Almost half a century ago, a grainy television picture of a man bouncing around on the airless surface of the Moon convinced a 7-year-old boy to someday become an astronaut. Gregory Harold Johnson was in Michigan, at his grandparents’ home, watching the black-and-white image of Neil Armstrong on the Sea of Tranquility. “I looked at my brother and sister,” Johnson later recalled, “and we were amazed. I said: Wow. I’d love to be an astronaut.” Thirty years later, in June 1998, he made the cut and was accepted into NASA’s 17th group of astronaut candidates. And ten years after that, in March 2008, Johnson found himself rocketing into space in the pilot’s seat of Space Shuttle Endeavour. It was the culmination of an adventure which illustrated how “a very short event … can have an incredible impact on somebody’s future.”
After 15 years with NASA, and having chalked up two shuttle missions and over 31 cumulative days in orbit, Johnson has announced his retirement from the Astronaut Office and will shortly assume a new position with the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space. “Greg contributed greatly to the construction of the International Space Station and I very much enjoyed my time in orbit with him,” said Bob Behnken, chief of the Astronaut Office, who flew his first mission with Johnson on STS-123. “We are grateful for his service to NASA and wish him well in his new career.”
Johnson was born on 12 May 1962 in South Ruislip, Middlesex, in the United Kingdom. A self-described “military brat,” his family moved around a great deal in his formative years, but settled eventually in Ohio, where he completed high school in Fairborn. “I had amazing teachers in high school,” he reflected, but admitted that his older siblings teased him for being “like peanut butter; I was spread too thin because I was involved in so many different activities and I was always trying to do the best I could in every activity.” His commitment brought him to the U.S. Air Force Academy, and Johnson adapted particularly well to its central tenets of self-discipline, physical fitness, and academic rigor.
He earned a degree in aeronautical engineering in 1984, leaving the Air Force Academy as a Distinguished Graduate with Honors, and went on to gain a master’s in flight structures engineering from Columbia University in 1985. Johnson was designed an Air Force pilot in May 1986 at Reese Air Force Base in Lubbock, Texas—meeting his wife, Cari, whilst there—and served as a T-38A instructor for several years, then was selected to fly the F-15E Eagle at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, near Goldsboro, N.C. Deployed to Saudi Arabia in December 1990, he flew 34 combat missions in support of Operation Desert Storm and later flew 27 missions in support of Operation Southern Watch in 1992-1993. Upon returning to the United States, Johnson attended the Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., and completed the grueling course of academics and piloting as a Distinguished Graduate in 1994. He later earned the Lieutenant General Bobby Bond Award for Top USAF Test Pilot in 1996.
It was around this point in his life that Johnson began to realize that the astronaut career path was opening up to him. “It’s kind of a rebirth,” he told a NASA interviewer, “and at that time I realized that … I’m flying really cool stuff and they like to hire test pilots, because each shuttle mission really is a test flight, and so went ahead and threw my name in the hat. My goal was to get an interview, come down, and meet some astronauts.” Little could he have known that in June 1998 he would be accepted into the world’s most elite flying fraternity. And years later, Johnson would credit Charlie Bolden—today’s Administrator of NASA—as having pushed him in the right direction. It had been Bolden who encouraged Johnson to enter test pilot school.
After two years of grueling training, Johnson undertook technical duties, working on shuttle displays as part of the Cockpit Avionics Upgrade Council and later on the External Tank foam impact test team, convened in the wake of the 2003 Columbia disaster. He later rose to become deputy chief, then chief, of the Astronaut Safety Branch, and in January 2007 was named as pilot of STS-123, a 16-day mission aboard Endeavour, which launched on 11 March 2008. Johnson and his crewmates supported five spacewalks to install the Japanese Experiment Module Logistics Pressurized Module (JLP) module and Canada’s “Dextre” manipulator “hand” onto the International Space Station.
Upon his return from his first mission, Johnson trained as pilot for STS-400, the planned—but thankfully unneeded contingency flight to rescue the STS-125 Hubble servicing crew—and in August 2009 he was named as pilot for STS-134, which wound up as the penultimate shuttle mission and the 25th and final voyage of Endeavour. The mission launched on 16 May 2011 and ran for almost 16 days.
“Endeavour’s always been my favorite vehicle, I guess, because it’s the newest of the vehicles,” he told a NASA interviewer. “When I first became an astronaut, one of my early jobs was to help prepare the vehicle and the crews for launch at the Cape, flipping switches, setting up procedures, taping things down. And so I became familiar with all of the different shuttles that I spent a lot of time in all of them. Endeavour always looked the cleanest, it was the most pristine, and it was my favorite vehicle from the very start.”
Whilst training for STS-134, Johnson resigned from the Air Force, with the rank of colonel, and upon his return from his second mission, in October 2011 he began a rotational assignment as Associate Director of External Programs, Center Operations, at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio. His departure from the Astronaut Office continues a trend which, despite the recent arrival of eight new candidates, has seen the corps decline in numbers to a mere shadow of its strength in previous years.