John Young was undoubtedly the most experienced astronaut of NASA’s early era, active from the days of Gemini, through Apollo and the Space Shuttle. He walked on the Moon, commanded the first test flight of the Space Shuttle and didn’t retire from NASA until he was seventy-four. He was legendary for his soft-spoken demeanour, coolness under pressure and later in his career, for not being afraid to speak truth to power on issues of mission risk.
His memoir is laid out in a straightforward chronological fashion, starting with early life and following him throughout his career in the Navy and at NASA. While he is most well known for his missions, his time as head of the Astronaut Office and then as a sort of senior and independent safety inspector within NASA, make up large parts of the narrative. There is also ample space dedicated to the Challenger and Columbia accidents, with extensive technical detail.
For any NASA and space buff, the memoir is interesting reading. However, it is a bit of a slog. The style is quite dry and self-effacing, much as the man himself. Descriptions of missions mostly chronicle events without poetic embellishments. This is in stark contrast with, for example, the memoirs of Gene Cernan, Gene Krantz and Mike Mullane, which in their different ways speak much more passionately about the subject matter. The book feels long-winded in many parts, with sections which are just listing various mission achievements, seemingly for completeness’ sake. The most readable bits are where Mr. Young manages to convey his considerable technical expertise to illustrate an issue concisely, such as when he discusses his testimony before the Rogers Commission, investigating Challenger.
I strongly felt that more decisive editing could have made this a more readable book, but then again, I also felt that Mr. Young’s particular voice came through loud and clear.
This history tackles both strands that begat Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong’s de facto “national carrier”. One side is the pioneering work of founders Roy Farrell and Syd de Kantzow, both ex-military transport pilots and veterans of the treacherous “Hump” route over the Himalayas during World War II. Farrell bought a military surplus DC-3, the now famous Betsy, and started an airline from nothing before he was soon joined by de Kantzow. The other side is more establishment, with trading and shipping conglomerate Swire, led by Jock Swire, seeking to “get into Air” to further interests in the Far Eastern trade. Swire acquired Cathay Pacific a few years after the founding of the airline and still owns it today.
The book is very well researched, and the author has interviewed dozens of the major and minor players of the airline’s interesting history. It is interesting not only from the point of view of the aviation enthusiast, but very much also for its fascinating glimpses into Hong Kong immediately post war, through recovery and finally into the uncertain future of Chinese rule (the book was published in 1989, eight years before the handover). The author freely admits that he hasn’t bothered much with incidents of drunken pilots, pilots sleeping with stewardesses (or wifes with pilots out flying) or any such since these incidents are hardly peculiar to Cathay Pacific. Mr. Young focuses instead on defining events such as new aircraft types, new routes, scandals and accidents, viewed through the lens of regional history. The brief snippets from interviews with former and (then) current staff, as well as affiliated officials and businessmen, bring vividness and immediacy to the story.
My criticism, or shall we say niggle, with this book is that perhaps Mr. Young seems a touch too enamored with Cathay Pacific and the romance of the Far Eastern trade. But then again who can blame him? Even in the eighties, times were different. Certainly when the airline was started, Hong Kong was a remote and romantic place in the eyes of Westerners. A frontier where fortunes could be made and lost by those bold enough to take the often harrowing risks required.