John Young: From College Park to the moon

John Young started the parade in his honor for the Gemini 3 flight in March 1963 at the Colonial Plaza Hotel, conveniently near the original airport where dignitaries flew into Orlando. HISTORIC ORLANDO III FACEBOOK GROUP

“There are no words in the English language to describe the beauty of [space].” — Astronaut John Watts Young (“In the Shadow of the Moon: A Challenging Journey to Tranquility, 1965 – 1969,” by Francis French and Colin Burgess, Bison Books, 2010.)

 College Park lies almost 30 miles west of NASA’s space coast. If you grew up here, you know our vantage point offers a view clear enough to see a rocket launch with the naked eye.

Though too young to recall the Mercury flights, I do remember viewing Gemini launches from the playground at Lake Silver Elementary.

I also vividly remember the visually spectacular nighttime launches. Watching astronauts blast off into space was as natural to native Orlandoans as seeing orange groves ignite into bloom every spring or hurricanes race across the Gulf or Atlantic. Through the eyes of a child, all were wonders.

I later stood in my front yard with my children watching Apollo missions and following the smoky contrails. We viewed several launches from Disney World in the years of the space shuttle program.

At 9:24 a.m., March 23, 1965, practically everyone in Orlando stood outside for the Gemini 3 launch to see John Young, our homegrown-boy-made-good, take off atop a Titan II rocket from Complex 19.

So proud were we, the city honored John Young with the only ticker-tape parade in the Orlando’s history about one month later, attended by Vice President Hubert Humphrey. The huge celebration included a luncheon in the Egyptian Room at the Robert Meyer Hotel Motor Inn, a flyby from the jets at the Sanford Naval Station, and the presentation of the inaugural John Young Award.

These were neither the first nor the final lifetime honors bestowed on College Park’s own John Young, one of our most recognized hometown heroes.

On January 6, 2018, NASA announced the passing of its most experienced and longest serving astronaut and space pioneer, John Watts Young. Born in San Francisco in 1930, John Young’s family moved when he was 18 months old, eventually settling into a little bungalow on Princeton Street, right in the heart of Orlando’s newest neighborhood, College Park.

A group of Lake Silver Elementary students in front of John Young’s childhood home.

Young attended Princeton Elementary, Cherokee Junior High, and Orlando High School, graduating in 1948. He was not only a star athlete but was also awarded the highest honor, the Guernsey Good Citizen Cup for civic and academic excellence. Much was expected from him, and he didn’t disappoint.

After high school, Young enrolled at Georgia Institute of Technology with an ROTC scholarship. Second in his class, he graduated magna cum laude with a degree in aeronautical engineering. Commissioned an officer in the U.S. Navy, he attended flight training in Pensacola, Florida, earning his wings in 1954. Young served four years’ duty with the 103rd Fighter Squadron; he set world time-to-climb flying records.

John Kennedy’s May 25, 1961, speech before a joint session of Congress — calling for America to send a man to the moon and bring him safely home —inspired the Orlando-grown Navy test pilot to become an astronaut. In 1962, Young was selected for the second class of astronauts, following the Mercury Seven. That beginning of an illustrious career would span the new millennium.

Young is the only astronaut to have flown Gemini, Apollo, and Space Shuttle missions.

One of Young’s lesser known character traits was his sense of humor, which prompted Young to offer his hungry commander, Gus Grissom, an aromatic, corned beef on rye sandwich during the flight of Gemini 3 — a sandwich Young had smuggled on board as a parting gift from Mercury astronaut Wally Schirra.

Grissom smiled and took a couple of bites but quickly rewrapped it when crumbs drifted about. Authors Francis French and Colin Burgess wrote: “The prank was not considered harmless and would cause them a lot of grief with their superiors, and both were hauled over the coals. Young’s deadpan offer of the goodie remained one of the highlights of the flight for Grissom. And Young enshrined the notorious sandwich and kept it on his desk, along with the official letter of reprimand.” (“In the Shadow of the Moon: A Challenging Journey to Tranquility, 1965 – 1969,” Bison Books, 2010)

At the end of 2004, Young retired, though, according to his official NASA biography, he kept advocating for technologies to “allow us to live and work on the Moon and Mars.” He said, “Those technologies over the long (or short) haul will save civilization on Earth” (

John Young once summed up his lengthy career by saying, “I can’t think of a single job I’d rather have — in this world or out of it.” (

Thank you, John Young.


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