Rutgers Hall of Distinguished Alumni inductee Kenneth Johnson reflects on his extraordinary career in aerospace and his deep commitment to helping Rutgers students succeed.
By Scott Fogdall (Photo by John O’Boyle)
If you ask Kenneth Johnson which of his achievements he’s most proud of, it’s natural to expect an out-of-this-world answer. After all, Johnson spent 35 years creating spacecraft that have transformed our understanding of planet Earth and the solar system. While he does express pride in every one of those satellite missions, he also takes great satisfaction in a different part of his life’s journey. This one is rooted on solid ground, and it’s still going at full power.
“I consider supporting Rutgers to be my second career,” says Johnson ENG’66, who retired from Lockheed Martin in 2001 and has since devoted himself to a wide range of university endeavors. From serving on the Board of Trustees and Rutgers University Foundation Board of Directors to mentoring, networking with, and establishing a scholarship for talented engineers-in-training, Johnson has found many ways to stay connected to his alma mater. Doing so, in his words, “recharges my batteries like you wouldn’t believe.”
That’s a fitting metaphor for someone who took to technology at an early age. Growing up in Metuchen, New Jersey, Johnson built model airplanes in fine detail and won contests for his efforts. “I would take my car apart and put it back together,” he says of his teen years, not because his car needed repair, but because doing so was “satisfying and challenging.” For a time, he seemed focused on a career in automotive engineering.
Rutgers School of Engineering changed his trajectory. Although interested in developing air pollution controls for cars, Johnson felt the pull of a completely new frontier. It was the 1960s, with the American and Soviet space programs competing neck and neck. A senior-year internship at Lockheed Electronics immersed the young engineer in designing satellite tape recorders—and the allure of sending his work into orbit proved irresistible.
“I realized I loved working in aerospace,” Johnson says. At the time, TV images of American rockets blowing up on launch pads were still fresh in his mind, adding to his resolve. “I wanted to be part of that, to help fix that. I finished my degree requirements in December of 1966. I started working at RCA’s Aerospace Center on January 16 of 1967. And I have never been sorry about that.”
Starting as an associate engineer in the Spacecraft Design Department, Johnson quickly earned the confidence of management and was assigned to increasingly demanding projects, including the first deployed eight-panel solar array. Progressing through the management ranks as RCA became part of General Electric and eventually Lockheed Martin, Johnson led design teams that produced a new generation of weather satellites which dramatically changed the study of Earth’s climate, oceans, and atmosphere. His work also helped create modern global communications and GPS systems.
He is especially proud to have managed a group of engineers who, facing skepticism among some colleagues, showed astonishing tenacity. Young, diverse, and not highly experienced, these team members surprised doubters, produced sound technical solutions, and were largely responsible for winning a crucial prototyping contract. Soon known as “Kenny’s Kids,” they proved essential to the development of the Terra satellite.
In that spirit, Johnson has taken an active hand in mentoring emerging STEM professionals at Rutgers, organizing meet-and-greets with business executives and advising young graduates as they navigate the working world. He and his wife, Jacqueline, have given back to the university in significant ways, including a major endowed academic scholarship for aerospace engineering students and championing and creating an endowment for the Scarlet Promise Grant program.
In 1997, Johnson was named a “Pioneer in Space” by the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. With recognition like that and his recent induction into the university’s Hall of Distinguished Alumni, it might be said that Johnson has achieved a kind of harmony—a balance of both worlds: rockets and Rutgers.
“I credit Rutgers School of Engineering for an education that started me off on a really strong footing,” Johnson says. He plans to remain deeply involved in empowering new generations of scarlet engineers and innovators, and to instill in them the same drive to explore and succeed that propelled his own aerospace journey. One of his chief pleasures, he says, is “watching the success of students I helped or connected with. I love to talk to students about themselves, about their careers, about their desires.”
Is there anything he tries to steer them away from? “Yes,” he answers. “The words, ‘It can’t be done.’”
On Thursday, November 3, Ken Johnson was inducted into the Rutgers University Hall of Distinguished Alumni along with three other influential Rutgers graduates.