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Johnson Celebrates Ohio's Rich Astronaut Heritage
portrait of astronaut Greg JohnsonAstronaut Greg Johnson piloted Shuttle Endeavor on STS-123 and flew it again on STS-134. Image Credit: NASA When you meet astronaut Greg Johnson, you might hear him referred to by his Air Force call sign "Box." In fact if you follow him on Twitter, his handle is "Astro_Box."

According to legend, Johnson earned his nickname as a high-tech fighter pilot. Those jets feature computer screens that identify dangerous flight areas in outlined three-dimensional boxes. Most pilots avoid these. According to the story, Johnson headed straight for a "box" indicating a willingness to do whatever it takes to get the job done.

That tenacious spirit is evident in his work at NASA Glenn Research Center where Johnson is currently serving a one-year detail as the associate director of External Programs. Following in the footsteps of Mike Foreman, Johnson, who also has Ohio roots, serves Glenn on a number of fronts. He chaired the planning committee of the 50th anniversary event in honor of John Glenn's flight aboard Friendship 7. "John Glenn's anniversaries have followed me all of my life. I was born in 1962, the year he orbited Earth. This year, guess how old I will be?"

He is also making numerous visits to schools and science centers spreading the word about Glenn Research Center's contribution to the mission of NASA and the importance of students pursuing their education in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). "I really like connecting with kids," says Johnson, who has three children of his own with wife Cari. "I want them to know all the possibilities that are open to them if they pursue careers in STEM subjects."

Keeping Hometown Connections

Johnson was born in England while his father was serving in the US Air Force. He also spent several years in Germany, but returned to the US for junior high and high school, specifically the Dayton area near Wright Patterson Air Force Base. He was extremely active in school and became an Eagle Scout in the Boy Scouts of America.

The people of Dayton embraced Johnson as their hometown astronaut. "My brother still lives in the house my parents owned in Fairborn. I go back there a lot to visit friends and keep my connection to the National Museum of the Air Force and my membership with the Dayton Engineers Club," says Johnson.

Johnson considers Traverse City, Michigan his second hometown. "It's where my parents grew up and I have many, many relatives there including my sister and her family."

Becoming an astronaut

"I wanted to be an astronaut since I was seven years old when I watched Neil Armstrong step on the moon," says Johnson. When he was admitted to the Air Force Academy, Johnson thought a pilot position would help him become a better aeronautical engineer, but being an astronaut was still in the back of his mind. "When I started flying, I realized how enjoyable it was and flying became my main focus while engineering went on the back burner."

When Johnson returned from military duty in Desert Storm and Southern Watch, he thought it might be time to understand the possibilities of pursuing a career as an astronaut. He attended a traveling NASA Town Hall meeting with astronaut, now NASA Administrator, Charlie Bolden who told Johnson to go to test pilot school. "If you are successful there, he told me, you might have a chance to be a pilot in the astronaut corps. Charlie gave me a path."

After several years as a test pilot, Johnson was accepted into the Group 17 astronaut training class, becoming eligible for flight assignment in 2000. But in 2003, the shuttle program shut down after the Columbia accident that claimed the life of seven astronauts. Johnson was assigned to the investigative team, which discovered that a piece of insulating foam had dislodged and punched through the shuttle heat shields. "It was a very challenging and emotional time," he says.

Johnson fulfilled his dream of going into space on STS-123 in 2008 as he piloted Endeavour. His final mission was STS-134 just last year. Once again, it was a difficult time. During preparations for that flight, Commander Mark Kelly's wife, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was critically wounded when a gunman shot her at a public meeting.

"We were a fully established team when Gabby was shot, but adversity made us even stronger and we grew as a team during the months that Mark attended to her. While it was emotionally difficult, Mark returned ready to resume mission planning and we got to work," says Johnson.

A few years ago, Johnson fulfilled his career plan of getting a master's degree in business administration at the University of Texas. The skills he learned in management have served him well in his time at Glenn as he enhances the work of education and community relations. "I am so pleased to be spending this year at NASA Glenn reaching out to the community, celebrating Ohio's rich astronaut heritage and promoting careers in science, math and technology."

Since arriving at Glenn, Johnson has been traveling extensively to talk about STEM careers and share the message of NASA within the six-state area the center serves. Some of the places he has visited include:

Blanchette Middle School and Inkster High School in Inkster, Mich.
The Plum Brook Station STEM Challenge in Sandusky, Ohio
NASA Glenn Visitor Center with Astronaut Cady Coleman at the Great Lakes Science Center
Birmingham School and community appearance in Birmingham, Mich.
50th Anniversary Celebration of John Glenn’s Orbital Mission at the Center of Science and Industry (COSI) in Columbus, Ohio
Nancy Smith Kilkenny, SGT Inc.
NASA's Glenn Research Center