded Columbia on the first Spacelab trek, with the crew performing more than 70 scientific experiments.

He never went to space again. Young had been due to command a 1986 flight that was canceled after the explosion of the shuttle Challenger earlier that year.

"John was more than a good friend," former 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."

Young was born on Sept. 24, 1930, in San Francisco and grew up in Orlando, Florida. After receiving a degree in aeronautical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1952, he entered the Navy and graduated from its test pilot school. NASA picked him in 1962 for its astronaut program.

(Reporting and writing by Will Dunham; Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Bill Trott and Lisa Von Ahn)

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