May 6, 2009 in Region

UW grad to pilot space shuttle to Hubble

Lynn Thompson The Seattle Times
 

SEATTLE — Greg Johnson wasn’t one of those kids who always wanted to be an astronaut.

He remembers when he was 3 or 4 years old, watching a jet take off from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and thinking, “Wow! That looks like a fun job.” He jokes it was the start of his later life plan: “to go from fun job to fun job.”

But Monday, the Seattle native and University of Washington graduate will undertake the ultimate flying assignment: piloting the final shuttle mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope.

His parents, who live in Mukilteo, and former colleagues say Johnson’s calm demeanor and nearly 35 years’ experience flying some of the world’s fastest planes have prepared him well for his 11-day mission in space.

For Johnson, 54, who’s flown jets off aircraft carriers in the Navy and been an Air Force test pilot for A-6E Intruders and F/A-18A Hornets, the space shuttle was the next great gig.

What Johnson doesn’t say, but what friends fill in, is that he was also a math and science standout at West Seattle High School, where he graduated in 1972, and in aerospace engineering at the UW. Within four years of joining NASA in 1990, he was named chief of maintenance and engineering, responsible for NASA’s fleet of 44 jets and cargo planes.

“Greg was always a great pilot, but he always wanted to do it right. He always wanted to understand the physical and technical aspects of flying,” said Dave Waggoner, director of Paine Field in Everett and commanding officer of Johnson’s flight squadron at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island in the early 1980s.

Growing up in West Seattle, Johnson said, he got an early taste for adventure. He skied and camped with his brother and two sisters and built tree forts and caves in the woods near his home.

When it came time for college, he considered MIT. But his dad, Raleigh Johnson, finance director for Boeing’s Everett division, “saw dollar signs” and suggested that his own alma mater, the UW, had a good engineering school and was more affordable.

The younger Johnson saw his opportunity. He said he’d go to the UW if he could first attend flight school at Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake. His father still remembers the excitement in his son’s voice when he phoned home after his first flight.

When Johnson transferred to the UW, he worked weekends and summers at Kenmore Air, flying passengers to the San Juans and British Columbia, even once landing on a glacier to deliver supplies to scientists.

Raleigh Johnson had his own hopes for his son’s career — a steady, stable engineering job at Boeing. It was around that time, the father said, he began to realize that wasn’t the career path his son had in mind.

At Kenmore Air, Johnson’s enthusiasm and youthful appearance drew the concern of customers. Gregg Munro, president of Kenmore Air who managed flight operations at the time, said passengers would ask Johnson: “’Are you old enough to be flying this airplane?”’

His boyish good looks also earned a nickname from the airline’s secretaries — Captain Cupcake, a detail not included in his official NASA biography. (If you look online at nasa.gov, he’s Gregory C. Johnson, not Gregory H. Johnson, a fellow astronaut.)

From flying seaplanes and landing on glaciers, Johnson said, fighter jets seemed the next logical step. He joined the Navy, flew fighter jets on two deployments to the Pacific and Middle East, and completed more than 500 aircraft-carrier landings. Only years later did he tell his dad and stepmother Patsy how challenging that could be.

“On a night with no moon, they turn all the lights on on the carrier. Still, it looks like a postage stamp in the dark. If it’s a rough sea and the ship is pitching, you have a moving target. And you have to come in fast, in case you overshoot and have to take off again,” said Raleigh Johnson, describing what his son did routinely.

Johnson was so good at it that he often served as landing signal officer, the pilot who stands on the back of the carrier to guide the other planes down, said his former commander.

“He was a coach and mentor for the other pilots. He was the final authority on whether the approach was good enough to get on safely. You can only do that when you have the experience of flying and the confidence of other pilots,” Waggoner said.

Johnson applied for the astronaut program three times before he was accepted in 1998 at age 44. He graduated at the top of his class. The Hubble mission will be his first trip into space.

For the shuttle mission to service the Hubble, Johnson describes his role as a “jack of all trades.” In addition to piloting Atlantis and positioning it to capture the space telescope in the shuttle’s cargo bay, Johnson will help the other astronauts get into and out of their spacesuits for the repairs. He’ll also film the mission with an IMAX camera for National Geographic.

The astronauts will cram five spacewalks into five days to service crucial parts of the Hubble’s optics and data recorders, operations that fellow astronaut John Grunsfeld likens to “brain surgery” in space.

Johnson’s parents, his wife, Nanette, his two grown sons from a previous marriage, his three stepchildren and a grandchild all will travel to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to watch the launch.

Johnson’s parents said they are well aware of the dangers. The mission originally planned as the final trip to the Hubble was canceled after the 2003 explosion of the shuttle Columbia and the loss of its crew, before flights were reinstated a year later.

Johnson’s mission has been postponed several times since its originally scheduled launch in September, first because of Hurricane Ike, then because of the failure of the telescope’s data router.

In February, a Russian satellite collided with a U.S. communications satellite, sending large clouds of debris into the Hubble’s high orbit.

“I asked Greg if that collision was going to affect his flight,” said Patsy Johnson. “He said, ’No, but it will be 21 percent more dangerous.”’

But the delays in the mission have also given the seven-member crew more time to prepare.

“Greg thinks they’re ready to do just about anything,” Patsy said.

Johnson sounds both awed and honored when he talks about the Hubble. He says it is “probably the most powerful instrument in astronomy we’ve ever produced.”

He recalls that Edwin Hubble, the astronomer for whom the telescope is named, once traded observations and theories of the cosmos with Albert Einstein.

“Hubble was looking through his telescope, Einstein was doing it on a blackboard. And the fact that they talked to each other, and eventually Hubble determined that the universe is expanding and then accelerating, I think that is one of the single most important scientific discoveries” for astronomy, Johnson said.

If the mission is successful, the telescope will be 10 times more powerful and will continue to send images of remote galaxies and of the birth of stars through at least 2014. The data Hubble records could help answer questions about the origins of the universe and the nature of dark energy, the little-understood force that seems to be driving the cosmos apart.

For Johnson, the gain in scientific knowledge outweighs the personal risks.

“The Hubble’s discoveries over the years have been phenomenal,” Johnson said. “We expect it to continue to make discoveries.”


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