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Home / Latest News / Welsh astronaut who missed out on becoming one of the first men on the moon dies, aged 80

Welsh astronaut who missed out on becoming one of the first men on the moon dies, aged 80

The Welsh astronaut who missed out on the chance of becoming one of the first men on the moon because he had problems learning to fly has died, aged 80.

Cardiff-born Dr John “Tony” Llewellyn resigned from Nasa’s spaceman corps in 1968, less than 12 months before the historic lunar landings which could have seen his name added to the cosmic annals of history.

In the role for just 12 months, Llewellyn took the torturous decision to opt out because he’d failed to master piloting jet aircraft “blindfolded” – a mandatory part of his training.

“Astronauts had to be supermen back then,” said his 67-year-old brother Roger, who’d grown up with him and their other sibling David in the Adamsdown area of the capital.

“They’d black-out the cockpits and you’d have to rely on some sort of seventh sense about whether or not the plane was losing altitude, and if that didn’t kick in you’d be in trouble.

“My brother didn’t have that instinct, but what he did have was a brilliant talent for chemistry and that’s the reason Nasa gave him a job in the first place.

“The space programme had reached the point where it needed someone to do all the necessary scientific work once orbit had been reached, and they figured it was easier to teach a chemist to be a pilot than vice versa.”

Indeed, so coveted were Llewellyn’s analytical talents that a special ruling was made, making him one of only two men at the time to receive astronaut status despite not being American-born.

Cardiff-born Dr John Tony Llewellyn joined Nasa's elite space programme in the 1960s thanks to his brilliant talent for chemistry
Cardiff-born Dr John “Tony” Llewellyn joined Nasa’s elite space programme in the 1960s thanks to his “brilliant” talent for chemistry

“I think that counted against him a little too, because he felt he’d always be quite low down in the list of names when it came to the drawing up of flight lists,” added Roger.

“I don’t think he really believed he’d make it up there with Neil Armstrong and all that lot and, as time went on, he could feel himself getting more and more behind with his research.

“So it was with great regret he took the decision to bow out, although I know he wished those guys well and always held them in high regard.”

A daredevil from a very early age, Roger’s earliest memory of his older brother was cobbling together a make-shift parachute from sacks and leaping from the bedroom window at their Moira Street home.

“Tony got up to the most unbelievable stunts, like the time he found this primitive old motorbike, stripped it and tried to get it started,” he recalled.

“He filled the tank with methylated spirits, built a launch ramp at the bottom of the garden and fired it up.

“It was after he’d gone straight through the conservatory that our dad emerged and suggesting he find something else to occupy his time.”

Falling in love with science, Llewellyn graduated from the University College of Cardiff and accepted a job doing chemical research in Canada – part of the 1950s “brain drain” in which the UK’s brightest and best were lured abroad with lucrative offers of work.

However, despite subsequently holding down lengthy teaching posts at two prominent Florida universities, Llewellyn would often go back to his lifelong love – the ocean.

“He’d always wanted to join the Royal Navy as a boy, but dad told him he was too brainy,” said Roger.

“And after he left Nasa he did a lot of undersea work – that’s the real outer space right there.

“He did research with Jacques Cousteau’s son, became an aquanaut for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and lived in a dome on the ocean bed just off the south Florida coast in order to investigate just what happens to the human body at those kind of depths.

“Then in 1992, he and a friend crossed the North Atlantic from Gibraltar to Antigua on a 32ft sailboat, and in 2000 they did it again, sailing more than 3,000 miles from Miami to the Azores.

“And you know the only injury he ever got in all that time? Dropping a canoe on his nose as he untethered it from the roof-rack of his car – he was 77.

“How many people do you know who still canoe at that age?”

Llewellyn passed away earlier this month following a stroke. He leaves behind Valerie – his Taffs Well-born wife of 56 years – and their three children Ceri, Sian and Gareth.

“Tony was a gentleman first and an adventurer second,” said Roger.

“And you’d never meet a more modest person – in fact, unless you mentioned it I doubt he’d even bring up the whole astronaut thing.

“He was always so academic too and was working right up until the end on gene re-modification in cancer sufferers.

“That said, he could still name every Indian restaurant on Bridge Street from when we were teenagers.”

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