Magazine On-line [spring 2007]
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Les Johnson '84 holds a piece of lightweight carbon fiber material that could be used to build a giant space sail to power interstellar missions. Nasa Marshall photo

Shoot the moon


by William A. Bowden

Les Johnson ’84 doesn’t blink an eye when asked about the future of space exploration. For the National Aeronautics and Space Administration physicist, it’s not about wondering “if” humans will spread through the solar system, but only a question of when and how. And he’s working hard to help answer those questions.

“I am very much a futurist, and I believe that space exploration is a part of what humans need to be doing,” Johnson said. “It’s where we’re going to go as a species. We’re going to spread out and colonize the solar system one day. That’s far in advance from now, but we’re going to do that. The part of my job that I really get excited about is helping to make that happen.”

Johnson is well positioned to play an important role in NASA’s space initiatives. He manages the Science Programs and Projects Office at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., overseeing a staff of 42 and an annual budget of $120 million. Over the course of 17 years with NASA, he has also worked on new concepts for in-space propulsion, including the use of tethers and solar sails.

Among the projects his office oversees is the Chandra X-ray telescope, an in-space observatory developed at Marshall that is a first cousin to the Hubble telescope project.

“The Chandra observatory is as big and complicated as Hubble, but it hasn’t gotten as much media attention because it looks at the universe in X-ray light and doesn’t produce the visible light photographs that Hubble did,” Johnson said. “But it certainly gets the attention of scientists.”

A recent initiative launched in collaboration with the Japanese is Hinode, a solar physics project which has three telescopes looking at the sun in different wave lengths of light. “It’s helping us understand our star—things like what causes a solar flare and the rhythms of the sun spot cycle,” Johnson said.

NASA’s announcement in December of plans to partner with other space agencies around the world, and perhaps with space businesses, to establish a self-sustaining settlement of astronauts at the south pole of the moon sometime around 2020 is the kind of news that excites Johnson. The proposal is seen as the first step in an ambitious plan to resume manned exploration of the solar system, including sending astronauts to Mars. No manned spacecraft has left earth orbit since 1972, when the last of the 17 Apollo missions went to the moon and back.

“A few years ago, President Bush, in the wake of the Columbia tragedy, announced that we were going to finish the space station, move beyond the space shuttle, and return to human exploration of the solar system,” Johnson said. “That’s a big deal, and we’re really excited. It’s taken us a long time to get back to the idea of leaving earth orbit and pushing people farther and farther into space. That’s the goal of most of the people I work with here.”

A scientist in the making

Johnson has been working toward those goals since his high school days in Ashland, Ky., when physics, chemistry, and mathematics were his favorite subjects.Before that, he shows up in a family photo as a five-year-old in pajamas, playing with space toys under the Christmas tree. At age 12, a devoted Star Trek and science fiction fan, he decided that physics would be his calling.

“I knew at a very early age that to do anything involving space exploration, you had to be a scientist, and a scientist in my mind meant physicist,” Johnson said.
Johnson credits his parents for helping him decide on Transylvania for his science studies. “I had really good parental influence that I should get a well rounded education, and not go off and just immerse myself totally in one subject,” he said. “That’s why I chose a liberal arts college.”

Transylvania gave Johnson the opportunity to take a variety of courses while pursuing a double major in physics and chemistry. “I don’t recall a course I didn’t like,” he said. “In particular, I remember Ideas and Cultures: East and West, a wonderful class where we learned about different religions and cultures around the world. I enjoyed a political science course with Don Dugi and an economics course from President Shearer.”

Transy also offered Johnson leadership opportunities that he credits with helping him advance in his profession. He was a member of Omicron Delta Kappa national leadership honorary, Science Honorary, Order of Omega national Greek honor society, and Student Government Association. He served as president of both his fraternity, Delta Sigma Phi, and the Interfraternity Council.

“Fraternity life is the training ground for how to get along in the business world,” Johnson said. “It’s where I learned about small group politics, how to get organized, and how to get decisions made. I view my fraternity experience at Transylvania as being a very positive learning experience, as well as a lot of fun.”

Johnson earned his master’s in physics from Vanderbilt University and briefly considered the Ph.D. program before deciding to begin his career as a research physicist at General Research Corporation in Huntsville. He worked on the Reagan administration’s Strategic Defense Initiative, a proposed space-based military defense system, all the while keeping an eye out for the opportunity to work at NASA.

Arrival at NASA

In 1990, he joined the Marshall Space Flight Center, where he has worked in a variety of positions. Marshall is NASA’s field center for propulsion, with about 90 percent of the work dedicated to engineering rocket propulsion and 10 percent to space science projects. Johnson began in the space science area, moved to propulsion, and is now back working in space science initiatives.

While working in propulsion, Johnson became intrigued with the potential of tethers to provide an alternative force to traditional rocket power. He became principal investigator for Pro-SEDS (Propulsive Small Expendable Deployer System) and eventually manager for the In-Space Propulsion Technology Project. Just recently, he was invited to be a co-investigator on a Japanese tether propulsion experiment that will use a new method of collecting electrical current from the ionosphere.

“While working on these projects, I got a reputation as being somebody who looked at things a little differently,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s creativity has earned him several honors, including the NASA Exceptional Achievement Medal in both 1999 and 2000 and the Professional of the Year award from the Huntsville Association of Technical Societies in 1998.

He also holds three patents, the most recent for a tether design that will maximize current collection performance while increasing its lifetime in the harsh space environment of low earth orbit. Previous patents are for a laser-triggered fiber optic neutron sensor and a combination solar sail and electrodynamic tether propulsion system.

Consultant to the stars

An interesting aside to his work came in the mid-1990s when he was asked to be a consultant to the producers of the feature film Lost in Space. Johnson lost one of his arguments about the physics involved in an explosion scene at the end of movie—the value of cinematic awe won out over hard science, Johnson said—but was pleased that the filmmakers followed his advice about space terminology and, especially, about his rationale for space exploration.

The British producer told Johnson that her country was puzzled by America’s emphasis on space exploration, saying many in England just didn’t see the point.

“I had a philosophical discussion with her and told her my view that this earth is a wonderful place to live and that to preserve it, we need to explore the solar system for resources so that we don’t have to use up all of earth’s resources and eventually foul our own nest,” Johnson said. “In the movie, when they give the rationale for why Jupiter II is going to Alpha Centauri, they give my speech. That was the most gratifying part of the whole experience.”

Another diversion for Johnson is attending science fiction conventions, where he has met authors he admires, including Arthur C. Clark and Stephen Baxter, who mirror his optimistic outlook on life.

“I enjoy these gatherings where you have people who like to talk about a positive view of humanity’s future,” he said. “That really appeals to me. It’s the optimism we all need to have. At NASA, we’re trying to do really neat things in the future, and that’s something I like about my job.”

Johnson has never lost the enthusiasm for his work that began when he was a boy playing with space toys. He was reminded of that lifelong interest in space when his sister recently sent him that family photo of him as a five-year-old on Christmas morning, on which she wrote, “Some things never change.” And she was right, said Johnson. “In some ways, I’m still that kid under the Christmas tree.”

Johnson lives in Huntsville with his wife, Carol, their son, Carl, 14, and daughter, Leslie, ll.

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