Astronaut follows in hero’s steps

On Sunday, a shuttle astronaut visited his hero’s hometown and the museum built in his honor — a prelude to his visit in July for Wapakoneta’s annual Summer Moon Festival and the “Run to the Moon” races.

NASA shuttle astronaut Gregory H. Johnson, who grew up in the Dayton area and later piloted the shuttle Endeavour, stopped to sign clear plastic engraved awards for the 5K and 10K races.

Run to the Moon Director Amy Kentner said Johnson’s visit is an amazing opportunity for Wapakoneta area residents.

“We’re very excited to have an astronaut back in the home town of Neil Armstrong,” Kentner said. “This summer, kids who grew up hearing about space travel and Neil Armstrong will get to meet and talk to a real astronaut.”

Johnson also stopped to reflect on the effect Armstrong, fellow astronaut and the first man to step on the moon in 1969, had on his own endeavors in life.

“If I have to think of any one person who influenced me more as a kid I would have to say Neil Armstrong is my No. 1,” Johnson said. “I was seven years old, up at my grandparents house in Cairo, Michigan, watching a black-and-white TV when they showed the lunar landing and I sat with my mom and dad and my brother and sister. it was really a milestone event in my life.”

Johnson, who was born in the United Kingdom and graduated from the former Park Hills High School (now Fairborn High School) in 1980, earned a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1984 and a master’s degree in flight structures from Columbia University in 1985.

After serving a tour in Desert Storm operations in 1991 where he earned the nickname “Box,” Johnson was selected to be part of NASA’s space program in 1998. The retired U.S. Air Force colonel is a veteran of two space flights — one in 2008 which delivered the Dextre robot arm to the International Space Station and his second last year in May.

He recalled his feelings of lift-off in 2008, which was far different than he even expected after years of training for that day.

“The moment that I lifted off on my first shuttle flight in 2008, that was crazy,” Johnson said. “It was a combination of a deer staring in the headlights, finally getting to do the thing you’ve been training to do for so long, and then sensory overload — the acceleration, the light, sound, vibration — and maybe a little bit of intimidation.”

His return after that flight revealed his problems with readjusting to life on Earth — particularly the law of gravity.

“When I returned from space, there is a feeling of satisfaction in completing the mission and there is also a feeling of relief,” Johnson said. “I remember when the wheels touched down I had a sense of ‘whew’ and a desire to tell the story — and then wow, gravity.”

He said he looked forward to seeing his family — his wife, Cari, and their three children, Matthew, Joseph and Rachel — but he also looked forward to drinking a Diet Coke.

Upon his return, then-NASA Administrator Michael Griffin greeted the shuttle crew and Johnson had his first experience readjusting to Earth’s gravitational pull.

“I love Diet Coke, and you don’t get soda pop in space because the bubbles have no idea where to go,” Johnson said, recalling he held his daughter in his left arm and a Diet Coke in his right hand. “And the NASA administrator come up and says ‘Box.’ That’s my call sign. He says, ‘Box, congratulations. You finally flew in space.’ And he holds out his hand.

“I’m not gonna let go of my daughter, and I’m not gonna shake with my left hand anyway, so I release my Diet Coke and it goes crash,” he said. “My daughter goes, ‘Daddy, why’d you drop your Diet Coke?’ Well, because I’d thought it would stay there. Your brain is calibrated for space, and it takes a while for your brain to recalibrate for gravity.”

Johnson, who flew on the next to last mission and Endeavour’s last mission, also addressed the recent retirement of the space shuttle program, noting it is not the end of the U.S. space program and NASA.

“The shuttle is retired but we are taking the money that we were spending on the shuttle and investing in new vehicles,” Johnson said. “We still have people out in orbit, there are three astronauts and three cosmonauts up at the space station and tomorrow (today) three more are going to launch for a total of six. We have been operating in zero gravity at the space station for the past 12 or 13 years and so we are going to continue that mission.”

He said he believes the space shuttle missions to be a success as it transported equipment and people into space for the past 30 years. Two of the successes of the shuttle program is the deployment of the Hubble Telescope and later to fix the telescope and the building of the International Space Station.

Reflecting on the developments in flight made in the last 100 years, Johnson noted he believes that propulsion systems will improve in the future and should cut travel time to other planetary bodies from what we know now.

Along with playing with globules of water in space which astronauts can spend hours testing the fluid without gravity, they also take pictures of Earth.

“It is beautiful,” Johnson said. “We take lots and lots of photos of the Earth, but they just don’t do justice to it after the fact. Our planet is beautiful.

“I remember having a dinner with Alan Bean actually and a bunch of other astronauts — he is one of mine and actually all those formers (astronauts) are my heros — and I asked him what he was thinking when he was walking on the moon and he said, ‘I was looking at the Earth and wanting to be back there because it is so beautiful.’”

Johnson felt the same way.