Deborah “D.J.” Johnson

Program Planning Specialist - NASA Headquarters

Where are you from?

I grew up in Washington, D.C. I went to Turner and Moten elementary schools and Hart Junior High School in southeast D.C., and Ballou Senior High School. I went to the University of the District of Columbia. My major was business and public management. I have also taken several classes at the Graduate School USA, including leadership, training, government correspondence, and in-house training.

Describe the first time you made a personal connection with outer space.

I was in American History Class in High School 11th grade. It was Career Day. They talked about different careers and opportunities that the students can go into, and they mentioned NASA. That sparked my interest, especially since I used to pass by it a lot. I used to come to the National Mall (a national park in downtown Washington, D.C.) a lot and go to the museums there. I became fascinated with NASA.

How did you end up working in the space program?

As a kid I dreamed of working for NASA. I would pass by NASA Headquarters on Maryland Avenue SW in Washington, D.C., on my daily commute to work. After passing by NASA Headquarters for 1 year, I decided then that I was going to seek employment at NASA. I applied for a job at NASA Headquarters and was hired within a month as a contractor employee clerk typist. The following year I applied for another position in the Federal Government, in civil service as a secretary.

What does your job entail?

I am a program planning specialist. I do mission support for our programs in the Planetary Science Division, in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD). I do events planning and guest operations for all of SMD. That means at the launches of satellites, I make sure the guests have the best experience they can have. I conduct tours for very, very important people (VVIPs) such as heads of agencies, guests of the NASA Administrator, and also for very important people (VIP), which are members of the public.

I also perform public outreach for all of SMD. That includes dissemination of information about NASA programs and missions. I send materials to schools and educators. For instance, I worked on the U.S. Science and Engineering Festival. I demonstrated the new ROVE-E, a prototype of Curiosity that shows how the rover roves over the Martian terrain. It can collect samples and send back pictures. The Curiosity rover on Mars does experiments.

Less than two weeks ago I was over at Union Station doing outreach. I worked during the Earth Day (April 22, 2016) event at the National Mall. They had a knowledge tree, and I collected people’s thoughts about the Earth and how the environment has changed for the good, or sometimes not so good, and how we can make sustainable energy. I collected attendees’ thoughts about what we can do to preserve Earth for future generations.

Tell us about a favorite moment so far in your career.

In 2012 I accepted a detail position in NASA’s Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters. I made a career change from an executive assistant to a program support role, and changed from a clerical series to a professional series.

I have gained a lot of personal satisfaction. I knew that I could do much more than push papers, and I wanted to give back to NASA and to my community. I know that when I go to the different schools, and when the kids (African American kids) see folks that look like them, it inspires them to go into different careers at NASA. They think that everyone who works for NASA is a scientist, astronaut or engineer, but there are so many careers that you can go into.

NASA seems to attract the best and the brightest; that is why I always wanted to work for NASA. When you see the looks in kids’ eyes when I say I work for NASA, they just get so excited.

Who inspired you?

My mother, who always told me that I could do and be anything that I wanted, if I just apply myself and stay focused. No matter what you do, do your best. She always told me to stay in school and never stop learning.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the same career path as you?

My advice is to keep an open mind, take training (never stop learning), and whatever your job is do your best.

What do you do for fun?

I love to listen to jazz and dance. I visit parks frequently for nature walks. I am intrigued with the constant changing of the environment – the variety of living things to see, the smells, and the sounds I hear all are relaxing to me, and every visit is an adventure.

If you were talking to a student interested in science and math or engineering, what advice would you give them?

Study hard and stay focused so that you can do well in school. Choose a subject that you enjoy, for it can lead to a rewarding career. I now have my dream job. I have fun at work and, moreover, I really enjoy my job. NASA is an awesome place to work.

Where are they from?

Planetary science is a global profession.