Astronaut John W. Young, a frequent critic of shuttle safety policies, says he was forced to give up his job as chief astronaut, but a top NASA official Wednesday defended the management change.
In his first public comment on the issue since his transfer to a new post in April, Young told the Orlando Sentinel in Florida that he suspects his removal as chief of the astronaut office was triggered in part by his sharp public criticism of NASA safety policies after the Challenger disaster.
A NASA spokesman at the Johnson Space Center said Young, who was unavailable for comment Wednesday, did not issue a denial of the story.
Aaron Cohen, director of the Johnson Space Center, announced April 15 that Young had been reassigned to a new job in which he would act as a special assistant to the director for shuttle engineering and safety.
Many agency insiders speculated at the time that Young's outspoken criticism was the cause of the transfer. But in a telephone interview with UPI, Cohen said such speculation was unfounded and that he simply needed someone with experience to oversee critical aspects of the shuttle program.
"Our job has got to be returning the space shuttle to space flight safely," Cohen said. "That's the key to the success of the space program. I felt I needed somebody on my staff close to me that could bring problems to my attention very quickly."
He said Young, an "independent thinker" with a wealth of space experience, was the ideal choice to fill such a role and that Young has done an "outstanding" job in his new position. But he did not deny that Young had no choice in the matter.
Veteran of a world-record six space flights, Young, 56, said he was stunned and deeply hurt by the transfer because he wanted to stay on as chief astronaut until the next shuttle flight, now scheduled for June, 1988.
Young told the Sentinel his reassignment could mean the end of his shuttle flying days. Before Challenger's doom, he had been assigned as commander of a flight to launch the $1.4-billion Hubble Space Telescope, considered by many to be one of the most important NASA space missions in years to come.
Young, who joined NASA in 1962, is the world's most experienced astronaut. His six space flights include a walk on the moon during the Apollo 16 mission and two shuttle missions, including Columbia's historic first flight in 1981.