Keenan Johnson, SpaceX man

Keenan Johnson

Keenan Johnson will start working for space exploration company SpaceX after graduating this December. Photo by Sam O’Keefe

As a freshman, Keenan Johnson conducted experiments in near-zero gravity aboard NASA’s “weightless wonder” aircraft as part of Missouri S&T’s Miners In Space Team.

Soon, he will be writing computer software that will send other vessels into space and ultimately to launch a mission to Mars.

Johnson, who graduates in December with a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering, will start working for space exploration company SpaceX in February. He’s already worked at the Hawthorne, California, company twice – first on a co-op assignment from January through August 2013 and then on an internship last summer. In both cases, he was part of the team that writes code to launch rockets into orbit. In February, he’ll rejoin that team as a full-time employee.

“My team writes all the software responsible for launching and operating the spacecraft,” he says. “It’s pretty exciting because the stakes are high for rocket launches. There’s not a lot of margin for error.”

Keenan Johnson inside SpaceX's new manned space capsule with Niraj Patel, a SpaceX staff member. Contributed photo

Keenan Johnson inside a mockup of SpaceX’s new manned space capsule with Niraj Patel, a SpaceX staff member.

It’s the excitement of working on the edge of space exploration that inspires Johnson. “The work environment is super dynamic and everything happens very quickly,” he says. “Everyone there is very passionate about what they’re doing.”

Johnson didn’t always envision a career in space exploration. The Jefferson City, Missouri, native wasn’t sure what he wanted to do when he enrolled at Missouri S&T. But after he joined Miners in Space as a freshman, “that taught me that this was possible,” he says. “In high school I never thought I’d be able to do anything like this.”

On his co-op and internship, Johnson developed software used to monitor and control the Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon spacecraft. The experience “taught me how awesome it is to work on technology that is changing the world.”

Earlier this fall, SpaceX and Boeing both won NASA contracts to transport astronauts to the International Space Station. It’s an ambitious project. But to Johnson, it’s only a small step to a far greater leap.

“I hope to change the world,” he says. “I want to make humanity a space civilization. I want to do the things that will allow future generations to explore the cosmos and increase the quality of life here on Earth.”

by Andrew Careaga