07/02/2010 11:37 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Andrew Johnson: Rocket Man

2010-06-29-ANDREWJOHNSON.jpgIf NASA's Dr. Andrew E. Johnson ever gets to walk on Mars, he'll have no problem finding the right shoes. Johnson has a footwear collection that has earned him the tag "Imelda Marcos of JPL."

While he is one of the space industry's top robotics specialists, he's more rock & roll than rocket scientist. "I don't build rockets, and I'm not a scientist," Johnson clarifies. "I'm an engineer who builds spacecraft."

By working on software that automatically processes recorded images, Johnson ensures that NASA's multimillion-dollar equipment touches down without any hazards. "All of this is done without human intervention and in the short time during landing," he explains. "These robots need a system that replicates human vision, and that's what I work on."

Johnson earned his Ph.D. in 1997 from the Robotics Institute at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University. He considered "the usual nerdy careers," including biomedical engineering, genetics and computer graphics. But robotics was his passion, and given that spacecraft are actually robots, it made sense for Johnson to work for NASA.

He now manages a dozen people at Pasadena's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, all charged with building future generations of planetary landers. But it's not just theories and algorithms: Johnson admits getting a particular thrill out of heading out to the desert, climbing into a plane and firing off a few lasers. Of course, that's not his only form of local entertainment. This unusually laid-back man of science likes to take advantage of L.A. culture: He hangs out at venues like Spaceland, Verdugo Bar and BCAM.

"I think if I mentioned those places at JPL, I would get mostly blank stares," he notes.

Johnson considers the system that placed the current exploration rovers on Mars his greatest achievement. It's called DIMES, for Descent Image Motion Estimation System. "Engineers love acronyms," he says.

All of the Mars rovers Johnson has worked on have landed safely, without "cratering," which means none of them crashed into the surface. But not all of his projects are about avoiding collisions; some actually call for them. Johnson worked on Deep Impact, whose only purpose was to slam head-on into a comet's nucleus. "The mission worked like a charm, and the comet Tempel 1 now has a nice new crater in it."

Johnson looks forward to even more challenging projects, "like autonomous robots that can think and act as they explore comet nuclei, asteroids and those freaky moons of the outer planets."

But for now, he's satisfied with his achievements at JPL.

"When the first Mars Exploration Rover landed on Mars and the system I was working on essentially saved the mission from crashing, I realized why I had worked so hard in school and at JPL: To build something and then have it make a tangible difference in the world was an incredible feeling."

Originally published in LA Weekly's "Best of LA" people issue. (Photo by Kevin Scanlon.)