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Johnny Berry — Working Out of this World

Johnny Berry, ’08, had been teaching high school math and science for five and a half years after graduating from Southeastern. He never could have guessed the next step in his career would be a position as a NASA flight controller for the International Space Station (ISS). 

With a growing history of four years at NASA, Johnny has worked his way from a timeline-change officer in the planning and analysis branch, where he created daily schedules for the astronauts, to his current position on the operations side as a specialist operations controller. 

“The job I do now is so different from anything I thought I would ever do,” said Johnny. 

Stationed at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, Johnny is one of 6,000 workers employed at what is one of NASA’s largest field centers. With a budget of approximately $2.8 billion, it has been home to some of the most significant quests in history, such as the Apollo moon missions of the 1960s and ’70s.

Johnny works hands-on with scientists and payload developers, helping them prepare experiments for the space station. This includes determining the proper hardware and resources required, training crews, and being present to troubleshoot once the experiment is in motion.

“There are times when the crew needs to be trained on how to operate a payload, so I typically help out with the payload I’m currently working with,” said Johnny. “As we get into execution and the crew is actually conducting the experiment, I’m there to work with them and help fine-tune the details.”

Seeing as the ISS works off the Greenwich Mean Time zone (GMT), which is six hours ahead of the East Coast, Johnny’s position is never the typical nine to five. It is an around-the-clock operation, depending on what mission he’s currently assigned to.

“With flight control, we are 24/7, 365,” said Johnny. “All of the people working flight control positions gave up a lot to do so.”

Although he started out on a rotating schedule as a timeline-change officer, Johnny’s new role requires him to be on console while his experiment is running on the space station. When that’s not the case, he works on developing products in his office for the next payload.

“What I do every day is so different, but on the whole, it’s really working with people. Southeastern taught me how to talk with people, how to be approachable and how to show God’s grace to people,” Johnny said. “Showing that grace to those around me has just been wonderful because of the amount of doors and conversations it can open.”

Memories of SEU

Although Johnny graduated from Southeastern with a bachelor’s degree in biology and pre-medicine, he had a rough start to his college career.

“I didn’t start out so well. After my first semester, I was academically suspended and removed from the university,” said Johnny.

After making an appeal to return for the rest of the year, Johnny worked with a team of academic advisors throughout his remaining three and a half years who helped him refocus and excel in his studies.

Some of his favorite memories on campus come from his time working for the facilities department. He was the first second-shift maintenance worker hired by Southeastern.

“I remember one specific incident where I accidentally tripped the electricity inside of Bolin Hall, and every single classroom and office lost power in the middle of the school day,” Johnny recalled. “Students were coming out and thanking me for cancelling their classes.”

After graduation, Johnny began teaching high school students in Huntsville, Alabama, and stayed there for three years before moving to Charlotte, North Carolina, where he taught AP physics, earth, and environmental science.

“Teaching was kind of a natural progression of where I wanted to go and where I saw myself going. I thought it was where I’d spend the rest of my life,” said Johnny. “I really enjoyed being around the students and speaking into their lives, and a lot of that passion came from mentors who spoke into my life throughout my time at Southeastern.”

Unexpected Opportunities

During his time in Charlotte, Johnny noticed a post on LinkedIn by an old friend from high school who recently transferred from the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, to the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. She was searching for trustworthy recommendations for professional connections, and Johnny reached out with advice since he knew the area well.

“As a side note, I sort of joked that if there were ever any positions open at NASA to let me know. She replied that there was a job available that she thought I’d be great for and told me to send my resume. I thought it was a joke,” said Johnny.

Three weeks later, Johnny’s friend reached out to him again asking for his resume. At this point, he realized she was completely serious, so he sent it and secured an interview two and a half months later.

“It was the worst interview of my life,” Johnny said. “It eventually became a running joke with the supervisor that hired me.”

Johnny truly thought he lost the opportunity, as it wasn’t until another two and a half months later that he heard back from NASA with the news that he got the job.

“I’ve met a dozen astronauts, been to their training facilities, and traveled to Houston several times to do training inside of the space station mock-ups. This job has opened up so many crazy opportunities that I just never thought would be there,” said Johnny. “I’m definitely proud of where I’ve come from and where I’ve gone.”

Currently, Johnny is working on a jet-propulsion lab payload where scientists are taking atoms down to near absolute zeroes, the point where all motion stops. The objective is to study the atoms at extremely cold temperatures in order to get a better picture of what occurred at the universe’s formation.

Studying Space and Beyond

It is well known that NASA’s area of expertise is in space exploration, but a lot of people don’t realize NASA has their hand in a number of other projects and studies pertaining to world issues such as diseases and disorders, clean water, and food growth.

“Right now they’re running about 450 different experiments on station at any one time,” said Johnny.

The microgravity of the space station’s environment allows scientists to do things they couldn’t possibly do on earth. For instance, fire burns and crystals form differently, and liquids do not flow unless pressurized.

Luckily for Johnny, scientists and payload developers are able to conduct operations on the space station from the ground through the use of robotics. “I would never go to space. I don’t even fly well so the thought of a rocket is a hundred times worse,” said Johnny.

Not only are there studies on things like climate change and meteorology, but there is also research being done on human factors. This can range from efforts to figure out a form of treatment or therapy to halt the progression of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease to growing synthetic heart cells for patients needing cardiac stem cells to regrow their heart tissue.

“We’re growing lettuce and flowers on the space station. We’ve created water reclamation systems,” said Johnny. “It’s not about hoarding new technologies. These are huge advancements that NASA wants to use in underdeveloped countries.”

Persistent Faith

Johnny loves that his job allows him to explore and make discoveries, but he also acknowledges that there can be some challenges in working in such a secular environment.

“I work for an agency that’s always trying to answer the questions as to how it all began. I don’t let it change the faith that I have. Rather than be shaken by the results of their experiments or what they say they can prove, I look at the science and it only reaffirms that God knew everything He was doing from square one,” said Johnny. 

Instead of letting the challenges discourage him, Johnny uses his surroundings as a strength in witnessing to those around him. 

“Now I’m not perfect, but can they tell that I’m not the same as everyone else that walks in here? That’s what matters most to me,” Johnny said. “Your faith will be tested and people will push you to try and see where your breaking point is. Remain grounded in what you know.”

For Johnny, one of the keys to staying rooted in his faith has been surrounding himself with a strong community of other Christians. Through this, he has noticed a biblical backbone in the beliefs of the people in Huntsville.

On the occasions that Johnny is not in the office, he loves to spend time outdoors. He can be found participating in anything from hiking trails, kayaking or even whitewater rafting. However, on the days he needs a brain break, he opts for binge-watching TV shows like “This Is Us” or “Mars” on Netflix.

 

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