Back in Empire for a recap of another successful mission, Endeavour shuttle pilot Greg Johnson oooed and awed his audience at the township hall on Aug. 19 with new photos and a video from his STS-134 mission in May to the International Space Station (ISS).
Endeavour, the newest of the space shuttles, flew 25 missions and 122 million miles before being retired in June by NASA, which closed the door on the shuttle program after a total of 135 missions to the ISS. (Atlantis, which launched in June, was the last shuttle to dock with the space station.)
Johnson said he had the privilege of flying on two of Endeavour’s shuttle missions: STS-123, his first mission, and STS-134, the last mission for both Johnson and Endeavour.
“I was really happy to get a second crack at it,” he remarked.
Space shuttles have acted as trucks, transporting both humans and cargo — such as food, equipment and scientific experiments — in their bus-sized bays to the ISS. Russia’s successful Soyuz rocket program continues to bring astronauts of all nationalities to the ISS, but the Soyuz’s capsules are small, leaving no room for large cargo. Johnson said the space program is still vibrant and four contractors were competing to design the next U.S. spacecraft which will take passengers into space from here. Whatever the new spacecraft’s capacity, from four persons to eight, it will probably be more like a mini van, he said, designed to do one job instead of two. (The Falcon 9 rocket developed by SpaceX proposes to send humans to the ISS via its Dragon spacecraft and deliver cargo via the rocket’s second stage nine days later, pending NASA’s risk assessment. A Nov. 30 launch date is planned.)
“As a shuttle pilot, you know, I’ve got my resume in at Wal-Mart,” he quipped, not sharing what might be next for him in his NASA career.
The STS-134 difference
Johnson said his last mission proved more stressful, and the entire crew was affected, as a result of the tragic January shooting of Commander Mark Kelly’s wife, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.). He added that he “took on a stronger role as a pilot” and another person was groomed to be the commander, in the event Kelly couldn’t be there.
Everyone on the STS-134 mission was a space veteran, Johnson explained, and added that astronaut Mike Fincke logged a total of 382 days in space. Though he had experienced one other shuttle launch (at night), Johnson said he was “surprised” by the vibration, sound and light surrounding the May 16 event. He attributed the difference to the contrast of seeing the sun rise and watching ships out the shuttle’s window, a calm scene before the sensory storm.
On the shuttle’s approach to the football field-sized space station, Johnson enthused it was “like Luke Skywalker on the Death Star.”
He shared some highlights of his second mission, with the help of a NASA video. As the lead robotic arm operator, Johnson helped position the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, a $2 billion cosmic particle detector which measures anti-matter, dark matter and dark energy — helping scientists uncover the origins of the Universe. Endeavour’s crew also brought a full payload to resupply the ISS and complete its construction with the ELC 3, including a robotic arm extension for “Mr. Dextre,” the space station’s grappling tool. On board the ISS, he met Russian Col. Dmitry Kondratyev, who flew “enemy” MiG-29s Johnson had studied as part of his F-15 fighter pilot training. He and the rest of the ISS crew (including two Italians) greeted the Pope in a live broadcast.
His day-to-day duties included “making food for the guys and (taking) a lot of pictures.” Johnson marveled at a photograph taken by European Space Agency astronaut Paolo Nespoli, who captured the only image of the 200-foot space shuttle attached to the ISS. The picture was taken as the Soyuz, with Nespoli aboard, maneuvered away from the station.
Johnson and others on the ISS took turns with the video camera.
“I love watching this,” he said. “It’s like watching a movie from your vacation.”
Filmed first were the astronauts performing various duties but, as Johnson shared, there was also time for serious fun. They tucked themselves into balls for somersaults, ate floating M&Ms and shot their bodies horizontally through the station’s passages. Asked by an 8-year-old in the audience how it felt to be a surfboard, Johnson chuckled and replied: “It feels good to be the best surfboard … Whatever you’re doing, you just want to do it well.”
He said he also recalled some physics’ lessons from school, such as what happens when a 200-pound guy crashes into a 100-pound gal. In this case, the gal was U.S. flight engineer Catherine (Cady) Coleman, aboard the ISS via an earlier Soyuz flight.
“She’ll go twice as far,” he said, laughing at the memory. “It’s really neat to see how high school physics really works.”
His biggest surprise this time, he said, was the discovery of the Cupola (Italian for “dome”) module and its seven windows. Of all of the cost-cutting measures NASA might have taken, Johnson said he thought the Cupola would have been among them, since it seemed to serve the least useful purpose. The largest window was “like a glass bottom boat,” that offered a porthole to Earth and the stars, and a way for the astronauts to see their progress with the robotic arm. “These magnificent windows,” as he called them, offered “absolutely beautiful” views which added value to the station, something he said he should have realized since his sister, Robin, is an architect.
There was one other difference for Johnson on this, his final visit to the ISS. At the conclusion of STS-123, he remembered being ready to go home. This time, he said he had a sadder feeling when he left.
“I would have stayed a few months if it was offered,” he said.
He sounded a bit wistful when he replied to a boy’s question about the number of astronauts needed in the future. Johnson said he thinks there will be a lot more astronauts when the boy is Johnson’s age (49), and that planetary exploration will probably happen during the boy’s lifetime, but not his.
Asked what the future holds for the space station, Johnson said something that, owing to a number of gasps, surprised some of his audience: the space station has been “already up there for 12 years” and is expected to be in operation for another 10 years.
“But maybe they’ll say another 5 when 10 comes around,” he said, smiling.