The Innovators with George Davison

Nuclear Energy in Space with Stephen Johnson, Idaho National Laboratory

November 09, 2021 Tomorrow's World Today Season 1 Episode 8
The Innovators with George Davison
Nuclear Energy in Space with Stephen Johnson, Idaho National Laboratory
Show Notes Transcript

One of Idaho National Laboratory’s many functions is to create nuclear energy systems for NASA to use in remote and hostile environments in space like on the moon or by Pluto and Saturn.

This is what Stephen Johnson, the director of the Space Nuclear Power and Isotope Technologies Division at the Idaho National Laboratory, is responsible for. On this episode of The Innovators, host George Davison talks to Stephen about his work on the Mars Perseverance rover, the importance of communication skills and working hands-on in STEM-related fields, how we will get humans to Mars, and more.

For more information about nuclear energy in space, head to tomorrowsworldtoday.com.

Introduction:

It all starts with one idea. Have you ever wondered how today's top CEOs, business leaders and people who work for the most innovative companies in the world found success. Join host George Davison , as he explores the innovators that are shaping tomorrow's world today.

George Davison:

Welcome to another edition of the innovators. And today we have a guest. His name is Steve Johnson, and he is with the Idaho National Labs Space Division. And wait until you hear this title, he is the Director of Space, Nuclear Power, and Isotope Technologies. That's a big title there, Steve.

Stephen Johnson, Idaho National Laboratory:

It's a very big title, lots of interesting work.

George Davison:

Well, welcome to our show.

Stephen Johnson, Idaho National Laboratory:

Happy to be here.

George Davison:

All right, well, I'm going to , I have some questions for you today and I hope you'll just share everything you can with our audience. And , uh, maybe we should start with, you know, can you talk a little bit about what does Idaho National Labs Space Division do?

Stephen Johnson, Idaho National Laboratory:

We do , uh, power systems for NASA in remote and hostile environments.

George Davison:

So a remote hostile environment would be we , could you describe what that is?

Stephen Johnson, Idaho National Laboratory:

Let's say on the moon, on Mars, cruising by Pluto cruising by Saturn, those sorts of environments.

George Davison:

Yes. Now those are pretty harsh environments. Yes. So in your division, what does the future look like?

Stephen Johnson, Idaho National Laboratory:

Future looks like lots of different applications of nuclear power , uh , equipment to , uh, help empower , um, different , uh, space missions, whether it's going to Mars for a sample recovery mission. Uh , another launch out of the solar system, like a lot of people see the Voyager probes. Those are out of our solar system. There's a mission out there called interstellar probe, which is a mission that is going to take them 50 years to get out there. And they needed a power system. That's going to work that long. That's the , that's the future.

George Davison:

Wow. So I imagine these power systems that you're talking about, these aren't big vehicles, are they?

Stephen Johnson, Idaho National Laboratory:

No. Uh, everything with NASA is very much about how small can you make it and how little can you make it weigh?

George Davison:

Um, that makes sense. Cause it's very expensive to shoot things up into space,

Stephen Johnson, Idaho National Laboratory:

Very expensive. And it's all about mass and volume.

George Davison:

So then can you talk about what your position is responsible for?

Stephen Johnson, Idaho National Laboratory:

Yes. Uh, when NASA needs a power system to help enable a mission and they've determined that a nuclear powered power system is the best way to go. They contacted the department of energy and the department of energy turns to the Idaho national laboratory and its other partner national labs to provide that power system. And typically we get that sort of call about five to six years prior to launch date to say , say, and we work very hard to make certain, we get the right power system to the NASA customer in time and that it's going to do what they wanted to do.

George Davison:

All right . So let's, let's walk this back a little bit. Steve, how did you get started on a course in your life to, to be , uh , you know, going into this kind of work?

Stephen Johnson, Idaho National Laboratory:

Okay. For me it started very, very early. I'm in my late fifties. So I grew up in the Apollo era . I was that kid that built that two foot tall, Saturn five rocket that got , uh , a encyclopedia set called above and beyond that had all that neat NASA stuff and aeronautical stuff in it. And I tended to focus on, you know, nerdy stuff, science and mathematics. So I went through school and that was my start. Um, back in the late sixties, early seventies graduated 1980, went into chemistry and mathematics and uh , later , uh , laser beams for doing analysis. But that was my start.

George Davison:

That's very interesting. Um, so, but just so , uh, yeah, the rocket world that when I was in high school, I started a club there and that was the rocket club and , uh, I, it was so exciting. We would all build our rockets and then on the weekend we'd go out and shoot them off and uh, our imaginations would just soar . So , uh, yeah, that's, that's interesting. Yeah. Having, having things to think about or to give you inspiration when you're younger to shoot for. Right.

Stephen Johnson, Idaho National Laboratory:

Absolutely. And you can , uh, I'm a firm believer in, you can never tell how things are going to finally come together later. The things that you do earlier in life that you think, oh , this is okay for a little while, but if you retain that knowledge, when you come to what you really want to do, it all kind of blends together and you never know what's going to be at the end of the pathway, you always need to remain engaged and learn what you can wherever you're you're at

George Davison:

Well said. So how important would you say innovation is at the Idaho national lab space division?

Stephen Johnson, Idaho National Laboratory:

It's very important. Uh, I, when I look at the things like when we , um, let's see you look at the, the Mars missions from 2002 spirit and opportunity. And when I first looked at the films, the films from the, at that time, the jet propulsion lab, like, okay, how are you going to get this down? I looked at this three dimensional triangular thing that was going to go down through the atmosphere, bounce around a whole lot and pop open. There was a Rover. I was like, there's no way that's gonna work. And , uh, and we, we made , uh , we delivered the heat sources that are on spirit and opportunity that worked for many years. And we let her follow up with power systems for the curiosity Rover and the perseverance Rover . And again, I looked at that and I'm like, okay, you're coming down and you're slowing down from 24,000 miles an hour down to like 10 feet a second. I was like, you're kidding. That's not going to work. And you watch the films and then you watch the actual landing. I thought, wow, what a neat thing to be part of

George Davison:

Very much so, so figuring out how to make things like that happen is there's a lot of innovation and trying to think differently, think outside the box.

Stephen Johnson, Idaho National Laboratory:

Uh, absolutely. You can't, you can't apply exactly. The only things that, you know, that work on earth to something that's going to be on another planet or orbiting another planet. You've got to think outside the box and you got to check it out. Okay .

George Davison:

Yeah . Isn't that interesting? I never really thought of it that way, because everything you have to think about out in space has to be in like space world, right? There's no gravity, there's, there's so many unique things out there we don't even understand yet. And you have to try to envision that world and come up with products or solutions that let you kind of navigate it.

Stephen Johnson, Idaho National Laboratory:

Absolutely the case. And for specifically for what we do in Idaho , um, our power systems, one, there's not a backup on board two , once they're on the spacecraft and lodge , there's no repairs or anything. Secondly, we basically certify them to work for 17 years. They take 7, 8, 9 months to get to Mars and then they have to work for years and years after that. And you think about that. And there's some things that we do that are very quality driven , uh, little things , uh, certify torque, wrenches, all these things. And people kind of like, w w why are you doing that ? So we're, gristly , it's like, it's gonna work for 17 years. And you've had a , a $2.5 billion space mission that if your part doesn't work, right, it doesn't work at all,

George Davison:

Some high responsibility.

Stephen Johnson, Idaho National Laboratory:

It is, but it's also pretty cool when you get right down

George Davison:

There is, it is exciting. All right . Well, let's, let's keep moving along here. Uh, so in your specific position, what would you say you're responsible for directly?

Stephen Johnson, Idaho National Laboratory:

Okay. When the use of nuclear power is first thought about they're interested in, what can it do? What can't it do? Uh, when can you provide it? How much is it going to cost those sort of basic questions? And as a , in my position, I'm that first contact with the Idaho national lab. I'm there to say what we can do, what we can promise when it can be there. And , uh , what kind of interaction we can have with NASA along the way. That's my job, which is to lay out the playing field, make certain, we get , uh, the deliverables upfront, the schedule, the cost profiles, get all the coordination done within the , uh, the department of energy that I can do in my position. And that's , uh, that's why I'm there typically every spring when NASA does its budget planning, which goes out for us , uh, seven years , uh, I'm there to provide those, those estimates so that people can know what's available when they put out a announcement of opportunity in AOL for emission . Uh, I'll be that last point of contact so that yes, we can provide this and we will be there. You don't have to worry about us. We are going to be a good partner.

George Davison:

All right . So in order to do that job, it sounds like you need quite a few different skillsets in order to be able to know, and in order to be able to make a recommendation of that type, right, that you can achieve this kind of an out of an , uh , outcome, and you do understand what the cost and all the parameters are going to be. So is it you, do you work with a team? How does that function?

Stephen Johnson, Idaho National Laboratory:

Okay. As far as providing the product, I work with other people at Oak Ridge national lab in Los Alamos national lab that makes certain, we have all the pieces and parts as it were along with our, our , uh , commercial partner for the power system. So we make certain kind of the pieces in the parts that our production schedule will support that. Uh, so that's a coordination job. I muscle national technical director for space nuclear power for the department of energy. So that is something that I know the right people to call to get the right information. So that's a , that's an important part, as far as the costing , uh, I've done the costing for over the last decade. Uh, that's coordination thing as well, as well as making certain, you know, all the right people to call in all the right partner organizations . So there's lots of little pieces and parts, and we've done this , uh, for , uh , for space missions now, and we're getting ready for , uh , a fifth one , uh , 2020 launch , uh , dragon fly going to Titan . So it's, it's , uh , it's knowledge of who's who the players are, what they can provide the costs , uh, factoring in if you need additional margin and , uh, knowing who to contact on a Kennedy space center for the other pieces and parts that fit in later on, I've done that a few times now. And so that's , uh , that's what I do.

George Davison:

I sounds like a pretty big team and group of people you're pulling together and maybe in the world of the education side of things, that's project based learning, you know, learning how to not only do a project, but how to manage a project and how to communicate a project to other third parties. That's a skill set that I know project based burnings and learning is doing in school because I'm involved with some of that, but it sounds like those skillsets transfer very nicely into what you're doing. So

Stephen Johnson, Idaho National Laboratory:

They really do , uh , you need to learn some of the technical aspects to give you that confidence behind the project management skills, but it is all the same. I mean, it's knowing your pieces and parts, how they fit together, the sequencing , um, knowing the costs, knowing , uh , the contingencies you need to incorporate in that. And, but in the end , um, you know, on the DOE side between the three national labs , uh, I'm talking about two to 300 people that contributed to that. Um , but you know, that the magic part is when you're in that last four months and you're down at Kennedy space center and you're down there with a hundred people from the jet propulsion lab or the applied physics lab who's ever managing the mission. And you've got a couple, three dozen of your people delivering a power system, and you're fitting in with all the subcontractors down there at Kennedy. That is the greatest group dynamic exercise I've ever seen. And it all culminates with watching a rocket go off. I mean, that's, that's pretty weak .

George Davison:

Cool. It is really cool. I mean, big inspiration , um, and to be a part of it, you must be very , um, proud of yourself.

Stephen Johnson, Idaho National Laboratory:

It's just very satisfying, cause you're usually at the end of a five to six year , um , spin up on it. And , uh, when you get to that point, it was a little bit more interesting. This last launch , uh , the July 2020 Mars, 2020 perseverance Rover. Uh, we were all down there and everything of course, Coco beach , uh, was deserted. Uh, it was during the pandemic. We were down there April to July and there was nobody down there if you weren't involved with the mission, not out and about.

George Davison:

Well, thank you for your contribution to making all this happen. And I'm sure somewhere along the way, there were others that contributed to you. Did you have any mentors when you were, let's say in high school or younger or even college that helped to start you on a course? Okay .

Stephen Johnson, Idaho National Laboratory:

Uh, several on the way. Um, I'll focus maybe on some, in the , let's see I had a chemistry teacher in , in , uh, in high school, I had a couple of years of chemistry through him and he was always somebody that was very inspirational, you know, hard work and taught me all the stuff that he could. And that was a nice launching board for college and , uh, other people on the way , uh , just , uh, just, you know, work hard, learn what you learn and, you know, don't, don't worry about looking too far down the track just to , you've got a job, do your job well, and good things will happen. That was something. When I went to the national lab system, had several good mentors , uh, they all dated a little bit differently. Um, but they were very inspirational and , uh , it's fantastic. Now, if I can grab somebody who needs some , uh , nice mentoring now, or need some comments, I've had people come in and they're like, okay, I don't know about this or this. And I'm like, Hey, just , you know, this is where you're at. Where do you want to go? I'm not. So I said, well, you're , you're at a pretty good spot. You know, work hard, do well. And keep your eyes open. If there's something out there that can help you with, as far as a direction recommendation , uh , I'm here to help you out trying to give back a little bit.

George Davison:

Yes . Yes . Th there are a lot of young people kind of wandering out there right now, you know, just like we were, we didn't know. I'm sure you didn't know that you were going to be in this position when you were a youngster. And I didn't know I was going to be in this position when I was a youngster, but mentors help to , you know, give us pointers along the way, build some basic , uh, hardworking skills, make a commitment, how it sounds like you really like what you're doing. So was it just a stroke of luck that you happened to find that, or, you know, how did that happen for you? Uh , because I think a lot of people that are younger really look at people our age and say, well, how, how did you get there? And , uh, if he has some insight there, it might, it might help our audience. Okay .

Stephen Johnson, Idaho National Laboratory:

For me, kind of the magic moment was 2002. I was managing electronic microscopy lab, had a small group of people and we're , we're doing good work and working hard. And , and finally a DOE came in, they said, Hey, you know, we've got this , uh, stuff in Ohio that due to the fallout from 9/11 , uh, we need to move somewhere else. And the lab looked around and they said, Hey, you know, you, you do something with plutonium two 30. I'm like, yeah, I'm a PhD chemist. I manage a lab, we analyze samples with it. They said , oh, you're it . And so we were given three weeks to put together a $15 million proposal , uh, on how to move a medium sized project that needed a new building and all this stuff. And I kind of walked away from that. And I said, can I go to Ohio and look at this? He said, no, no, you can't do that. And so I called together a big meeting on Monday, and this is Friday. I'm sitting there going like, wow, what am I going to tell people? So I spent the weekend with butcher block, white paper sheets, you know, three foot tall sketching out stuff. And that was what I conducted the meeting with on Monday. And people were looking at me. I said, Hey, we need this put together, puffed up, shined in three weeks, ended up being a $15 million proposal that we sent out. And I knew all the right people to call, but there, you know, some people were like, you know, you you've never handled something this big, you know, Y you know, there was a lot of , uh , a lot of , um, just suspicion that it was just an exercise. And, and , uh, we pushed it through. And within three months we had the project coming our way. And , uh , then I got a whole bunch of learning experiences over several years.

George Davison:

Uh , I'll tell you, I can tell you your experience because , um, you said butcher block paper, and, you know, that's a such a valuable asset, right? I mean, it's, for all of you out there who don't know what that is. Uh, when you go into the butcher shop, you know, that where you get your meats and the grocery, there's a very big spool white paper there, and it's like the greatest paper to draw out all your ideas. And it just goes on and on and on and on. So you can really get inspired and just keep going. And , uh, so we've, we've used plenty of butcher paper over the years around here. It was just funny to hear you bring it up. So , um, all right . So let's say, so you had a science teacher who inspired you that's that's wonderful. Um, were there any, was how about anybody else? I mean, what were the , some other things that when you were younger , um, that were impactful to you in, like , can you go back into high school at all? Was there anybody there mentor , uh , maybe a family member or, you know, did you like taking things apart when you were younger and figuring out how they worked, or did you just kind of, how did it happen?

Stephen Johnson, Idaho National Laboratory:

I was always just really geared towards science courses. So I went into guidance counselor, high school. Uh, I got kinda set on that, that avenue where I took the biology that couple of years of chemistry, the physics, the earth and space science, the mathematics, that was just something that really resonated with me. Uh, but I want to stress. One thing, I also had a counselor sat me down my senior year. He said, okay, yeah, you've got all the neat science stuff and you've taken all the math. The school has said, I want you to take this course. I said, really? He said, yeah. I said that that course has a reputation of being the hardest course , uh, that nobody goes in there unless they're forced to it . He said, yeah, it's called English usage. And it was the hardcore grammar course. I mean, very hardcore. He said, I think you're going to college. You're going to need this. And , uh, and he was right. It, it's something I've seen people, engineers and scientists I work with now. And if they're fresh out of college, it's like, what can you say? You, you kind of get English is a second language for them. Cause it certainly isn't a first and in the end you can have these really great ideas, but if you can't communicate them in writing and verbally to people. So speech is also an important thing I learned by my first year in college, if you can't communicate them, you can't write it down. You can't talk about it. You're not going to get that, that listening to that, that audience that you need. So those are really important things, no matter how smart you are, if you can't communicate it , you can't write so that people can understand that you're not going to come across very well.

George Davison:

True . Steve, thank you for bringing that up because , um, as some of the things that we really focus on around here, observational analysis, how to write out what it is that you're thinking potentially how to also sketch it. Because if I'm working with you at a brainstorming table and I can visualize a solution, if I can artistically draw it, you may be able to look at that and gain insight on where I'm going with my mind. So how I get an idea out of me, to you and how you listen. And that's a skill, your observational skills and your listening skills at the brainstorming table are critical. And then how you come together and you compose a document, or you compose a drawing that can then go out and get attention or get funding and move to the next stage is all critically important as a young innovator and an , an innovator in their fifties for that matter. Right? So basic skill sets , but critically important, whoever that person was your , uh , counselor there who told you about English, what a blessing. And thank you for passing that along. Cause it doesn't come up very often. Uh,

Stephen Johnson, Idaho National Laboratory:

Yeah. People tend to stress STEM a lot, which is , is , is important. But the communication angle, I did another professor , um , my first year in college and it was at the end of the year and he was heading off to a bigger university and he said, so what did he , he said, know , I like you. You're doing well in chemistry. He said , uh, are you thinking about going to graduate school? I'm like, yeah, I'm 18 years old. That's a long ways down the road. But maybe he said , let me tell you something. He said, you know, if you get that PhD, he said , uh , you're not guaranteed of anything. But he said, think of it as a invitation to a party. He said, it gets in the door. He said, once you're in the door, what happens is up to you. But he said, it is the invitation to get into the party. He said, and then if you've got ideas, you've got an opportunity to sell those ideas to people. Uh, and , and you , you never know what happens in , but he said, you need the invitation into the party.

George Davison:

Well said now more wisdom from mentors, right? Yes. I'm glad you're passing that along. Any other , uh , and any other things popping in your mind right now that you think would be good to share with them?

Stephen Johnson, Idaho National Laboratory:

I come from Eastern Idaho now, Blackfoot, Idaho, which is known as being the Spud capital of the United States. Okay. A lot of people are just totally bewildered, even people in Idaho. When I say, Hey, we make power systems for NASA and they're just dumbfounded, but you can do great things and contribute to really spectacular missions. If you just work hard and keep your future in front of you,

George Davison:

So how do I start? I want to do that. So what would, what would be your first recommendation? Steve?

Stephen Johnson, Idaho National Laboratory:

Uh , STEM as important communications are important. I have , uh , 50 people in my division. We're supported by others. We have people that do hands-on work, people that do quality assurance. We have engineers, we have training people that contribute to our work, lots of different pathways to that successful thing. I have job openings right now that we're recruiting for a hint to people that when you go into a job interview, spend five minutes on Google type in the name of the division, the name of the job pull stuff up . I'm always amazed. When I sit down to interview people and we get a little bit of press coverage doing what I do. And I say , so why do you want a job here? And they're like, I don't know. I just need a job. I'm like, wow, you spent zero time on Google, figuring out what we did. And that works for anything. Any job interview, you go into figure out what it is and try to try to make yourself interesting to that employer. Yeah .

George Davison:

Yes. Yeah. That's well said again. Cause we, we do, when we do technology development, it's you can do technology development in a bubble or you can try to integrate it into an organization structure. And that's one of the things we've learned to do. We refer to it as an integration or in innovation integration. However you want to say it, but basically it means don't create or invent. And Ababil where you don't know where your outcome, I need partners. I need to integrate into a certain system. So if I'm going to go in for an interview , um, and all organizations need fresh young talent coming up , uh, uh, in their organization. So yeah, I mean learning about that organization a little makes sense to me and I, I'm kind of shocked that people don't know that. So do know that do your research, if it's something that you really, really want to do , um, what can you learn about that organization or the people that are there so that you can start to talk their language so to speak during the interview process, right? Absolutely. Yeah. All right . So , um, let's see here, let's go back in time for a moment. And , uh, if you could do one thing over again in your high school, in your high school days, what would it be and why?

Stephen Johnson, Idaho National Laboratory:

I might've taken less science and math and just explored other things, fun things, electives, and that's something I would have carried forward and into college, I went through college in four years. I double majored in chemistry and mathematics. So I had two electives in four years and just explore , uh , reach out there, do those fun things, because at the end you never know how those things are all going to fit together at the end, but , uh , reach out. I would do things like , um, I would have spent more time learning how to communicate well, that was something I learned later in life. And I was kind of that typical nerd that didn't know how to do that very well. And so some communication courses at the national lab and those sorts of things, but do those things earlier in life, give those public , uh, talks , uh, doesn't matter whether it's about raising animals or , uh, you know , uh, whatever , uh, rebuilding furniture, which is something I learned later in life, or just any of those sorts of things reach out and broaden yourself. You will that'll serve you well, well ,

George Davison:

Sure . More balanced. So I, as what I'm taking away there , the , um, so one of the things that our audience should understand is that my interpretation of Steve , uh, right now is that you're very technology oriented, very math, very science, very physics. Uh, you've heard him say nerd, right? And I think that the there's, so if you're one of those kinds of people out there in this audience right now , um, you should be able to take a take away from that because we talk a lot about stem and steam , um, in this, in our discussions, but the sense of balance for somebody that is really, really, really drawn in by science and math, I think it's important to hear your message, to broaden it out a little bit, pick up those communication skills, those writing skills, and in other things finds a few other variable interests that may fall outside your space so that you can learn from those directions as well. Right?

Stephen Johnson, Idaho National Laboratory:

Absolutely. The case I've had the pleasure of being able to travel internationally, to support the department of energy, to , uh, England, to France, a couple of , to Russia, to Korea , uh, and , uh, amazingly for me, I use long, long flights like that to within reason, take up conversation with my seat mates to help my , uh , small, you know, my , uh, just my, my chit chat and so forth and try to , uh, broad myself out a little bit. Uh , don't want to be that bore at the party over in the corner and , uh , just learn those different things. And you'd be amazing at the , uh , discussions you can have inside airports with people that English is definitely a second language, but they want to talk to you about , uh, you know, world war two or something like that from an entirely different perspective. It's nice to have , uh , informal , you know, some body of knowledge that you can draw on to at least get involved in those slips of discussion , learned a lot of different perspectives that way.

George Davison:

Yes. Yeah. I I'm really happy that you've brought it up and that you're really making this a big part of our story today because a lot of folks that are really in their mind, a lot working on serious challenges and serious problems, they do tend to be more inward and non-communicative, and we need the communication. We need to understand , um, you know, if, if your mind is working in real deep, on real deep challenges, there's real value to communicating that to others. Uh, you can ignite other people's imaginations to join that, that other kind of party out there, that nerd party, right. Um, because there is, or there's another form of communication there, which is really exciting , um, solving the challenges of the future. And , uh , so good point. I'm glad you , I'm glad you're bringing it up. And , uh , you know, I think you're, you're speaking today , uh , you know, you've really worked on this. If it was a big challenge for you, I think you've accomplished your mission and got over that one.

Stephen Johnson, Idaho National Laboratory:

You can always improve.

George Davison:

Well done. Um , all right , so let's take a peek here. Let's keep going. Uh, let's see, we talked about the stem classes, but , uh, or the, the importance of stem and some other things going on there, but how important would you say it is for a student to get hands on experience, to build a skills they might need in their adult lives, like actually get your hands dirty and get that hands-on experience?

Stephen Johnson, Idaho National Laboratory:

I think that's very important. It's something I try even , uh , even today, later in life. Um, when we took over a portion of the space program, 2002 , uh, I was facing tremendous challenges. I needed to move , um, 28 tractor trailer, loads of equipment out of Ohio. In nine months, we need to design a building. We ended up building a building in the middle of winter in Idaho. Uh, I spent , um , for nine months, I spent one to two weeks a year back in Ohio now because I need to lo know how to build plywood boxes and move equipment around. But I needed an eight people on the ground there. I needed to get to know them. He didn't make certain that they knew that they could pick up the phone and get the support that they needed. And , uh, to learn those things, I needed to know how difficult it was to get a timely , uh, trailers dropped off, filled up. So I was, you know, so I could be out there in the ground when guy came over, he said , uh , yeah, they're going to pick up the trailer. And I kind of gave us one. I said, whoa, okay, well , that's not going to work. We get another load ready to go. He walked me over that the truck driver gave me a phone. His boss was on there. He said, this company misappropriated this trailer from me three months ago and I'm not giving them another one. And I was like, oh, okay. Um, so we had a discussion for about five minutes. I said, okay, I don't have anything to do with what this corporation national corporation did to you, but I really have this need. And so I talked to him about that need for three or four minutes. And he said, okay, hand the phone back to the driver. So he handed it back to the driver and, and within five minutes he had arranged for another empty trailer to be delivered because I was just sitting there talking with him and I really had a need. And I'm like, you know, I, I know you're upset with this other corporation, but , uh, you know, w you and I need to work together on this. So those sorts of things, I needed to jump into learn that sort of stuff. Uh, uh, I learned that , uh, trucks hold so many thousand pounds east of the Mississippi and can hold more west of the Mississippi, all those things that you've never thought you needed to know coming out of graduate school. Um, those were things that I needed to jump in. So at least while I was talking to people, when there was , uh , a delay or something, I say, Hey, you know, this is, this is what's going on. They're like , oh , okay, you're following this. I'm like, yeah. And , uh , so those sorts of things, I typically try to do that some people will work for me are like, why are you still around here? I'm like, I'll be how to here . Once I understand the process and understand how to help you. And so that's something that I've applied through the years. And , uh , you know, when I was wandering round and we were pouring our first wall and the end of January of 2004, so we're, we're, it's a 40 foot wall because that's the distance between construction joints and it's 15 foot tall, and we've got a water lines with warmer ethylene glycol, and we've got hydraulic thumpers and we're doing it at six degrees outside. And , uh , I'm calling my project manager from the airport and I said, how's it going? He's like, well, let's go on well. Well, okay. He said, the hydraulic lines actually froze. And that's how, but he said, don't worry about it. He said, we've got this. And he said, I've got a line of concrete trucks. We're doing the QA on the concrete and you just don't worry about it. And , uh, so that was, I had six months of that. And , uh, having to call DOE headquarters while I'm standing on the roof of a building, it's partially constructed to describe how it's going. Those are the sorts of things that I got to learn about for six months. I always thought that was great. A little harrowing at times in terms of not personal safety, but just in terms of, wow, this is a scout to be together here in not much time. And , uh, from a communication point of view, about February of 2004, the program executive from the Pluto new horizons mission came by and our power system was, due a little bit over a year from them, July 2005 down Florida. And I'm wandering around this building side , and he's looking at a slab of concrete with a couple of three walls up. I said, don't worry. I said, it'll be done this summer. I'll staff it this fall, we'll train, we'll do all this. And , uh, about , uh, three years later, when he was presenting my group with a NASA national group award for producing the power system, he said, yeah, you wanted it to be around there in February of oh four. So I went away from there. He said, I colored you red on our schedule. I kept you read all the way through lunch. So I just thought you should know that ,

George Davison:

Uh , coloring you read. I mean, I think that means that he didn't have confidence in your , uh , getting it done. Absolutely. Okay.

Stephen Johnson, Idaho National Laboratory:

So, but , uh, he and the project manager , uh, Glen fountains in the applied research lab , uh, pipe physics lab at Johns Hopkins, both flew out to give us the award. They said, you pulled it off.

George Davison:

Well done. Well done. And that's a great lesson to pass along, right? It's you, can, you, you got engaged. You learned about the details of how this construction had to be, to have the building a certain way. So when a mission could be accomplished later in , later on, you didn't want to leave the details to somebody else you had , and that puts you in a better position, because once you understand, then as things are coming together, you understand what's possible and what's not possible. And therefore you can push a timeline. You can push your teammates, know where the human being is going to get too tired, or, you know , they're going to make mistakes. Versus I was just, there's so many variables that come into these kinds of projects, but by getting your hands dirty and by doing it and getting into the grimy details, nothing escapes you. So you're able to push and have confidence in where you're trying to go. I I've done that myself numerous times. And when I look back on this, I think it goes back in time. I'm not going to go all the way back to my high school days and even middle school days. And I, I don't know if it was the same for you, but for, I always had a lot of chores and, you know, I didn't know much about how to maintain a house, but I can, I, I I'll tell you right now, I can do it very well. And I can, I know how to do it properly and with a certain amount of time and what are the best resources to , you know, make that mission happen, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. But those were basic tour skills that I learned in order to , um, function in my home as a young person. Did you do chores? Did you have chores as a young person by chance? Yes. So your parents were tough on chores, is that right?

Stephen Johnson, Idaho National Laboratory:

Yeah. I think that's a fair assessment. Yeah.

George Davison:

I , um, for me it was, you better do the chores and I'm going to show you how to do these tours and you're going to do them right. And every day when work was done and it was before dinner, the chores were inspected. So I learned, you're not only going to do those chores, you're going to do a good job. And if you don't after dinner, you're going to go do them again. So you learn anyway, I learned to do, do the chores build skills and , um, and to do them writer, unfortunately, that's reality. You do have to do it again, and I've transferred that all the way through my business life as well. Um, did you have any other responsible activities that you, I mean, when I say that I don't want to sound condescending and I think maybe the way I said, that's the wrong way when we're younger, we're given , uh , chores or responsibilities. Were there any other things that you were , um, told to do that you really maybe didn't want to do, but you did, and it helped to build a very basic basic skillset ?

Stephen Johnson, Idaho National Laboratory:

Uh, no, I'll take that direction a little bit different or take that question in a little bit different direction. Um, so there were four of us, myself , and , uh, three sisters. Um, I was the only one that went to college. And so for me, and, and self-funded for the latter part, but I went to college for 10 years and that was something that was tough for me. I won't say there wasn't support at home, but there was just , uh , just a really , um, wasn't something they were used to in the last six years, I went 12 months a year and so forth. And they're like, okay, what's, you know, what's, what is this? And so for me, that was it, you know, it was pretty much all me cause they were like, well, yeah, you can come home if you want to, you know, your bedroom still there, but like, no, I wanted to go out and, and , and do that hard push and try to make something of myself and go forward. So that was not quite a chore, but it was a bit of a , a re responsibility challenge for me. And I was , uh , you know, more than a days , drought , uh, travel away from home and stayed there and, and , uh, pushed through. And , uh, my first couple of three in graduate school , um , my experiments didn't go the way I wanted to. And after three years I was like, okay, I'm , I'm not smart enough for this. And I sat down with one of my mentors, my, my advisor and talked to me for like three hours on a Saturday. And he just, he was coming in to work. And I said, yeah, I'm out of here. This is just not working out. And at the end of that, he said, okay, I want to move you on to a different project. He said, you're one of my best students, just give me another year. And at the end of that time , uh, I completed a couple of things, had a couple of publications out. And then a year later, when I eventually left graduate school, I had 8 publications and the world looked entirely different. And I was very thankful for that guy pulling me back from the edge. Very nice .

George Davison:

Oh, of course. A little course correction along the way, huh? Yes. And as there's a nice to get , oh , I'm glad that they I'm glad he did that. Or we wouldn't be having this chat today. So , um, let's see here. So let's chat a little bit about people in general. Um, cause we have a lot of audience out there and they're probably wondering , um, will they achieve something in life? So do you believe anybody can be successful?

Stephen Johnson, Idaho National Laboratory:

Yes, I do. Um, you need to take a , you know, if you're just sitting there and you don't know where you're going, think about what you enjoy doing and don't be concerned about how much money you can make doing it. Think about something you truly enjoy doing just for doing it. And once you've picked those one or two or three, four things, and maybe it's just one or two, take a look at it and talk to people in that field. See what you can do that , uh , maybe you can make money doing it. Um, okay. Again, trying to enhance my small talk capabilities on an airplane. I sat next to this guy and he was there with, I don't know , ripped out jeans and everything. And I was flying from salt lake city to Glenn research center in Cleveland. And he was going to Cleveland and any sitting there , uh, having, having some cocktails and, and he was probably about 30 years old. And I said, so , uh, what do you do? He said , uh, yeah, he said, I do pyrotechnics. I'm like, really? I said , uh, is that it's that good to you? He said, well, he said, I'm going into Cleveland. And he said, I'm doing this. And I just stared at him. And he said, yeah, a lot of the young guys, they go to school, they get all these degrees, they learn about chemicals. He said, but if they come and they intern with me, he said within about one year I can get them to a skill level where they're making six figures. And now this is the lead pyrotechnic guy for Beyonce and Jay Z. And he was flying in for them to do their big shows in Cleveland a few years back. And I thought, okay, this guy, he, you know, he's got it going on. He had just come back from LA visiting his family, his wife. And, you know, he looked like somebody that was itinerate, whatever. But , uh , no, he's like, no, he said, I can show you how to do the big pyrotechnics. I can do this. And I'm like, Hey, you're working for Beyonce and Jay Z. I'm like, yeah, you're probably doing pretty. Okay. And , uh, but that was somebody who figured out what they wanted to do. He didn't have a college degree in anything. He just picked it up by having somebody teach him something and kept working on it. And he was at the top of his game. I thought that was pretty neat.

George Davison:

Would you like to tell our audience? Cause some of them may be pretty young what pyrotechnics are. Cause they're probably intrigued now.

Stephen Johnson, Idaho National Laboratory:

Okay. Uh , yeah, the layman's word for fireworks. Okay. All that bright sparkly stuff you see at the Superbowl halftime show or any of the big things from big cities, Las Vegas, New York on the 4th of July. Yeah. That, that was something that he really liked had the right intern, no college degree learned it and was running a big crew and making a whole lot of money doing it. So again, pick something that you like to do, focus on it, talk to people in the field. You can probably figure out a way to make a living doing it. Maybe better than make a living .

George Davison:

Stephen, that's great advice. Thanks for another, another, a good bit of information. I think if you're lucky enough to find what you like, you know, it's not work, is it? It's like it's intriguing and you want to go do it. You want to jump out of bed in the morning and go get started with what you're doing. I think some of the challenges finding what you like.

Stephen Johnson, Idaho National Laboratory:

Uh, absolutely. But I I've had other people on the way other mentors tell me, they said, yeah. They said, ah , okay. Yeah, you got degrees in this. Figure out what you like to do because they said, at some point you , you may have that tough stretch where you're not making a lot of money, whatever else. And he said, if you're doing what you'd like to do, he said, you're getting through those tough stretches. But if you're doing something that you were only doing, because you can make a lot of money at one point in time and all of a sudden that's dried up or changed, then you, you, you don't have a whole lot , uh, to , uh, keep you going during the day.

George Davison:

Yes. Well said. All right. So let's shift back for a minute. We're going to go back to the nuclear energy, the nuclear area for a minute. Um, what do you think the next big innovation will be in the nuclear industry and how can students today prepare for that innovation in the future?

Stephen Johnson, Idaho National Laboratory:

Okay. So from my background, we also do developmental work in application of nuclear reactors for space. If we ever want to get men to Mars and get them back again, we're going to need a propulsion systems that are nuclear base to get there. And that work is, has been ongoing for several years, but still still is in its infancy. Uh , that's a neat field to work on. Or if we want to get men to have a colony on the moon, they're gonna need power. Solar. Won't do it. Um, half the time you're at the moon, you're in the dark , uh, 14 days at a time. So having a nuclear power plant on the moon would be truly neat. Those are things that are, are out there. They're under development. They're 10, 15 years off, plenty of opportunity for somebody to jump in there and , uh, and make a mark and learn something pretty neat and , uh, really contribute to that. So that that's that's I think is a hot area. There are several , uh , areas where DAS is currently spending millions, tens of millions of dollars per year in , and they, and NASA spends it with within NASA, within universities, within private companies, lots of different venues that you can contribute to that. That's what I think is a important avenue going forward for nuclear power,

George Davison:

Nuclear power on the moon. That sounds so exciting. I , I wish I was 12 years old. Again, I'd probably start, you know, that would really make my imagination soar . So let's, let's say I am 12. And I, I imagine , um, in order to even begin to dream in that space, I better be, you know , I better do my math homework. I better, you know , be focusing on some of the, what would you say are some of the basic courses a young person should know about ?

Stephen Johnson, Idaho National Laboratory:

Again, math is good. Um, chemistry, biology, physics, earth and space science people. I mean, Roland , the questions that came up recently, that things probably nobody ever thinks about, okay, if you're going to have a man colony on Mars, what's it going to be constructed of? Okay. So people are trying, they are trying to get samples back from Mars, because if you're going to go to Mars, I don't think we're going to be hauling bags here in Portland, cement up there and then a whole bunch of water. So they're trying to take a look at the regular, the soil of Mars and figure out what's it made of and what can we add to it to essentially make a marsh and concrete? And although people may go, yeah, it's like, okay, so what have you got on Mars? Uh, you know, you you've got the Regulus , what was the other part? So they're , they're using different forms of , uh, of urine to try to be that liquid that they use to , uh , make concrete. So they can actually build things on Mars, because again , uh , mass is everything and you're not going to be hauling steel girders up there or slabs of pre-formed concrete. You need a way of making a permanent structure once you're there. And

George Davison:

Water's very heavy. So we don't want to have to blast that up into space. So urine makes sense.

Stephen Johnson, Idaho National Laboratory:

Yeah. So it's , uh , you know, those are different aspects. There's lots of different aspects. If your , uh, if you're focusing on biology , uh, they're, they're looking at the different things that have lived on Mars in the past. So you don't have to be a rocket scientist to be involved with space stuff. Just have a take home message. There. There's lots of different angles. You need a way of , uh, if you can think of a more efficient way of splitting, say frozen water, you may find on the moon or Mars to get oxygen hydrogen. That's a fuel. The other , you know, that's another different angle , lots of different angles that you can apply up to something that NASA is going to do on Mars or on the moon.

George Davison:

All right. Let's, let's , uh, take another turn here and imagine for a minute that we have , um, education leaders who are guiding , um, K-12 in our country and they're sitting here with us. What do you think some of your recommendations to them would be to help prepare our students for the future?

Stephen Johnson, Idaho National Laboratory:

I would say just open up activities and maybe, you know, being , uh , as , uh , more of a space oriented. Okay . Take an activity. Like I don't care, mission to Pluto man, to the moon and really step backwards, take a look at all. The people, take a look at those people's qualifications, what they did in their earlier life, so that people can relate and say, oh yeah, everybody knows Neil Armstrong went to the mill . Great. Well, back up the calendar on a Neil Armstrong or any of the other great people, or even more modern day more contemporary people just say, Hey, this is where they started out life. You know, they , they were just like you, they were just like me. They had humble beginnings. Uh, they, they built on those beginnings to be those great people that we all know today so that people can relate and say, oh, Hey, he was just a normal guy. Or she was just a normal gal. And this is how they got to where they are. I think that would be an interesting case study.

George Davison:

I think you're right. And that's a really , um, that could create a great conversation because you're dealing with not theory or dealing with an actual person who went through a series of events. And , um, because I really think they need that kind of guidance. We're moving from theory and possibilities over to actual steps that were taken. And somewhere in between that we might find some innovative way to , uh, get some courses out to the kids to move them into , um, let's say an innovative education that might change our future.

Stephen Johnson, Idaho National Laboratory:

Yeah. I think people might really be surprised at the backgrounds of a whole lot of people. I mean, they look at a finished product that's 40, 50, 60 years old and has had a distinguished career. And they have no idea that 40 years before that, that person may have been flipping hay bales in Northern Michigan and, and , uh, doing other mundane things like that.

Speaker 1:

Steve, I can't thank you for sharing your wisdom with us today. Thank you for coming out.

Stephen Johnson, Idaho National Laboratory:

Thank you for having me

Conclusion:

For more information about the innovations and ideas changing tomorrow's world, tune into Tomorrow's World Today now streaming on Science and Discovery, or visit omorrow's world today. Dot com

Speaker 2:

[inaudible] .