Peter Johnson: From Janitor to NASA Engineer

This IEEE member has had an unusual career path

8 July 2013

IEEE Member Peter Johnson always liked working with electronics, but he never planned on working for NASA. He first dipped his toes into engineering in the 1970s as a self-taught sound technician for several pop, rock, and R&B bands in the midwestern United States. Later, while working as a janitor to support his family, he decided to go back to school to study engineering. He attended two community colleges before pursuing a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Southern Illinois University, in Carbondale. Just before graduating in 1987 he saw a cardboard sign that changed his life. It was hung in the basement of the university’s engineering building and read "NASA interviews tomorrow."

 “I will never forget that sign. More than 20 engineers were hired by NASA as a result of it,” he says. And Johnson was one of them. Fresh out of college, at the “mature” age of 33, he joined NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, in Cocoa Beach, Fla., as an instrumentation system engineer, and he’s been there ever since. Nearly 10 years later, in 1996, he was promoted to technical lead for its Flight Avionics Division (formerly the Space Shuttle Orbiter Instrumentation Section).

Rend Lake College, the school in Ina, Ill., that propelled his engineering education, named him 2012 Alumnus of the Year.

ALL SYSTEMS GO

Johnson has been involved in 110 missions, starting in 1988 with Space Transportation System 26 (STS-26), NASA’s 26th space shuttle mission, the seventh flight of its Discovery orbiter, and the first post-Challenger space shuttle mission. His team ensures that engineers at the Kennedy Space Center can monitor subsystems on a spacecraft—including electrical power generators, environmental controls, propulsion systems, and main engines—whether the spacecraft is on the ground or in orbit. The team also makes sure that if something goes wrong, engineers have enough data to identify and fix the problem and make sure it won’t happen again.

For crewed missions, he and his team assessed the health of the space shuttle orbiter instrumentation suite, tested the shuttle’s interfaces, and prepared the reusable orbiter for each launch. Johnson also helped supervise several launches from his seat in the “firing room,” where engineers at the space center monitor the booster rockets and spacecraft until the booster clears the launchpad, at which point responsibility is handed over to NASA’s Johnson Space Center, in Houston. He was one of the few Kennedy Space Center engineers chosen to monitor the performance of the subsystems during orbit, essentially taking on, he jokes, the “minor challenge of keeping three to seven crew members safe in orbit for days, weeks, or months.”

NASA’s space shuttle program was cancelled in 2011 for budgetary reasons, but that didn’t slow down work for Johnson and his colleagues, who are still involved with designing rockets and space capsules for future missions. He’s currently working on testing the Orion, a multipurpose crewed vehicle that NASA plans to use for a future manned mission to Mars.

“The Orion test will be used to verify the pressure vessel, avionics architecture, radiation survivability, heat shield, parachutes, and other components of the spacecraft,” he says.

He’s also working with the space center’s Engineering and Safety Center on avionics architecture for the Max Launch Abort System, which uses solid-propellant jettison motors to push, rather than pull, the crew module away from a catastrophic situation.

“While this may sound like a minor difference,” he says, “think about how much you would like to be pulled through a trail of smoke, fire, and expended propellant just after you’ve found out your launch vehicle is coming apart.”

LIFELONG LEARNING

So what helped Johnson go from mixing music and mopping floors to participating in some of NASA’s most notable missions? It all started with his decision in 1981 to attend Kaskaskia College, a community college in Centralia, Ill. That year, after completing his first electronics course, he founded Johnson Electronics, a small TV and stereo repair shop in Mt. Vernon, Ill. Johnson bought most of what he needed to get his business off the ground for just US $1.

“That dollar bought me some test equipment, a few spare parts, a test bench, some unrepaired pieces, and a door that led from the street-level stereo store to my shop upstairs,” he says. “Between that and my wife’s teaching salary, we survived, raised the first of three children, and made it possible to be where we are today,” he says.

After Johnson earned his associate’s degree in applied science at Kaskaskia, his father, a chemist, persuaded him to take engineering courses at Rend Lake. He graduated in 1985 with another associate’s degree and earned a bachelor’s degree at Southern Illinois University two years later. In 2007, Johnson earned a master’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Central Florida, in Orlando.

“Juggling a family, a business, and school at the same time was definitely a challenge. From that experience, I have a great respect for all returning students,” he says. “Sometimes I think I am successful today because I was an older student: I was ready to do what it took to get a good education.”

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