'Pioneer' US astronaut John Young, dead at 87

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US astronaut John Young, pictured aboard Gemini III on March 23, 1965, was the only astronaut to fly in the Gemini, Apollo and space shuttle programs

John Young, a legendary US astronaut who went into space six times, orbited the moon and then walked on its craggy surface, has died, NASA announced Saturday.

He was 87 and died late Friday of complications from pneumonia, the space agency said. He lived in a Houston suburb just minutes from the NASA Space Center.

"NASA and the world have lost a pioneer," agency administrator Robert Lightfoot said in a statement. "We will stand on his shoulders as we look toward the next human frontier."

Young was a man of many firsts: the only astronaut to fly in the Gemini, Apollo and space shuttle programs; the first to command a shuttle flight; and the first to fly into space six times.

He once held the world record for total time spent in space, NASA said.

- 'Boldest flight in history' -

Young joined Gus Grissom on the Gemini 3 mission, then commanded Gemini 10, the first mission to rendezvous with two other spacecraft during a single flight.

Young orbited the moon in Apollo 10, and made a lunar landing with Apollo 16.

In what some people called "the boldest test flight in history" he also commanded the first space shuttle flight along with Robert Crippen in 1981.

In 1983 he again flew in the space shuttle Columbia on his last flight into space. Right before landing two of the orbiter's three auxiliary power units caught fire, but "in an iconic display of test pilot 'cool,' he landed the space shuttle with a fire in the back end," NASA said.

"He was in every way the 'astronaut's astronaut,'" Lightfoot said. But he was also described as a savvy engineer and a "test pilot's test pilot."

While in the navy, Young set world records for the fastest ascension from a standing start in an F-4 Phantom II jet.

Once, during an air-to-air missile test, Young and another pilot approached each other's aircraft at a potentially calamitous speed of Mach 3 (2,300 miles per hour, or 3,700 kilometers per hour), according to Young's website.

"I got a telegram from the chief of naval operations," Young said in his understated way, "asking me not to do this any more."

Fellow astronaut Charles Bolden called Young and Robert "Hoot" Gibson the two best pilots he had ever known.

"Never met two people like them," he said. "Everyone else gets into an airplane; John and Hoot wear their airplane. They're just awesome."