Category Archives: Profiles

John W. Young

John W. Young (1930)

Across the years, only a few humans have had the honor of being able to say that they walked on the moon – and John Watts Young is one of them. In 1972, he became the ninth man to walk on the Moon as the Commander of the Apollo 16 mission. However, his life has spanned much more than even this, and he truly is one of the most fascinating people within the entire history of NASA’s Astronauts Corps.

Born on September 24, 1930, he grew up in both San Francisco and Orlando. He stayed in Orlando until he graduated from the Orlando High School in 1948. Four years later, he earned his Bachelor of Science degree in aeronautical engineering, and joined the Scabbard & Blade national military honor society.

It was this degree that would help John Young become one of the most decorated engineers of his time. Having enlisted in the United States Navy, he completed a tour in the Sea of Japan during the Korean War. It was during this time in the Navy that Young would initiate his flight training. He showed immense adaptation in his flight training and in 1962, he actually set the record for time-to-climb in a F-4 Phantom II fighter jet. He retired from the Navy as a decorated Captain in 1976, with 25 years of military service behind him.

File:Astronaut John Young gemini 3.jpg

Having joined NASA in 1962, he was the first of the Astronaut Group 2 to actually fly in space when he replaced Thomas Stafford as the pilot of Gemini 3. Young caused controversy when he snuck a corned beef sandwich – Mission Commander Grissom’s favorite – onto the Gemini flight in 1965, which was the first manned flight of the craft. He presented the sandwich to a pleased crewmate but NASA was furious about the “contraband” and ordered Chief Astronaut Donald “Deke” Slayton to control his troops. While the Appropriations Committee meeting following the mission showed the seriousness of the incident, it didn’t seem to have damaged Young’s career as he came off with a reprimand and was in command of the Gemini 10 mission a year later, where he was joined by Michael Collins (whose second spaceflight took him to the Moon on Apollo 11 with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin).

Originally assigned as part of the backup crew for the second manned Apollo mission, both crews took part in the Apollo 7 mission in October 1968 after the fire of Apollo 1. That Apollo 7 mission, where Young was the backup Command Module Pilot, was commanded by no one less than Walter M. Schirra, who was the provider of that notorious sandwich mentioned earlier. Young went on to fly the Command Module himself as part of the Apollo 10 crew, the first crew to fly to the Moon. He also played a key role in the Apollo 13 problems, helping the team develop a procedure which eventually re-activated the Command Module.

Arguably his greatest achievement, though, was to be the commander of the Apollo 16 crew who landed on the Moon. He made three separate moon walks on April 21st, 22nd and 23rd, in 1972. He became the ninth person to ever walk on the Moon, and the first person to have been in space six times as he later was also Commander of STS-1 (the first space shuttle mission) and STS-9.

John Young worked with NASA in a wide variety of capacities until his retirement in December 2004, retiring at the age of 74. He published his autobiography, Forever Young, in 2012 and today still stands as one of the most inspirational figures space has ever seen.

Buzz Aldrin

Buzz Aldrin (1930)

Edwin Eugene “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr. was born on January 20th, 1930 in Glen Ridge, New Jersey. The son of an Air Force Colonel, he followed in his father’s footsteps by enrolling in West Point and joining the United State Air Force – ending up being a decorated Air Force pilot with 66 combat missions in the Korean War under his belt. Shortly after the war, Buzz enrolled to earn his doctorate degree in astronautics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He applied to join the astronaut corps shortly after but believe it or not, was initially rejected for not being a test pilot. Luckily NASA altered the program’s requirements and so in October 1963 Buzz joined the third astronaut group.

It wasn’t just Buzz who was lucky by the way because three years later, during the Gemini 12 mission of which he was the pilot, a broken radar connection threatened Gemini’s docking maneuvers with Agena, the vehicle it was scheduled to rendezvous with in orbit. Buzz got the chance (see 6:20 in the video) to prove his theories on orbital rendezvous using the strategies he’d outlined at MIT (hear the commentator at 7:10 in the video talking about the coincidence!), and ended up programming the computer to complete the docking successfully. He pulled of another feat on that mission when he spent over five hours outside of the craft, setting the record for longest EVA (extravehicular activity, basically a space walk) so far.

Check out the awesome video below, from 1966, showing not only parts of his EVA but also how he trained for it using underwater simulation. By the time of the mission he already had 9 years of diving experience – a hobby he got into after someone made a comment about how similar underwater and space are when it comes to the freedom of weightlessness.

And then there was obviously that milestone in human history called Apollo 11, where he became the second man to walk on the surface of the Moon. Although he was superseded in that task by Neil Armstrong, Buzz was the first man to hold a religious ceremony on the moon when he took communion.  A legend in his own right, he rescued probably the most complex thing mankind ever did up until that point, with a felt-tip pen from his flight suit’s pocket. Move over MacGuyer! If you want to read about this rather unbelievable fact, check out the “Low-Tech Trick” section about 2/3rds down this page.

After returning from his mission to the moon, Aldrin was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest American peacetime award. This was followed by a goodwill tour around the globe with his fellow astronauts, where he was awarded with numerous other awards and medals from various countries of origin. Upon retiring from NASA and the space program, Buzz Aldrin became Commandant of the US Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base and he retired from military service in 1972. He devised a plan for future space missions, including his mission to Mars plan known as the “Aldrin Mars Cycler” – more on that another time – and also received several patents that will hopefully contribute to future developments in space exploration.

In 2011, Buzz Aldrin, along with the entire Apollo 11 crew, received the Congressional Medal of Honor for their significant contributions to country’s space program and scientific discoveries. He is an author of eight books including his New York Times best selling autobiography entitled, “Magnificent Desolation”, and in recent years has used his influence and experience to lobby for the expansion of the current US Space Program. May he live long and prosper!

Tom Hanks in Apollo 13

Celebrities Becoming Astronauts – part 2

As we are nearing the end of 2013, let’s have a look at some more people who will be able to  call themselves astronauts soon…

Actor/Director Tom Hanks – one of the most recognised actors of his generation all time, Hanks starred in block busters like Philadelphia, Saving Private Ryan, Forrest Gump, Toy Story and Apollo 13. Aside from his acting creds, he also successfully collaborated with film director Steven Spielberg on several movies, as well as the 2001 mini-series Band of Brothers and its sequel The Pacific. A supporter of NASA‘s manned space program, Hanks has said that he originally wanted to be an astronaut but “didn’t have the math.” He does serve on the Board of Governors of the National Space Society, a nonprofit educational space advocacy organisation and worked on several space related series and films over the years.

Singer Katy Perry – after buying her now ex Russell Brand a ticket, Perry decided to do the deed as well and get one for herself the year after. “I’m so into extraterrestrial stuff,” she said. “It’s very difficult for me to look up into the sky in the middle of the night and not think that our planet is one of… a bajillion.” Like she sings in a recent record called E.T. with Kayne West: “It’s supernatural. Extraterrestrial” Yes, it might be…

Princess Beatrice – who also goes by ‘Her Royal Highness Princess Beatrice of York’ as the eldest daughter of HRH The Duke of York and his now divorced wife, Sarah, Duchess of York, is destined to become the first royal in space. Born on the 8th August 1988 (8/8/88), she’s not a stranger to firsts mind you – she already became the first member of the British Royal Family to complete the London Marathon, raising money for Children in Crisis. Her link to this space adventure? Long-term boyfriend Dave Clark is head of astronaut relations at the company and Prince Andrew is reportedly also interested in the project. It’s good to have friends in high places, but when you are fifth in line for the throne, you don’t need any help surely.

Director Bryan Singer – won critical acclaim for his work on The Usual Suspects, and in recent years has worked on several sci-fi movies including the X-Men series and Superman Returns. Unknown perhaps to most people, it isn’t actually Singer’s first trip to space. In 2002, Patrick Stewart (who played Captain Jean-Luc Picard) got him to appear in Star Trek Nemesis as a Starfleet officer on the bridge of the Enterprise, after finding out that Singer was a lifelong Star Trek fan. Perhaps equally exciting as an actual trip to space, and definitely cheaper.

Actor Ashton Kutcher – signed up in April 2012 to become Virgin Galactic’s 500th customer, which Richard Branson tweeted about himself. “I gave Ashton a quick call to congratulate and welcome him. He is as thrilled as we are at the prospect of being among the first to cross the final frontier (and back!) with us and to experience the magic of space for himself,” Branson wrote. Starring in several movies, he is perhaps most famous for his portrayal of Michael Kelso in the Fox sitcom That ’70s Show. Another feat Kutcher produced was that he became the first user of Twitter to have more than 1,000,000 followers. One million. Impressive.

Apollo 11's Walk of Fame plaque

Celebrities Becoming Astronauts

With Bob Geldof just having announced that he too signed up to travel into space as a passenger on a commercial space flight, let’s have a look at a small portion of this eclectic mix of celebrities, scientists, and entrepeneurs who have taken the same leap of faith already and dug deep into their pockets for it.

Scientist Professor Stephen Hawking – the man needs no introduction. Having more acronyms behind his name than a systems architect’s CV, including being a Commander in the Order of the British Empire, he is not only the most famous theoretical physicist and cosmologist who’s ever lived, but possibly also the most famous disabled person on the planet. This came to show with his appearance at the London 2012 Paralympics in which he had a major part. He is the author of several books that made space science popular with the masses and truly a living legend and inspiration to us all. Probably also the only person to receive a free Virgin Galactic ticket! Not only to fulfill his own dream of going into space, but to raise awareness for what he sees as humanity’s vital mission to explore the stars.

Designer Philippe Starck – the son of an aeronautics engineer, Starck is equally well known as an interior designer, a designer of consumer goods, and for his industrial design and his architectural creations. His concept of democratic design led him to focus on mass-produced consumer goods rather than one-off pieces, seeking ways to reduce cost and improve quality in mass-market goods. He has several restaurants to his credit and for the past thirty years has been designing hotels all over the world. Starck was also the first designer to participate in the TED Talks (Technology, Entertainment & Design).

Entrepreneur and inventor Elon Musk – see here

Comedian Russell Brand – awkward! Brand’s ticket was bought for his 35th birthday by his ex-wife Katy Perry. After hosting Big Brother’s Big Mouth where he achieved notoriety, had starred in several movies including Forgetting Sarah Marshall and did voice acting for Despicable Me and its sequel just recently. In the dictionary it would probably have his picture next to the word ‘eccentric’ and while he managed to get himself fired from both MTV and the BBC in a very public manner because of his behaviour, it’s his past with drugs and alcohol that influences much of his comedic material.

Bob Geldof – Irish singer-songwriter and political activist, Geldof rose to prominence as the lead singer of the Irish rock band the Boomtown Rats in the late 1970s and early 1980s alongside the punk rock movement. He co-wrote “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, one of the best-selling singles of all time, but Geldof is these days perhaps even more known for his activism, especially his anti-poverty efforts concerning Africa. In 1984 he co-founded Band Aid and went on to organise the charity super-concert Live Aid among other pursuits. He has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and was granted an honorary knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II, among numerous other awards and nominations.

Yuri Gagarin

Yuri Gagarin (1934 – 1968) – part 1

Few events influenced humanity so much as the feat Yuri Alexseyevich Gagarin achieved in April 1961, when he became the first human to reach outer space and completed an orbit in his Vostok Spacecraft – what also turned out to be his only flight into space. A victory for the Soviet Union over the United States which was heavily investing resources into the space race itself, they endowed upon Gagarin the highest of honours, the “Hero of the Soviet Union” medal. It was to be one of dozens of honours, medals and titles he was about to receive.

Yuri Gagarin didn’t have an easy upbringing. Like many millions of his generation, his family suffered during the Nazi occupation in WWII. Not only was their residence taken over by a German officer and the family ended up little in a tiny hut they built on their own land, but his two older siblings were deported to Poland for slave labour (they did luckily return alive after the war in 1945). Perhaps it was coincidence, perhaps it was his destiny when he was selected for further training at the Saratov Industrial Technical School (where he studied tractors), but who could have expected this youth to become the legend that he is today when he volunteered for weekend training as a Soviet air cadet at a local aeronautics club. It is there where he learned to fly, while earning some money on the side as a dock laborour.

After graduating from that technical school in 1955, Gagarin got drafted and was sent to an Air Force Pilot School where he flew the MiG-15 solo by 1957 – the same type of craft that would also play a role in his tragic end – and graduated (and married) the same year. It was in 1960 when after a rigorous selection process, Gagarin was chosen with 19 other pilots for the Soviet space program. He also ended up in the elite training group known as the Sochi Six, from which the first cosmonauts for the Vostok program would be chosen. When it came to the final selection, it was to be between him and Gherman Titov to be the first human to go into space. Of course much of this was to do with their performance during training sessions – Gagarin was extremely clever having no issues with higher mathematics and celestial mechanics – but perhaps not so often talked about was that Gagarin came in at a diminutive 1m57 or 5ft2, and space was at a premium in the Vostok capsule.

Another interesting fact was that in an anonymous vote amongst him and his peers to see who they would think should get the honour of being the first person to launch into space, Gagarin was the favourite with over 80 percent of the vote. A footnote that would transcend its boundaries when after his historic flight he became the icon the Soviet Union needed to promote their space achievements across the world. With his broad smile, Gagarin won over the hearts of millions in many countries he traveled to. In fact, he became so important to the Soviet Union that in the end Gagarin got banned from training for and participating in any further spaceflights. More on that next time in part 2, so stay tuned!

Chris Hadfield

Chris Hadfield (1959)

They say that some events inspire a generation… Well, let us go back in time to July 1969 when millions were glued to their TVs and radios during the Apollo moon landing. Amongst them, a 9-year old boy called Chris Hadfield. Forward the clock to 2012 and this boy had already become the first Canadian to walk in space. And he was about to make the history books…

Hadfield, who in 1992 was accepted into the Canadian astronaut program by the Canadia Space Agency (CSA), first flew into space as a mission specialist in November 1995, visiting Mir in the process (the ISS would not exist yet for another few years). Six years later he would fly again on STS-100 and visited the International Space Station (ISS). And in December of last year, Hadfield set of on his third and what was to be his final mission, when he flew aboard Soyuz to, and in March this year took command of the International Space Station, the place he would call home for the next five months. We can only wonder if NASA and CSA realised at the time what an impact this man would have upon their reputation. The organisations became world news, not because of anything but Hadfield‘s personality. Check out the Canadian Space Agency’s YouTube channel, and it will be clear that they were firmly behind this all the way with most recent videos all promoting their most precious asset in space.

So here you have an astronaut, veteran test pilot of over 70 different aircraft, who flew combat missions for NORAD, suddenly becoming an internet sensation because of the way he interacted with the people below him on planet Earth. As he started to take pictures of Earth and tweet them, he quickly gathered several hundreds of thousands of followers who were all amazed by these stunning photographs. While in space Hadfield also appeared in several interviews including one with William Shatner, and science shows talking about how astronauts sleep, what happens when you cry in space and even an episode where kids picked the topic, of which you can see the result in the below ‘wash cloth’ episode:

Pure marketing genius, and surely few could have pulled it off like Hadfield did. It proved that helping to run dozens of scientific experiments dealing with the impact of low gravity on human biology is one thing, but getting an entire new generation of kids glued to their monitors and mobile screens (TV is so 20th century?) might pay off more than anyone could currently predict. The video that made world news he released just before leaving the ISS in May this year. It is Hadfield’s version of David Bowie’s Space Oddity, which at the current count already has an astonishing 16.3 million views! Absolutely incredible, and the man’s singing talents are ok, but a lesser known video which we wouldn’t want to hold from you was released in February of this year and is titled I.S.S. – this time it did not stand for “International Space Station” but for “Is Somebody Singing”. In the catchy tune, Hadfield collaborated with Ed Robertson of the Barenaked Ladies and the Wexford Gleeks:

Soon after Hadfield came back to Earth, he announced his retirement, quoting a promise to his wife 30 years ago which he was making good on. And so, this larger than life character who put the Canadian Space Agency firmly on the map, will bow out next week Wednesday 3 July to make way for the next generation to step forward.

We wish you all the best commander!

Dennis Tito - the first space tourist

Dennis Tito (1940)

Dennis Tito is, while not the first non-astronaut in space, definitely the first space tourist. Self-funded with the capital he built up through his company Wilshire Associates (investment management since 1972), you wouldn’t exactly class him as the average neighbour living around the corner. With a Bachelor of Science in Astronautics and Aeronautics from NYU and a Master of Science in Engineering Science from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Tito was already well on his way to achieving his 40-year goal. On top of that, he is also a former scientist of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Being a pioneer is rarely easy, and often very expensive and the same goes for Tito. His milestone adventure set the New York born engineer and entrepreneur back $20 million. A small sum if you compare it to the value of the international clientele his company represents ($12.5 trillion) but definitely not even in the same ballpark as the flights Virgin Galactic, XCor Aerospace and others will offer in coming year (around the $100k-$250k mark seems to be the benchmark – given those flights won’t offer you to stay in orbit on board the ISS). Tito however did do it in 2001, over a decade before any of these companies would achieve flying humans into space on a commercial space flight. And he didn’t have an easy ride – NASA refused to take him up, or even train him on the grounds that he was not a trained astronaut… so the Russians trained him for 900 hours and facilitated the trip. Ten years before that, in 1991, he looked into going up into space on a trip to Moscow. Unfortunately his ticket became void in disastrous fashion, when the MIR space station fell uncontrollably from the sky that year.

It was space tourism company Space Adventures who brokered for Tito to join the Soyuz TM-32 mission in April 2001 and he ended up staying in orbit – most of that on board the International Space Station – for nearly 8 days. As we saw with later space tourists, he did several scientific experiments while doing his 128 orbits around the Earth. Not resting there, in January 2013 Tito founded the Inspiration Mars Foundation. Its mission: “launch a manned mission to flyby Mars in 2018“. That trip would take 501 days taking into account the shortest route possible with today’s technology – although it would probably take a considerable amount of training for the astronauts selected to withstand the psychological and physical rigors of that journey.

In an interview with the BBC 10 years after his achievement he said:

“I often thought that if I did spend my last penny, I could live on social security for the rest of my life and still be happy, because I’d achieved what I wanted to achieve. It was a sense of completeness – from then on, everything is a bonus. And the last 10 years, everything since then, has been just extra. And I think I am one of the happiest humans alive because of that.”

Start saving for the pursuit of happiness…


Elon Musk

Elon Musk (1971)

Billionaire genius, inventor and entrepreneur through and through, founder of companies like Tesla, Paypal and more relevant here SpaceX… who is the man they sometimes refer to as “the real Tony Stark” (aka Iron Man)?

Born in South Africa, Musk taught himself how to code and sold a game he programmed – called Blastar – when he was only 12 years old. Leaving home at 17 to avoid military service (this was during the time of the Apartheid), he ended up studying in Ontario, Canada (his mother was Canadian) for two years before pursuing business and physics at the University of Pennsylvania in the US.

After completing both those degrees, Musk then moved to Silicon Valley and started a PhD at Stanford, but dropped out after two days already to start Zip2 (with his brother Kimbal) which provided online content publishing software for news organizations – it got acquired by Compaq four years later for $307 million in cash and another $34 million in stock options!

Musk once said he considered three areas he wanted to get into that were “important problems that would most affect the future of humanity”, as he said later, “One was the Internet, one was clean energy, and one was space.” So, after Zip2, he founded Paypal which changed the way we pay online. After that he founded SpaceX which is now a major player in the race for space, and bidding for NASA contracts. Then came Tesla, which might some day change (or debatably has already changed) the way we all look at our cars, and he is also the chairman and main chairholder of SolarCity… the man has no limits it seems.

Focusing on SpaceX, which he founded with $100 million of his early fortune and of which he remains its CEO and CTO, the company won a major NASA contract in the first program to entrust private companies with delivering cargo to the International Space Station. Worth between $1.6 billion and $3.1 billion, it has become a cornerstone of the Space Station‘s continued access to cargo delivery and return. But aside from cargo missions, Musk’s goal is to reduce the cost of human spaceflight by a factor of 10 and much like Stephen Hawking’s thinking wants to secure the future of the human race by “expanding life beyond this green and blue ball“.

In the coming years, Musk will focus on delivering astronauts to the International Space Station, but as he stated before, his personal goal is that of eventually enabling human exploration and settlement of Mars. At SXSW this year he joked: “I Would Like to Die on Mars, Just Not on Impact”.


Richard Branson

Richard Branson (1950)

There would be few who could claim to have never heard of the charismatic billionaire founder and chairman of the Virgin Group, Sir Richard Branson. A dropout at 16, he turned his hand to publishing with the magazine aptly named Student. As if that wasn’t enough, he turned to successfully selling records via mail order, then opening a record store when the postal strike shut down their distribution. Not too long after that he found himself opening a recording studio in a country mansion, and his London shop turned into a national chain through rapid expansion, and so on.

When the first bank asked him what he was going to do when he asked them for that first big £30k loan, they must have thought him a madman for dreaming of an airline, music business, etc. When Branson and his band of cohorts ended up with the name Virgin, as it would be cool to have at least one still in the room if only by name, no one could have imagined (apart from Branson himself of course) what an economic empire this would become years later.

One could argue that Branson was lucky on numerous occassions – from finding Mike Oldfield, who basically bankrolled Virgin Records for quite some time, to surviving his balloon adventure gone pear-shaped. But being that lucky takes hard work! Obviously a cunning communicator and extraordinarily gifted people manager, he also had the guts to put his companies on the line for something or someone he believed in. Rarely do great rewards come without great risks and he seems to have known that since his childhood.

Turn the clock forward a few decades, and while Necker Island might be the envy of men and women everywhere, it is Virgin Group‘s recent acquisition of The Spaceship Company and what that is leading into that’s the really exciting news these days. In partnership with Scaled Composites, the company is building a fleet of ships that will catapult Virgin Galactic into the history books as the first operational spaceline, possibly already at the end of 2013. Life just doesn’t get much cooler than that…