At space camp in high school, James Johnson ’03 was disappointed that he wasn’t selected to be an astronaut. Instead, he was put on mission control. He had a blast (pun intended).
“It was kind of foreshadowing, I guess,” says Johnson, who today is a flight controller for the space shuttle program at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
As a specialist in electrical, environmental and consumables management (EECOM), it is Johnson’s job to help maintain the crew’s life support systems during flight. For those who recall the actual events or the 1995 film, it was largely the ingenuity of the EECOM team that brought the crew of Apollo 13 safely back to Earth after the famous line, ‘Houston, we have a problem,’ was transmitted from the stricken spaceship.
“Our mantra is train, plan, fly,” says Johnson, who estimates that his team spends 80 percent of its time training. In between their roughly four flights per year, they run practice simulations about three per week. “Our practice sessions are like a miniature Apollo 13 disaster. Over the course of eight hours, all hell breaks loose, and then we try to take care of the scenario,” he says.
Johnson tells a story that’s often repeated in the flight control world: As Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were descending toward Earth after their first lunar landing, they received an alarm that the system was overloading. Prior to the mission, the simulation team had worked on this exact failure, so they were able to immediately provide the solution.
Though he admits they are stressful, Johnson enjoys the marathon simulations, and when you talk to him, you understand why. The son of a United Airlines pilot, Johnson grew up with an interest in flight and space. He recalls wearing out his parents’ VCR watching the movie, Return to Flight, about the first space shuttle mission following the Challenger disaster. By high school he was researching what made aircraft fly. “That’s when I realized engineering was for me,” he says.
After his high school space camp experience and during his first few years at Mines, Johnson says, “I thought flight control was really cool, though it still seemed a little bit out of reach.” But during his sophomore year, Johnson found out that Mines Cooperative Education program would allow him to work at Mission Control, while continuing to work toward his degree. Over the next three years, he rotated around different divisions within NASA’s mission operations directorate, including two tours with the EECOM group.
Johnson says that the multidisciplinary aspect of his education has helped him the most. “Mines had me look at multiple aspects within engineering and work with students from other disciplines,” he says, explaining that he never knows from day to day what engineering specialists he’ll need to work with. His work now ties in with numerous specialties. “With every flight, we always have something that breaks or fails or creates a challenge. Not all of it makes the news, the average layperson doesn’t really care about it. But you can rest assured, it’s keeping us on our toes around the clock.”
And there, on his toes, is exactly where Johnson loves to be.