Laurence Young, professor emeritus of astronautics and renowned expert in bioastronautics, dies at 85

Laurence R. Young '57, SM '59, ScD '62, the Apollo Program Professor Emeritus of Astronautics and professor of health sciences and technology at MIT, died peacefully at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on Aug. 4 after a long illness. He was 85.

A longtime member of the MIT community, Young was widely regarded for his pioneering role in the field of bioastronautics, the study of the impact of the space environment on living organisms, focusing in particular on the human factors of spaceflight. Many biological systems processes that comprise and govern the human body — from bones and muscles to cardiovascular regulation and sensory-motor control — depend on Earth's gravity to function properly. To protect astronauts from potentially negative effects of weightlessness, radiation, and psychological stress encountered in space, developing artificial life support systems for human protection is vital for future missions. 

Young joined the faculty in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AeroAstro) at MIT in 1962. There, he co-founded the Man-Vehicle Laboratory (now the Human-Systems Laboratory) with Y.T. Li to conduct his research on the visual and vestibular systems, visual-vestibular interaction, flight simulation, space motion sickness, and manual control and displays. 

"Larry was one of the first engineers to introduce math modeling techniques to aerospace-relevant areas of physiology and human factors. He knew that the quantitative approach would lead to new insights, so he started with eye movements and then moved on to perception," says Charles Oman, senior research engineer of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT and longtime colleague of Young. "I still remember in those days, some skeptics said perceptions were too complicated to model, but he proved them all wrong, and in the process, revolutionized the fields of vestibular physiology and flight simulation. His success and enthusiasm for his work were infectious."

Young was born in New York City on December 19, 1935 to Benjamin and Bess Young. After graduating from the Bronx High School of Science in 1952, Young received a BA from Amherst College in 1957; a certificate in applied mathematics from the Sorbonne, Paris as a French Government Fellow in 1958; BS and MS degrees in electrical engineering and an ScD in instrumentation from MIT in 1962.

Young's career extended beyond MIT to the national and international stage; he consulted with NASA’s Marshall Spaceflight Center on the Apollo project and later became a qualified payload specialist for the U.S. space shuttle's Spacelab biological laboratory in 1993. While he never flew a space mission, he served as backup crew (alternate payload specialist) on Spacelab Life Sciences-2 (STS-58) and was principal or co-investigator on seven shuttle missions conducting human orientation experiments.

Throughout various points during his career, Young held visiting professor positions at ETH (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology); the Zurich Kantonsspital; the Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers in Paris; the College de France, Paris; the Universite de Provence, Marseille; and Stanford University. Notably, Young also founded National Space Biomedical Research Institute, serving as director from 1997 to 2001.

Closer to home, Young served as director of the Massachusetts Space Grant Consortium; launched the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology (HST) doctoral program in bioastronautics; and after retiring in 2013, remained active in AeroAstro, serving as a senior advisor lending his expertise on the department’s 2020 strategic plan committee. The MIT Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES) is HST’s home at MIT.

“Larry was amazing at everything he did — he loved MIT in practice and in concept, always promoting his students above himself and forever asking what would make our school better able to change the world. As founding member of HST and bedrock of IMES, his ideas have forever changed how we teach and how we bridge engineering and medicine,” says Elazer Edelman, the Edward J. Poitras Professor in Medical Engineering and Science, director of IMES, and a practicing cardiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “His scientific and educational reforms made the universe more accessible and our world safer and healthier, creating new communities of scholars, new fields of studies like biomedical engineering and new leaders. His life affected every living person and at the same time touched each of those he met personally on an individual level.”

In tandem with his extensive contributions to research, Young is remembered for the widespread dissemination of his knowledge through his impact as a teacher. Young mentored many colleagues when they were students, including (but not limited to) Oman, Edelman, and Professor David Mindell — with whom he would later develop the highly popular course STS.471J / 16.895J / ESD.30J (Engineering Apollo). Many of Young's mentees would become influential members of aerospace academia and industry in their own right; these include NASA astronaut and moonwalker Charlie Duke. 

"I literally can't count the thousands of students and alumni that Larry touched, myself among them. Recently, Larry led the charge to compose a handbook of bioastronautics, leaving us with the encyclopedic knowledge so future generations will continue with this work," says Dava Newman, the Apollo Professor of Astronautics, director of the MIT Media Lab, HST affiliate, and former Young mentee. "With all of the science we've learned and through all his years of mentoring, the moonshot Larry leaves with us is to never think about any constraints and boundaries, to literally always shoot for the moon, to Mars and beyond — that's the big dream that he inspired in me and all of his colleagues."

Throughout his career, Young received extensive recognition for his contributions, service, and leadership to the aerospace field. He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences and a full member of the International Academy of Astronautics. He served on numerous academy committees and chaired NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts External Council. He held fellowships with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the Biomedical Engineering Society, the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering, and the Explorers Club. In 1992, he was among the recipients recognized with the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Jeffries Award "for outstanding contributions to space biology and medicine as a principal investigator on the Spacelab Life Sciences 1 mission." In 1995, NASA recognized his achievements with a Space Act Award for his development of an expert system for astronauts. In 1998, he received the prestigious Koetser Foundation Prize in Zurich for his contributions to neuroscience. In 2013, he received the Pioneer Award from the National Space Biomedical Research Institute. In 2018, he received the AIAA de Florez Award for Flight Simulation, and the Aerospace Medical Association's Professional Excellence Award for Lifetime Contributions. 

Outside of his career as an engineer, Young was an avid skier, which led him to become active in ski injury research. He was a director of the International Society for Skiing Safety and chaired the Ski Injury Statistics Subcommittee of the American Society for Testing and Materials Committee on Snow Skiing before being elected committee chair in 1987. He received the United States Ski Association Award of Merit and the Best Research Paper Award from the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.

In addition to countless alumni, colleagues, and friends, Young is survived by his beloved wife Vicki Goldberg; his sister Ellen Rosenberg; children Eliot Young SM ’87, SM ’90, ScD ’93; Leslie Young PhD ’94; and Robert Young; his first wife and the mother of his children Jody Williams; and grandchildren Joshua Young, Evan Young, David Young, Alexander Young, and Rachel Young.

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