Gregory H. Johnson
When you were a young boy, what were your favorite subjects in school? What did you like to do in your spare time?
Math was my absolute favorite subject and I received quite a bit of extra independent study time and accelerated math challenges from my math teachers starting in 7th grade. I also loved science, but pure math (geometry, sequences, teasers, etc.) was my passion. I played music in the various school bands and also in a private rock band. I collected stamps, loved baseball and many other sports, loved all games (especially chess and board games), and enjoyed camping.
Were any classes particularly difficult for you?
No, they were not - this was very convenient for me because I had so many things I preferred doing outside of schoolwork. Writing/reading did challenge me more than the sciences, so most of my home study was in that area. I never was a big reader (except maybe Hardy Boys' mysteries, "Mad" magazine and comic books).
What did you do to improve your writing skills? Do you enjoy writing now?
I took an analytical approach to fix my writing deficiencies. Both my mom and dad were excellent writers, and I urged them give me specific feedback; I gradually learned how to methodically correct more of my errors. I studied vocabulary words and forced myself to dedicate more time to reading -- which, in turn, improved my proficiency with our language. Also, I love games, so I took up Scrabble and other word games -- a fun way to learn new words.
When did you decide that you wanted to become a pilot? Did you know then that you wanted to be an astronaut?
Silly me - I originally (high school) thought I wanted to be an aeronautical engineer and eventually an astronaut. My plan to become a pilot was to make me a better engineer and also more competitive in the unlikely event I'd be in the running for an astronaut position. Of course, once I started flying in college, I knew I was hooked.
I first wanted to be an astronaut when I was 7 years old - I watched the Apollo 11 landing on a black and white TV at my grandparents' house in Michigan. I never really was serious, however, about the possibility of becoming an astronaut until well into my career as a test pilot - it was more of a dream until about 1995.
Did you ever expect to really become an astronaut? What do you look forward to the most when you finally get to fly your first NASA mission?
The short answer is I never ever expected it. I was very surprised to be selected in the "competitive group" (top 480) of my class and was amazed to get an interview in Houston (top 120). Even then, I was extremely doubtful I'd get picked in Group 17 (they eventually selected 24 from our group).
I look forward to the ascent up, the re-entry, being weightless, and the first day home.
How long do you think it will be before you will actually get to fly into space? Do you expect that you will be flying in a shuttle or a newer spacecraft?
Probably 3 to 4 years. With the current manifest (it could change as a result of Columbia's accident) I expect to fly somewhere around STS-127. I expect to fly the shuttle first, but there is a lot of uncertainty in the wake of the STS-107 investigation.
Do you ever worry about the dangers associated with being an astronaut?
My concerns are mostly centered around how my loss would impact my family. I know some might think there's a selfish aspect to my flying in space - they might ask, "why would you put yourself at risk when you have a wife and three kids?" I don't have a good answer for that question, but my rationalization would include that it's part of my makeup, that I've always had that passion - well before I was married or had kids, and that my family will be financially covered if I do end up in a spaceflight disaster. I've always been a risk taker - I embrace life's highs and lows more than the average guy, I guess. The dangers of spaceflight are very similar to those I experienced when I was flying fighter aircraft - especially flying combat missions in Desert Storm.
Were you always a high achiever in academics?
Yes. I loved to learn and did well as a result of it. My scouting experiences helped round out my personality and offered unique opportunities (especially leadership/followership/teamwork) which have served me well throughout my career.
Can you define "followership"? Did you coin that term or did you hear it from someone else? Why is being a "follower" important?
I've heard the term "followership" in various academic and military circles discussing leadership and teamwork. I didn't coin the term, but it certainly sounds like one that was coined trying to describe the package of traits required to be a good follower. It is important to be a good follower in any team endeavor -- "too many cooks spoil the broth". I think it's also paramount for the "leader" to know when it's time to choose the role of "follower" and vice versa, not only in a stratified organization having many levels of leadership, but also within a particular level. The most effective teams I've observed have been populated with talented folks who can swap directing and supporting roles based on the dynamics of the group and the task at hand.
Did you have any piloting experience before entering the Air Force? How did you become an Air Force pilot?
I was accepted into Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT - USAF jet training) after getting acceptable grades in college, passing a glider flying course, and soloing in a single engine propeller aircraft (T-41) at the USAF Academy.
What was your best experience (so far) flying?
My best flying experiences occurred as a test pilot - flying new and unusual aircraft. If I had to pick one flight, it was a qualitative evaluation I flew in the A-10 warthog. On my one and only flight in the jet, I got to fly solo, shoot the 30 mm gun and drop practice bombs at the range.
Did your engineering background help you get selected as an astronaut candidate? Have you had the opportunity to use that background either as a pilot or at NASA?
Absolutely. Almost all of the astronaut corps' pilots are test pilots. An engineering or technical degree is almost a must to get into test pilot school. I did some engineering work before graduate school, but never used it much again until I was a test pilot. In the space business, it has been increasingly more useful.
What were the major training and education milestones that got you to where you are today?
I graduated in the Class of 1984 from the USAF Academy, went to Columbia University for a year to get my Master's degree and then on to the yearlong pilot training course (UPT) in the summer of 1985. I was in active duty in the Air Force the entire year at Columbia University - the Guggenheim Fellowship was a great opportunity to continue my education in my first year as a commissioned officer.
How do astronauts train for the rigors of a mission into space?
After selection into the astronaut corps, each astronaut receives initial ASCAN (Astronaut Candidate) training - a two year process where we learn the basics of the shuttle, space station, PR work, geology, astronomy, and indoctrination into the workings of the various NASA centers. Physical fitness always gets a priority (throughout our stay with NASA) as well as flying the T-38 to retain pilot proficiency. After the ASCAN years, we began to specialize in our areas of expertise - in my case I have focused more on duties as a pilot of the space shuttle. We also occasionally received enrichment "expedition" training where we learned team techniques in a field environment (isolated/hostile environments in Antarctica, Canada, Russia, and the United States) to simulate some of the challenges on orbit. I had the opportunity to travel to the Wind River Mountain Range in Wyoming with 12 other astronauts (7 from the STS-107 crew and 5 others) where we backpacked for 10 days, hiking about 50 miles over very rough mountainous terrain, summited two mountain peaks, and learned "leave no trace" backpacking techniques (no open fires, no disturbed vegetation, 0% impact to environment). The other 6 of us were dubbed "STS-107.5" (on your FM dial). It was an incredible experience that I will never forget.
Usually, pilots and commanders are assigned 1 year prior to launch. Some mission specialists with complicated space walks or space station expedition crews are assigned up to 2 years in advance. On the short side, there have been crews assigned 6 months prior to fairly straightforward shuttle missions. After flight assignment, we focus on the specific mission at hand, and all training is accomplished accordingly.
When fellow astronauts die in an accident such as the loss of Columbia in 2003 or the loss of Challenger in 1986, how does this impact the astronaut corps?
I have occasionally been exposed to death among my comrades as a jet pilot and fighter pilot - although the pain is always there we, perhaps, learn to somewhat compartmentalize our thinking/emotions in such cases. As a pilot, however, it was usually just one or two at a time, and rare when compared to the hundreds of thousands of USAF flights annually. During Desert Storm, we were preconditioned to the possibility of some losses - and we also recognized that we needed to be strong since we all were headed out the door the next day on our own combat missions. In the astronaut corps, there are much fewer astronauts (we all know each other), space flights are much rarer, and a catastrophic accident is much more publicly visible. So, a short answer to your question is that it shocked us as a group, but we also banded together very quickly and focused our emotions toward picking up the pieces and growing from it as an agency.
My whole family and non-NASA friends were horrified, but it is interesting to note that my kids (ages 5, 8, and 9) seemed to be OK until they went to school and learned from others that they should be worried.
Did the 1986 Challenger accident cross your mind when you applied to be an astronaut?
Yes, but this sort of risk is not new to me (based on my chosen profession in the Air Force). In a strange sort of way, these accidents make me more motivated to go - to ensure that the fallen astronauts' efforts don't go in vain.
What jobs do astronauts have at NASA while waiting to be assigned to a space flight? What are you doing at NASA at this time?
We rotate around various jobs supporting the space shuttle, the space station, and future missions/vehicles. My first big job was a "cape crusader" (Astronaut Support Person) traveling to Florida for all launches and landings. Duties included setting up shuttle switches/equipment, strapping the crews in the crew compartment, and recovering the crews/shuttles after landing. In the last few years, I've focused on shuttle systems and procedures. I've been helping to design and evaluate new cockpit displays for a cockpit upgrade program. I'm also serving as the astronaut representative to make abort landings safer (when/if we land immediately after launch if the shuttle has a major problem during ascent). Some astronauts are CAPCOMs (Capsule Communicators) at Mission Control, others travel to Russia to support the Russian element, and others are assigned many other possible jobs. More senior astronauts get managerial jobs between flights. We all continue a low level of training in the simulators so we don't forget everything we've learned!
Is becoming an astronaut a "career path"? What should girls and boys who want to become astronauts do to prepare themselves for perhaps one day being selected?
Yes and no. Certainly it is a career adjustment. I gave up my chance to progress normally in the US Air Force. My peers are now leaders in USAF -- commanding squadrons composed of 20+ aircraft with 200 personnel. It will be many years before I get a similar leadership opportunity here with NASA. However, it is not a "career path" as we are still performing skills we brought with us. I am a pilot and will never be expected to be an astrophysicist or a medical doctor (and mission specialists are not expected to be pilots). So, in a way, we're still executing our chosen career paths, but just in a unique environment.
The most important preparation is to do what you love and do it very well. Mission specialists come from all walks of life and are tops in their fields. Pilots are chosen partly because they are very good pilots in the Air Force or Navy. However, it is important to be well rounded (lots of outside interests), in excellent physical shape and health, and have good people skills (personality, teamwork, leadership, etc.).
Opportunities to fly in space are really hard to predict. NASA recently over-hired and has a glut of unflown astronauts, but that will probably change in the next decade. If the United States decides to make it a priority for humans to go to Mars, the size of the astronaut corps will likely increase.
Was it confusing to be one of two Gregory Johnsons in the Astronaut Class of 1998 (Group 17)? How do people differentiate between the two of you (especially since you are both pilots)?
It has been very funny over the years dealing with the challenges of sharing the same name with Gregory C. Johnson. There are 8 pilots in our class, and a full 25% of us are named "Greg Johnson". We joke saying that NASA picked us both because they weren't sure which one they wanted. Another one I've heard is that we individually were 55% qualified for the job, but together we are 110%! We've inadvertently switched boarding passes on airlines (he got my assigned seat and I got his), I've been charged for his hotel room, and we often get each others' e-mails. The best way to deal with such situations is to laugh at it, correct it, and move on. We both find it very amusing at times, although the potential exists for a serious flub up. Who knows, maybe someday we'll fly together on the shuttle as both Commander and Pilot.
When do you think humans could travel to Mars? Why do you think people might travel to Mars or other places in our Solar System?
Traveling to Mars needs to be well timed - only when Mars and Earth are the closest. This occurs about every 2 to 3 years. 2014 was the "earliest possible date" we used to advertise, but now I think 2020 is a better guess as the earliest likely opportunity. Much technological progress must happen before it becomes a reality - we need better propulsion systems, faster space craft, and have much to learn about long-duration spaceflight. The impact of a 2 or 3 year flight to the human body is a very complicated problem.
To answer to why we explore is not easily answered in a short paragraph. We Americans are explorers and the benefits we've enjoyed were not always predicted. For example, it is estimated that for every dollar we invested in the lunar landings, our economy received 7 dollars in payback. The number of new jobs, advanced technologies, health benefits, and new inventions has continued to surprise us. The space program has brought us cell phones, cordless drills, affordable computers, and Velcro. Additionally, it is in our spirit. In the bigger picture, we (as a species) need to figure out how to live in space and/or colonize other planets in order to protect our species from a catastrophic event that could ruin our own planet.
I expect a Mars expedition to be an international effort - the challenge is great and the cost will be staggering.
Would you like to set foot on Mars (or the moon)? Do you think you might?
I would love to have the opportunity to go to the moon or Mars (or any other planet for that matter). My curiosity and desire to explore an unknown realm far outshadows any safety concerns or dread of the expected long trip. Indeed, most astronauts feel the same way. The shuttle and the ISS are stepping stones, but we want to go much farther!
No. I'm probably on the older side to hope for such luck! Perhaps I could be around for a lunar landing in preparation for the Mars trip.
How long would you expect a human spaceflight mission to Mars to last?
There are two Mars scenarios I've heard in discussions: one about 500 days long and one about 1000 days long (total round trip). The actual travel using today's propulsion capabilities will take about 6 months each way. That leaves about 4 to 5 months on the surface of Mars in the first scenario and about a year and a half on the Martian surface in the latter scenario.
Would you encourage your children to follow in your footsteps?
Yes, but only if they wanted to. I would never push them in that direction - such an action might get in the way of them succeeding in another line of work!
What other things do you enjoy?
I LOVE to golf (although I am very bad). As I answer this question, I am heading to Ohio on an airplane and plan to play the frustrating game with my brother.
My sons' Little League baseball is another great passion of mine. I played as a kid, love the game, especially love the developing game in 8 - 10 year olds, and I'm thrilled that my sons are into it!
Do you read for pleasure now? What do you like to read today?
I do find time to read novels when on the road. I particularly love Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan series -- CIA, espionage, counter-terrorism, and the like. Great stuff!
What words of advice would you like to share with students, and others, who might read this interview?
Well I've not been at a loss for words so far... but I'd like to offer one more idea. When you are on a quest to achieve a certain goal - it is important to remember to do well at what you're doing right now. If it's at school, at work, or in some other preparation for your dream job, do your best right now. That will enable you to get to the next step. Many students ask me how to become an astronaut. I respond by telling them to do what they love and do it very well. Every job you choose along the way should be something you feel is worth doing - never view a position as merely a stepping stone, because you may not do your best; then the next step might become unattainable. I remember getting advice from a high ranking military officer: he told me a story about a high level meeting where a junior officer (a Lieutenant) was sitting in for the Colonel. The General criticized the young man for offering his strongly presented opinions to the group of senior officers. The Lieutenant complained that the General didn't achieve that rank by sitting idle. The General replied, "that is true, but I became a Captain (the next junior rank) by being a good Lieutenant, not by acting like a Colonel..."
Do you have a favorite quote which inspires you?
"Never tell people how to do things - tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity." ~ George S. Patton
I first heard this quotation at college - we had to memorize the quotations of numerous famous officers and leaders. This one has been applicable to my situation time and time again. It's not that I always tell people what to do (ask them to help might be a better approach), but that you show mutual trust and respect to associates and subordinates by letting them find, and take credit for, the best way to solve a problem.
Other interviews: 18 May 2007
- 17 July 2003
17 July 2003
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