Three experiments designed by elementary, middle and high school students reached the international space station Sept. 29 aboard Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Cygnus spacecraft. For the Center of Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), the Florida nonprofit that funded the payloads and brokered their trip to the orbital outpost, delivery of the student experiments marked an important milestone: CASIS had finally sent something to space. 

Formed in 2011 in response to a congressional call for an outside organization to manage non-NASA research aboard the U.S. side of the international space station, CASIS spent its first two years working through growing pains that included the resignation of its first executive director after just six months on the job, delays appointing a board of directors and a protracted search for a new executive director.

That search ended this summer with the hiring of two-time space shuttle pilot Gregory Johnson, who left NASA in August and started as CASIS executive director Sept. 1.

“I did not expect to leave this soon,”  said Johnson, a 15-year veteran of the astronaut corps who piloted Space Shuttle Endeavor in 2011 on what was the program’s penultimate mission.

Johnson takes over a CASIS that little resembles the group that erupted with controversy in March 2012 when Jeanne Becker resigned as executive director over her concerns that CASIS’ business practices were jeopardizing the group’s nonprofit status — a tax designation it was legally required to have in order to accept $15 million in annual NASA funding to promote space station science outside the agency. 

Johnson, well aware of the controversy when CASIS reached out to him about taking the reins, wondered if he “was walking into a minefield” by taking the job.

In the year and a half since Becker left, CASIS has appointed a full-time board of scientists, nearly half of whom were also medical doctors, and distributed about $5.4 million of its $15 million in annual NASA funding to researchers with space-bound experiments. 

Johnson said what he learned during his initial meetings with CASIS and its board resolved the doubts in his mind about the nonprofit and convinced him that all the group needed was a leader who could “get everybody moving in the same direction.”

“That’s what pilots do,” Johnson said in a recent interview with SpaceNews staff writer Dan Leone.

As a pilot, science was not your primary charge during space shuttle missions. How did you end up leading an organization focused entirely on research?

CASIS reached out to me. I think it was related to some of the experiences I’ve had over the last 16 years with NASA. A strong science background is not the highlight of my resume, but there are a lot of scientists at CASIS and there are a lot of smart people that I will be surrounded by who will have sound scientific opinions. 

Aside from familiarity with NASA, what credentials do you bring to CASIS?

I’ve got some business training, I have an MBA. And I do understand the sciences and I have been there on the space station. After my last shuttle flight two years ago, I took a year to test the waters in a management scenario. I went up to NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland and managed a division up there, a public outreach and education division. I learned a lot about the inner workings of management and getting things done, coordinating with headquarters and those sorts of things. And after that detail, I came back to Johnson Space Center in Houston with the expectation of doing more training and getting myself in line for another spaceflight.

But that didn’t happen?

I’m not a spring chicken anymore. I’m 51, and it was going to be a while before I was even ready to fly. My Russian isn’t really up to speed, and some other things were going to have to align themselves. So it was going to be a long road to fly another time in space, and I figured I could make a bigger impact to take this organization up to the next level. I was just not expecting it to occur quite so soon. 

For an organization that has only been around since the summer of 2011, CASIS has attracted a fair share of controversy. Did any of the negative attention the group received weigh on your mind when you were going in for interviews?

I initially resisted taking the job, and the reason I resisted taking the job — and I was very honest with the board in my first interview — was that there had been a lot of controversial stuff going on out there. It was a very complex situation, and I wondered if I was walking into a minefield. So I did initially question how it would play out if I were the executive director. 

What ultimately won you over?

I think it was a realization that there are a whole bunch of really smart scientists onboard and I can talk with them and I can understand their concepts. And because of my background, I think I can translate those into action plans that really can help us understand what the factors are that go into having meaningful research on the space station. We make a good mix of the right ingredients to maybe get the sled dogs all going in the same direction. I figured I could make a bigger impact to take this organization up to the next level.

What do you mean by “the next level”?

Well, CASIS has Ph.D.s on its board, and I think they wanted somebody to get everybody moving in the same direction. That’s what pilots do. I was a cheerleader on both my flights. Both of my crews were very, very different, with people from very different backgrounds. Especially STS-134 with Mark Kelly as the commander and his wife, Gabrielle Giffords, shot just prior to our launch. It was crazy! So it challenged me to back up Mark and get everybody going in the same direction. I think it’s one of the things I was good at. 

So what sort of organizational quarterbacking do you plan to do?

Science is not the only piece of the puzzle. I believe that there are some other factors that need to be weighed into the process besides just the scientific merit of a proposal. It’s absolutely about the science and the research, but there’s also a pragmatic part of the equation that has to be addressed. It’s all got to be factored in appropriately to maximize the benefit to the American people. 

Another thing that I think perhaps could be developed more is the public appearance: selling what the space station can offer to scientists, to the researchers, to the engineers, to academic institutions and even to companies that want to make money. That’s a very important up-and-out part to this job. Sometimes I’m a little bit critical of NASA because we should sell ourselves better. We have such an amazing product, it almost sells itself.

Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...