Magazine Preview: The Rocket Man

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Air Force Colonel Greg Johnson decided he wanted to be an astronaut at the age of 7, the night he watched Apollo 11 land the first humans on the Moon.

Johnson’s road to space was long—he trained as a fighter pilot at the Air Force Academy, graduated an engineer from Columbia University in 1985, and toured in the Gulf War—but after racking up 4,000 flying hours in 43 types of aircraft, Johnson finally left Earth in 2008 as the pilot of space shuttle Endeavour.

He’s going back this summer on what’s scheduled to be the final flight of Endeavour, but before he buckles up and blasts off, The Blue & White caught up with Johnson to talk about his time at Columbia, his experience in NASA, and the future of manned spaceflight. Read our conversation together from the latest issue after the jump!

Blue & White: I understand you were born in the United Kingdom, but you sound very American.

Greg Johnson: My dad was a military Air Force officer. He was a musician, and he was a director of one of the USAF bands in South Ruislip in England.

B&W: Do you play an instrument then?

GJ: Yeah, we have a very musical family. My brother’s a working musician, and I play trumpet and piano all through high school. There’s a lot of music in the family. I’m actually the only male adult who’s not a working musician.

B&W: If your family is so musical, why did you decide to join the Air Force?

GJ: I guess I followed in my dad’s footsteps on the Air Force side of things, and my brother took the music side. As far as I was concerned, I loved music, and I’ve always been in rock bands. Actually, I still am in a rock band, Max Q—it’s an all astronaut rock band—but we keep our day-jobs because we’re not very good [laughs]. Music has been a big part of my life, but I love mathematics and science, so I went off that way.

B&W: Had you flown planes before that or did you start only once you got to the academy?

GJ: I started once I got to the academy. A lot of guys go to the Academy to fly, but I was really there for the practical engineering side. But, once I became a pilot, I thought, “Wow, this is a lot of fun,” so I ended up doing that for several years until I merged the two in test pilot school.

Going to Columbia, I wanted to get some good Ivy League engineering—a real solid basis—in a master’s degree before I went off to flight school. The Air Force Academy was the best of all worlds, and at Columbia, that’s where I was wrapping up the engineering education.

B&W: What was your coursework like at Columbia? What were some of the classes you took?

GJ: It was the flight structures program, but in the civil engineering department. It was a lot about vibrations, like wind engineering. We studied winds over bridges and then we extrapolated to air foils and vibrations in airplanes.

The Academy had great engineering, but on the math piece I was lacking a little bit when I got to Columbia. I remember the first day of one class when the professor said, “Well, you all know all the Sturm-Liouville equations,” and I raised my hand and said, “Who’s Sturm-Liouville?” [laughs] So I was running a little bit behind, but I had to really do some homework and I studied to catch myself up in math. Overall, though, my experience at Columbia was wonderful.

B&W: Jumping ahead a few years, how did you get into NASA? Is that something you’re recruited for or do you apply for it?

GJ: I applied after I had been a test pilot for a complete tour and I was headed to a leadership school for a year. I knew I was going to a desk job after that, probably at the Pentagon, so as something I always wanted to do, I just threw my name in the hat to see what happens. There were 3,000 applicants in my class, and I didn’t have any expectation of getting picked, but I wanted to see how far I could get.

They go through the whole selection process, eventually picking interview candidates. It’s a week-long interview, a lot of physical and mental aspects, and then they talk to you in a formal interview fashion for about an hour with a big panel. Even after I went to the interview, I looked at all the people around—there were 20 of us in my interview group—and I thought, “There’s no way I can compete with these guys,” but luckily I slipped through the cracks and got selected.

B&W: Take me through that process from being selected to finally making into space.

GJ: It takes a year and a half to get checked out in the shuttle—to be dubbed a “mission-ready” shuttle astronaut. Once you become a mission-assignable astronaut pilot or a mission specialist (depending on the crew position you are), then you get assigned to a space flight, and then you have another intensive year of training. It’s almost like graduate school, and it kicks you out right before launch.

Right now, I’m six months prior to my second flight as a pilot. The training is starting to crescendo—yesterday was a very long day—and it’s just intense training in all facets of it. We learn again to fly the plane manually, and in fact, we did that yesterday. We also learn how to deal with all the host of malfunctions that you can have in the simulator. However, if everything goes perfectly as planned during the 8-and-a-half minute ascent, I only have one switch-throw to make.

Once we get into space, we can hand-fly it, and we always hand-fly the landing, but the ascent portion is completely automated as long as it works correctly. But, I know of few ascents where there wasn’t something that went wrong. There’s so many little pieces and parts on the shuttle, and the vibration is so intense that we usually have some sort of little malfunction on most flights.

Even though I’d talked to astronauts in the past about the launch, I wasn’t ready for how much vibration was involved. As soon as I’d lifted off, I could not believe the intense sensual overload. I mean, the vibration—I could hardly read my gauges.

B&W: I know you fly simulators before you go into space, but when you’re actually there, is it difficult to get used to?

GJ: We can only simulate about 30 seconds of zero gravity in this airplane that flies big parabolas we call the “Vomit Comet,” but we really can’t simulate continuous zero gravity. So, when I first got to space, it was like a wonderland. Everything’s floating and it’s like a physics playground up there.

But the fluid that’s in your inner ear is also floating around and confuses the brain, so most people get a little bit nauseous, and some people actually get sick. We didn’t have any of that on our flight, but I did feel light-headed for about a day. Over time, though, our bodies are really adaptable, and within a couple of days, I was zipping around the space station and I had no use for gravity. In fact, I was dreading the moment I had to go back and feel the bonds of gravity on my body. I remember the first night I came back, I could hardly sleep because I felt like the bed was pushing me toward the ceiling. I wasn’t used to that sensation anymore.

B&W: You’re preparing now for an upcoming mission. Tell me some about it.

GJ: The official date is July 29, and we’re taking a very interesting payload on [shuttle mission] STS-134—it’s the alphamagnetic spectrometer, a very expensive, very complicated experiment. It’s probably on the order of the Hubble Telescope, probably the biggest science that we’re going to ever do on the space station, I would think. But this experiment might be delayed, which could cause my flight to get delayed, so I view July 29 as a date out there, but I wouldn’t put my paycheck on it.

B&W: You were closely involved, I understand, with the teams that looked for the cause of the Columbia explosion. Do you remember where you were when you first heard about Columbia?

GJ: I know precisely where I was—I was making breakfast for the family. I was making what we call “Daddy Breakfast.” It’s fried eggs on toast with cheese in the middle and bacon. I had the TV on, and I was timing it so we would watch the landing during breakfast. All three kids were up, and they were 5, 8, and 9—young kids—and my wife was there, and then we saw the fireworks. It was just crushing. I just finished making breakfast, cleaned up, and went to work. It was a Saturday morning, but all of us knew we were going to work that day.

It scared the family, and I think in some ways, they thought that I wouldn’t ever fly in space and were slightly relieved, maybe, but they were even more fearful that if I did fly in space, that could happen to me. But, before my flight two years ago, I sat them all down and let them fire questions at me directly. I told them the risks and how we thought we’d overcome them. I was a fighter pilot and I fought in a war; I lost my buddies and I was exposed to that kind of risk on a day-to-day basis at times, so I was desensitized to it more than my family. They just married or were born into this situation, so it was very difficult.

B&W: What sort of things did you and your team do to investigate?

GJ: My team was looking closely at the thermal protection system. We made some assumptions that were overly liberal, and they didn’t take into account some of the debris that is out there in the ascent environment. We had to involve the whole group to understand that actually it could have been a problem, and so we had to build a test to prove it.

We had a gun that would shoot pieces of foam at tiles and the reinforced carbon-carbon panels on the leading edge of the shuttle. On one momentous day, we took a piece of foam that was about two pounds and fired it at 600 miles an hour at the wing, and bang—it broke a hole in it. That was the smoking gun, if you will.

I do still know it could have been something else, but all the evidence pointed in that direction.

B&W: Recently, President Obama announced he was proposing a cancellation to the Constellation program, which has left the future of American manned spaceflight up in the air. How does this decision affect you? Do you think it’s the right decision?

GJ: [Laughs] I don’t know if it’s the right decision. There are some people—the majority of people in my office—that think it’s the wrong decision. I’m not willing to say that because I don’t have enough information. I think the pragmatic truth about manned spaceflight is that you’ve got human beings that need their jobs, that have morale issues, that have professional aspirations, and to cut off the design of the next vehicle is going to have a profound impact on the workforce in the manned space program, including the astronauts.

However, whenever you cut the dragon’s head off, it opens up new opportunities. We’re going to package up what we learned in the Constellation program, and that will certainly be an input, a starting position, for whoever builds the next vehicle. It’s not like we lose all that work. Secondly, I think that the privatization of space is inevitable, just like any other form of transportation. We’re going to have to have competition and a free market system with the best ideas coming forth. I believe that new program can develop in roughly the same timeframe that Constellation would have.

It’s a complex issue. As a government employee, I find it a little bit difficult to strongly oppose the executive branch in their decision-making because they have a lot more information than I do. It’s an honor to be an astronaut and having an opinion is fine, but I also have to balance that with the fact my job is to fly whatever vehicle they tell me I need to go fly.

B&W: Why should we keep sending humans in space?

GJ: Americans are an exploring people. The great power of exploration is that you’re learning new things you never knew were there to learn. Lewis and Clark had a $2,500 budget and their mission was to find the Northwest Passage. They did not find the Northwest Passage, and they spent $32,000, over 10 times the budget. The Congress and the politicians then were irate that they spent 10 times the budget and didn’t find the Northwest Passage, but we know from history how important Lewis and Clark’s expedition was to the development of our country. Flying in space is the next frontier, so just purely for the sake of exploring, I think that makes it worth it.

But there are also secondary benefits, and those are the benefits of expanding technology. Right now, I’m sitting in my house, talking on a cell phone that’s channeling through satellites in geosynchronous orbit, some of which were delivered by space vehicles. We are high-tech because we’re expanding the frontier.

Also, when we’re out in space, we can learn a lot about our planet—things we can’t really understand without getting off the planet. One example is the alphamagnetic spectrometer that my flight’s taking up there. We can’t determine if there’s naturally occurring antimatter because we’re cloaked by an atmosphere that, if there were antimatter, would turn it to energy before it got to the ground. So, we have to have a cosmic sensor like this experiment that’s away from the Earth so we can study this stuff and better understand our universe. The possibilities are endless for the things we can learn by living out in space.

Our planet does not have infinite lifetime, either, so if we want our species to continue on for millions of years, eventually we’re going to have to colonize some other planet. It’s going to be a long process to be able to do it, but the first steps are going back to the Moon and then to Mars so we can work on the skills that enable us to get there. I think it’s vitally important to our nation to continue the space program.

—Jon Hill
Illustration by Eloise Owens

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  1. yobwog

    "Our planet does not have infinite lifetime." Yep. Imagine if we had spent those BILLIONS of dollars and developed an alternative-energy industrial complex instead of funneling all that money into NASA, Boing and all these other ridiculous projects. We wouldn't have to rely on oil or hydrocarbons. Less mucking with our planet's environment and we would make the world a more peaceful place - no more giving all this oil money to our enemies.

    "I think the pragmatic truth about manned spaceflight is that you’ve got human beings that need their jobs, that have morale issues..."

    Sorry, but the jobs that your coworkers hold (1) are FAR more resource heavy than most other jobs and (2) come from taxpayers.

    • back off  

      A lot of advances made in alternative energy have come, directly or indirectly, from NASA research—think fuel cells, more efficient nuclear reactors, and solar power.

      Could private companies do they same thing? Maybe. But it's not like the money spent on NASA has been a waste.

      (Also, saying we wouldn't be using fossil fuels now if we hadn't spent our money on NASA is a lousy, untestable counterfactual hypothesis.)

    • not delusional  

      yobwog: Take a look at the Bloom Box. The technology was originally developed by NASA to synthesize water on Mars. Sure, it's not a final solution, but it's still one big piece of the puzzle.

      Your notion that funding NASA is the reason we're energy dependent shows a deep misunderstanding of the history and development of science, not to mention gross ignorance of energy markets.

    • not delusional (but still frustrated)  

      Also, your second point on Mr. Johnson's coworkers can be applied directly to pretty much every researcher in the country. They're funded by taxpayers, right? As well as every other government worker on the payroll. What is an alternative-energy industrial complex anyways?

  2. Great Interview

    Very interesting. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Mike Martinez

    On all shuttle flights---the reason why the ride is so rough and shaky is because of the burning solid fuel---or is it something else? Is it the same for liquid fuel rockets? Wouldn't it be more productive if the crew's cabin was installed with counter-vibration sensors, just to cut down on those minor glitches that seem to happen on most flights and make the crew's flight smoother riding?

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