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Astronaut touts importance of space program to students

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    U.S. Air Force Col. Greg H. Johnson shows a video of what it's like to be in zero gravity during his talk to St. Francis de Sales High School students. He was a NASA astronaut who was aboard the Endeavor and International Space Station.

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    St. Francis de Sales High School senior Ben Waugh asks U.S. Air Force Col. Greg H. Johnson about the Columbia accident in 2003. Johnson was a NASA astronaut who flew aboard the Endeavor and International Space Station.

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Air Force Col. Greg Johnson stood before a crowd of a few hundred boys Friday at St. Francis de Sales High School and pointed out that those under the age of 18 are part of the “space generation.”

“For your entire lives, we’ve had people living and working continuously in space,” Mr. Johnson said, referring to the majority of the boys in the gymnasium. “They're doing real research and real technology development."

Mr. Johnson completed missions to the International Space Station in 2008 and 2011. The NASA astronaut often speaks to students and other groups about his time in outer space and the importance of the space program.

RELATED: Photo gallery of astronaut Greg Johnson at the school

He spoke at the Toledo Club prior to the event at St. Francis.

Mr. Johnson walked the students through his career, which started as a pilot flying F-15s for the Air Force. In 1990, he was deployed to Saudi Arabia where he flew 37 missions during Operation Desert Storm.

Mr. Johnson always dreamed of being an astronaut but never thought it would come true. After his time in the Air Force, he enrolled in the astronaut-training program and was selected by NASA to begin training in 1998.

“We were called The Penguins — the birds that would never fly,” Mr. Johnson said.

Ten years later, Mr. Johnson would fly into space at the controls of STS-123 Endeavor. His responsibilities included operating a robotic arm to build components of the space station.

Mr. Johnson returned to space in 2011, piloting STS-134 Endeavor, the final flight of Endeavor. He was the lead robotic-arm operator as his crew put the finishing touches on the space station.

Mr. Johnson took a handful of questions from the crowd. One student inquired about his scariest moments in space.

"We were impacted by a micrometeroid while I was flying," Mr. Johnson said. "It hits the window and made this dime-sized impression in the window. Four of us rookies are looking at it like, ‘What is going on here?’ Then one of the vets comes over and says, ‘Oh it's no big deal.’ The wives found out about it and it turned into a big thing."

Mr. Johnson also played a role in the aftermath of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. The shuttle disintegrated upon re-entry in 2003, and Mr. Johnson was part of the team investigating the cause.

He gathered his family for breakfast the morning of the tragedy with the idea of watching the shuttle land on television. 

“I just looked at my family and said, ‘I gotta go to work.’”

Senior Cole Grisier, 18, appreciated Mr. Johnson's passion.

"He really gave me a sense of inspiration for what I want to do with my life and understanding where we're going as a society," Mr. Grisier said. "If we can pay attention to what we love, we can really make a difference in the world."

Contact Jay Skebba at jskebba@theblade.com, 419-376-9414, or on Twitter @JaySkebba.

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