by MIKE LESKO | REPORTER
Aurora — At 7 years old, Greg “Box” Johnson sat in his grandparents’ house in Traverse City, Mich., in 1969 when he watched astronaut Neil Armstrong become the first man to walk on the moon.
“That seemed like an exciting job,” Johnson said. “I always wanted to be an astronaut after that.”
He got his wish. Johnson, 50, first became a U.S. Air Force pilot, then a NASA astronaut in 1998.
Johnson, who flew two space shuttle flights on Endeavour in 2008 and 2011, spoke to about 50 fifth-graders at Leighton School on Nov. 15.
On each flight, he spent 16 days in space and flew about 6 1/2 million miles.
He showed slides and video clips of his second space shuttle trip to the International Space Station.
“When our shuttle launched, there was a lot of vibration and acceleration,” he said. “It was actually a little bit scary. It’s a pretty crazy ride.
“The space station is as big as a football field,” he added. “There are three to six people living on it at all times.”
Johnson said the space station orbits the earth once every 90 minutes and travels at 17,500 mph.
“We had a 20-minute video teleconference with my wife and kids,” he said.
HE SAID the space station, which took 13 years to build, cost $100 billion, but he tried to put the price in perspective by saying that Americans spend $4 billion every Halloween.
“You can see the space station from Earth,” he said. “It is brighter than any star. It’s about 250 miles up. Every week or so, just before bedtime, it will fly over. It’s really exciting to see it.”
Part of the program showed how the astronauts float through the atmosphere in zero gravity. In one video, they were shown eating candy that floated in the air. In another, a female astronaut was shown with her long hair straight up.
“The most fun on a space shuttle trip is flying like Superman,” he said. “It’s really cool to be able to float around. It took us a couple days to get used to zero gravity and another couple days to get used to gravity again when we got back to earth.”
One slide showed Johnson playing keyboards with astronauts who performed “Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison with a flute and guitar.
Living in a space shuttle, he said, “is like a 16-day Boy Scout campout.”
As the video ended, Johnson smiled and said, “Was that fun, or what? Every time I see it, I love it.”
THE PROGRAM at Leighton School was the final one for Johnson before he returned to his home in Houston.
“Most of being an astronaut is supporting other missions,” he said.
Naturally, during a question-and-answer session at the end of the presentation, Johnson was asked how he got the nickname “Box.”
Johnson said after serving in the Air Force in the Middle East during Operation Desert Storm, he injured his back and had to have surgery. He put his personal items in two boxes that remained at the base for four months.
Fellow Air Force mates explained the nickname: “We had to look at all your stuff in those boxes for four months.”
Another student asked Johnson if space has changed his life.
“Yes,” he answered, explaining how pupils look at their classroom as part of a school, and how to expand that so he looks at Earth as part of the universe.
Johnson was brought to Leighton School by Dale Pilarczyk, an Aurora resident and business systems engineer at the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, whose son, Charlie, was among the students he spoke to.
“Get excited about learning,” Johnson told the students. “There are so many things to learn if you put your mind to it.”
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