MBA Alumnus to Pilot Penultimate Space Shuttle Mission
UPDATE: The initial shuttle launch was delayed due to technical problems and successfully launched on May 16.
When the Space Shuttle Endeavour rockets into space for its final mission this Friday, April 29, Gregory H. Johnson, MBA '05, will have a one-of-a-kind view. Johnson is Endeavour's pilot, flying NASA's penultimate shuttle mission before the program closes for good later this year.
The mission — dubbed STS-134 — is drawing even more attention than usual because of its famous commander, Mark Kelly. Kelly is the husband of Arizona Congresswoman and Tucson shooting victim Gabrielle Giffords. The Obama family is scheduled to be on hand for the launch, along with tens of thousands of other spectators. Cleared by her doctors for travel, Giffords herself may even be in attendance.
Endeavour's 14-day mission will deliver a particle physics detector called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-2 (AMS) to the International Space Station. The AMS searches for unusual matter by measuring cosmic rays, and its experiments help researchers study the formation of the universe and search for evidence of dark matter, strange matter and antimatter. Kelly describes the AMS as one of the premiere scientific instruments of the 21st century, saying it has to "potential to rewrite humanity's knowledge of the cosmos.”
Endeavour will also deliver a platform that carries spare parts for the space station and will feature four spacewalks to do maintenance and installations.
A retired United States Air Force Colonel, Johnson joined NASA for astronaut training in 1998. He previously piloted the Endeavour on mission STS-123 in 2008. Afterwards, he spoke with McCombs' TEXAS magazine about the experience:
But despite all the novelties of actually being 240 miles above Earth, for Johnson, the most surprising moment of the mission was liftoff, where “the shuttle leaped off the ground like an animal.” And even though he’d seen photos and footage from many missions before his, he wasn’t prepared for the views, which he describes as “so magnificent they were distracting.”
They were views he’d been waiting nearly 40 years to experience himself. In 1969, he was 7 years old, sitting in front of a black and white television at his grandparents’ house in Cairo, Mich., when he saw Neil Armstrong take the first human steps on the moon. From that moment on, he knew he wanted to be an astronaut.
Johnson also served on the team that investigated the 2003 space shuttle Columbia disaster:
Then on Feb. 1, 2003, everything changed. The space shuttle Columbia disintegrated over East Texas, killing all seven astronauts on board. The shuttle program shut down to give the space agency a chance to figure out why. With his master’s degree in flight structural engineering, Johnson was assigned to the investigative team. Initially, they thought a piece of insulating foam dislodged during ascent wouldn’t have the strength to punch through the fuselage. Johnson helped design the test that demonstrated dramatically that it would. “That was an incredible, almost horrifying moment,” he later told the New York Times. “Jaws dropped when it made such a huge hole in the panel.”
Johnson and the five other crew members are scheduled to lift off Friday April 29 at 3:47 p.m. EDT from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Keep up with Johson by following him on Twitter as @Astro_Box.
Hear why astronaut-engineer Johnson pursued an MBA: