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From inside NASA's Mission Control Center, Lufkin native and CRONUS flight controller Joanna Johnson '08 operates the console for the International Space Station's command and data handling system. Photo courtesy of NASA.

From Space Center Houston to NASA, alumna commands CRONUS console inside Mission Control

Story by Joanna Armstrong '15

Joanna Johnson '08
Joanna Johnson '08 earned a Bachelor of Science in physics at SFA

When Joanna Johnson '08 was a child, her grandfather carried her in his arms to the county road in front of their house, and together they looked up at the sky to see a lunar eclipse. Standing there in the night air, they watched as the moon grew dark, seemingly snuffed out, then peeked back out to illuminate the sky. Even at her young age, this experience ignited a passion for the cosmos that has remained.

"For as long as I can remember, I've been interested in space," Johnson said. "Some of my favorite memories are of visiting Space Center Houston with my family."

Little did she know that these childhood experiences were pivotal moments that led to her dream career at NASA's Johnson Space Center as a communication radio frequency onboard network utilization specialist (a name so long NASA just calls it CRONUS) flight controller and avionics instructor.

"My drive into work on my first day at Johnson Space Center was very surreal. I wanted to work at NASA for so long, and it didn't seem real that I had finally gotten that opportunity," Johnson said. "I definitely had some first-day jitters, but I was so excited to be there and get started on my way to becoming a flight controller in Mission Control."

A Lufkin native, she attended Hudson High School and took advanced placement physics and calculus. It was there she was inspired by a teacher to pursue a degree in physics. Heading to SFA's College of Sciences and Mathematics, she did just that. At SFA, Johnson immediately became involved with various campus organizations, joining the Society of Physics Students and Omicron Delta Kappa.

"I was provided the opportunity to learn how to work with different types of groups in order to accomplish a common goal. The leadership opportunities I had through both of these groups were instrumental in preparing me for being a leader at NASA," Johnson said.

3-year-old Joanna Johnson '08 and her grandfather, Bob Herbst
3-year-old Joanna Johnson '08 and her grandfather, Bob Herbst

These organizations, along with top-notch instruction from professors in SFA's Department of Physics, Engineering and Astronomy, gave her the knowledge and practical experience she needed to continue toward a career with NASA.

Initially intending to apply to the Johnson Space Center after graduation, she was sidelined by the end of the space shuttle program and wasn't sure what to do next. Quickly pivoting, Johnson then began a master's degree in physics at the University of Houston at Clear Lake while teaching geometry and Algebra II at La Porte High School.

In 2013, Johnson decided it was time to apply for the CRONUS position, which she still holds today. She was originally hired by Craig Technologies and later transferred to Houston's Cimarron Software Services, a company contracted by NASA since 1988. From locations throughout the United States, the software company provides real-time solutions for Mission Control and supports manned spaceflight operations.

Today, Johnson works directly for NASA as a flight controller while also spending her day supporting the CRONUS console in Mission Control for the International Space Station. Within her first six months, she and her co-worker created a tool for the CRONUS console that made it possible to track a specific latitude and longitude point on Earth by using an external camera.

"My console is responsible for the command and data handling system, which includes sending and accessing data and some of the computer systems onboard, as well as the communications and tracking system, which consists of the communications, audio and video subsystems," Johnson said.

Her console also provides voice for the ISS crew, as well as maintains software for onboard computers, controls video and provides the link of data and telemetry for the flight control team. She even gets to communicate with international partners to coordinate audio and video footage.

10-year-old Joanna Johnson '08 at Space Center Houston
10-year-old Joanna Johnson '08 at Space Center Houston

Johnson also works as an avionics instructor, supporting simulations for training future flight controllers, and she is in training as an expedition instructor. Working as an instructor, she will have the opportunity to train astronauts before they fly to the ISS for their missions. She also is looking forward to the opportunity to support avionics instructors in a leadership role.

"While working toward my degree in physics, I attended many labs, participated in countless study sessions, and got a lot of practice explaining physics and math problems to other students in my classes," Johnson said. "I didn't know it at the time, but these experiences were actually invaluable in preparing me for my career at NASA."

Though working at NASA can put her in high-stress, high-pressure situations, Johnson is still just as excited to see the wonders of space as she was when she was a little girl marveling at the moon in the middle of the night with her grandfather.

"My favorite part of the job is that every day is different," Johnson said. "More specifically, while working console, my favorite part is moving the external ISS cameras. The views from those cameras are really amazing, and I love that I'm the person in the room who gets to control them."

As an instructor, she is also passionate about working with trainees and seeing them earn certifications as flight controllers.

Employed somewhere as prestigious as NASA, Johnson could be proud of many things, but what sticks out to her as a significant accomplishment is earning certifications as a CRONUS specialist and an avionics instructor, as well as being selected to support the role as an avionics instructor group lead.

Though the path for a woman in science, technology, engineering and mathematics can at times be difficult, Johnson thinks only about the positive impact the people around her have made on her life.

"As a woman in STEM, I have the privilege of working with some of the brightest women and men I've ever met," she said. In the same way, she hopes to be a light for other women and young girls seeking to follow her into the world of STEM. "I hope to be able to encourage my daughters and other young women considering STEM careers to pursue their dreams of one day working in a science field," Johnson said.