Adventures in space: NASA shuttle pilot shares experiences with Wiesbaden students
September 27, 2011
WIESBADEN, Germany - A few months before retired Air Force Col. Gregory H. Johnson stood in front of a standing-room-only crowd in Wiesbaden's Taunus Theater, he was piloting the last mission of the space shuttle Endeavour more than 200 miles above the Earth's surface.
Johnson shared details and video highlights of the penultimate NASA space shuttle mission, STS-134, with Wiesbaden Department of Defense Dependents Schools students Sept. 12.
"I've only spent about a month of my life in space," said Johnson, who piloted the Endeavour on two separate missions -- STS-123 and STS-134.
During the final Endeavour mission, which began its 16-day mission on May 16, 2011, and delivered the final construction components of the International Space Station, Johnson told the students the shuttle made 248 orbits around the Earth. "We did four space walks on our flight. … Every single day was magical. … I was lucky to be part of this incredible crew."
Among the vital equipment delivered by the STS-134 crew to the International Space Station was an Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer -- a particle physics detector operated by an international team from 16 different countries intended to provide insights into the origin of the universe. "The AMS will provide a better understanding of how our universe was formed," said Johnson.
"It's wonderful to be back in Wiesbaden, Germany," said the astronaut, explaining that like those youths in the audience, he, too, attended elementary school in Wiesbaden while his father led the U.S. Air Force Europe Band. "I was here from second to fifth grade -- so it's really a walk down memory lane."
Like his musician father, Johnson continues the tradition playing in the all-astronaut band, Max-Q, and his brother is "a working musician," he said.
After describing some of the highlights of Endeavour's last mission and presenting a fast-paced video capturing life aboard the International Space Station, "which is roughly the size of a football field," Johnson fielded questions from the audience.
In response to a question about how long he has served as an astronaut, Johnson said 13 years.
Other questions ranged from "what is the time zone in space?" to the quality of space food.
"The food's really pretty good," he answered.
In answer to a question about adjusting to weightlessness and the pull of gravity upon returning to the Earth's atmosphere, Johnson described an instance where he accidentally released a glass back on Earth while engaged in a conversation with a senator, fully expecting it to float like in space -- only to have it smash to pieces.
Johnson also acknowledged that space travel does indeed give one a unique perspective and more respect for planet Earth. "Our planet is wonderful," he said in answer to the question.
Students wanted to know what classes to take to prepare for a career as an astronaut. Saying that it's important to do well in math, science and other fields, the most important thing is to "do well in whatever you really, really love," Johnson said.
"Many of you are going to be the right ages to get to the moon, Mars and beyond," he said. "We've got a lot of the universe to explore yet. … We need to learn new technologies, new propulsion techniques."
When the Endeavour landed back on Earth at the Kennedy Space Center on June 1, 2011, it marked the penultimate shuttle mission, a program that launched on April 12, 1981, and ended on July 21 as the Atlantis touched down.
During the 30 years of NASA's Space Shuttle Program, several firsts were achieved including the first time solid rocket engines were used to propel spaceships into orbit and the first time a spaceship landed back on Earth by gliding down a runway with the initial 1981 flight of the Columbia, the first American woman in space -- Sally Ride -- on STS-7 in 1983 and the first African-American in space -- Guion Bluford in 1983. The final flight of the Endeavour also marked the last time an international astronaut, Italian Roberto Vittori, would fly aboard a shuttle.
Overall the Endeavour spent 299 days in space, orbiting the Earth 4, 671 times and traveling more than 122 million miles.
The International Space Station, which is expected to continue operations for at least another decade, launched on Nov. 20, 1998. (Some information for this article is courtesy of NASA's home page at www.NASA.org)