FIRST IT WAS an overly cautious NASA administrator spooked by the space shuttle Columbia disaster. Then it was a hurricane. Then it was a fuel tank problem. And then the very instrument that Gregory C. Johnson and his crewmates were prepping to update—the Hubble Space Telescope—went haywire. For nearly four years the stars kept aligning against Johnson’s first trip to space, but on May 11, 2009, he finally lifted off in space shuttle Atlantis. Unfortunately, the West Seattle native and UW grad will never get another chance to shoot for the moon: After 50 years, more than 160 missions, and—fittingly—nearly a year of delays, NASA is scheduled to shut down the human spaceflight program this summer.
Many astronauts I know wanted to be one since they were four or five years old. That was not me at all. I always wanted to work for NASA, but being an astronaut was just part of an evolutionary process.
It’s just another job. It’s an honor to do it, but in the end you go home and mow the lawn like everyone else does.
There’s this street in West Seattle—Southwest Hinds, I think—and it’s the steepest hill I’ve ever seen in my life. You would never want to try to ride down it on your bike, let alone try to make it up. But as a kid, I looked at it and thought, “Wow, I wonder if I could ride up this hill on my 10-speed bike?” I attempted it well over a dozen times and failed. But eventually I rode up that hill. That was the sort of thing that I did as a kid. I challenged myself. It wasn’t me against somebody else. It was me against me.
I’m afraid I am a thrill seeker. I jumped off the roof of my house and into the pool when I was a kid. There’s a picture of me doing it.
I don’t call myself Type A. I call myself Type B-plus. So I’m not your average Type A astronaut. They’re driven. I’m not saying I’m not driven, but they’re driven.
When we got the word that Hubble had malfunctioned and we were not going to fly, I’d say that was the single biggest disappointment in my life. I usually tell people that, when I get disappointed, I take about two to four hours to figure it out, and then I have a plan to get ahead. That took a day.
You close your visor and lock your helmet at two and a half minutes before launch. Then you get a one-minute call. At 10 seconds, the instruments realign themselves. So you have all of these little milestones. But between two and a half minutes and one minute, you have a moment to think, and it’s like, “What the heck are we doing here?”
When you see the Earth from space, it’s like, “Wow. There’s Morocco. There’s Italy. There’s the Middle East, the Red Sea, the Amazon.” It’s breathtaking, it’s fragile, and you can’t look too long because you won’t get anything done.
When you stop the human spaceflight program, you’re going to lay off a lot of really talented workers. And they’re not going to come back. They’re not going to go work for the oil industry and then come back to the space industry. So you’re giving away assets—engineers, scientists—that you’re not going to easily get back.
The job I had leading up to Columbia’s last launch was teaching the commander and the pilot of that mission to land the shuttle. So I was actually watching on TV for them to come back and land because I wanted to see how they did. The commander, Rick Husband, was my mentor. It was about five minutes prior to when they were supposed to land, and I heard nothing and saw people looking very serious. I called work and asked what was going on. They said, “We’ve lost communications with the crew.” And in the next moment, I could tell that we were losing them. I called and said, “I’m on my way in.” Myself and another astronaut were helicoptered into East Texas to review the scene and tell the chief of the astronaut corps what we saw. What we saw were parts on the ground. And then we spent two more days out there recovering the remains.
The American public is risk averse, and they don’t like losing lives. Now, they seem to be okay with the lives that are lost over in Afghanistan and Iraq. But if you kill seven astronauts, they don’t like it very much.
My personal opinion is that Mars is the goal. It’s a good idea to have a Plan B. We always have one when we fly airplanes. We always have somewhere else to land. Where’s the Plan B for Earth? That’s Mars.