Aspiring Aerospace Engineer Honored with Scholarship

Stefan Neal Johnson was highly recommended by his Rockford High School teachers Tim Nelligan, left, and Fred Reusch, rightStefan Neal Johnson was highly recommended by his Rockford High School teachers Tim Nelligan, left, and Fred Reusch, right

Stefan Neal Johnson has been interested in outer space ever since he would go camping as a young boy, and look up.

“You see all the stars and you think, ‘There is so much out there that we don’t know, and that we have yet to find out,’” said the Rockford High School senior. “Being able to be part of that would just be a really cool experience.”

Stefan will have his chance to be part of that, boosted by a $3,000 award from the Roger B. Chaffee Scholarship Fund. The scholarship will go toward his studies in aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan.

Stefan is the 49th student to receive the honor, awarded annually to a Kent County area student pursuing a college career in engineering or the sciences. It was established in 1967 by family and friends of Chaffee, a Grand Rapids Central High School graduate and early NASA astronaut. Chaffee died in Jan. 27 of that year, along with Gus Grissom and Edward White, when a fire swept through the command capsule during a simulated launch of the Apollo I spacecraft.

Having researched Chaffee’s accomplishments and tragic death, Stefan called the award “a huge honor.”

“The sacrifices that he and the other astronauts made for such a noble cause, in pursuit of knowledge and helping mankind as a whole learn more about our universe – that’s just incredible that he did that,” he said.

Talent + Strong Work Ethic

Stefan was honored with a banquet at the Grand Rapids Public Museum, which included a lecture by museum President Dale Robertson and a show in the planetarium named after Chaffee.

The gathering included two early winners of the scholarship – Jerome Dausman (1972) and Karl Kimball (1975). Kimball came with his mother, Thelma, who was friends with Chaffee’s parents, Don and Blanche. Kimball brought mementoes as well as memories of how much the award meant to him as an East Kentwood High School senior.

“I’ve often thought about how big it really is,” said Kimball, who went on to U-M and a 30-year career as a chemical engineer with Dow Corning. “It’s a special thing to be the Roger B. Chaffee Scholar,” he added, choking up.

Stefan earned the honor from a field of 46 highly accomplished applicants, with his interest in aerospace engineering being “an important factor,” said Robert Steelman, president of the scholarship fund board of directors.

Stefan with a portrait of Roger B. Chaffee, the late astronaut for whom the scholarship is named
Stefan with a portrait of Roger B. Chaffee, the late astronaut for whom the scholarship is named

The son of Mark and Jody Johnson, Stefan currently has a 4.59 grade-point average, is involved in lacrosse and is cofounder of the Rockford Outdoors Club. He has volunteered at Bridgeway Community Church, Hillview Tutoring Center and the Urban Family Ministries.

Stefan was highly recommended by Rockford physics teacher Tim Nelligan and calculus teacher Fred Reusch, who praised his maturity and independent work habits.

“He’s a very bright kid, but what he’s done with that is he’s worked hard at it,” Nelligan said. “Every day he was on time, paying attention, positive – just a consistent work ethic to go with his God-given ability.”

Stefan said both teachers have been a great help to him, and that he’s honored to join the ranks of previous scholars such as Rockford graduate Tessa Powers in 2014. He wants to be on the design end of flight, to help ensure spacecraft are as efficient and safe as possible – and that accidents like the Apollo I fire don’t happen again.

Where will his career take him? One dream is working for SpaceX, a private space-technology firm that hopes to one day enable people to live on other planets. But for sure his vision looks star-ward, as when he camped out as a boy.

“Every way I look at it, the future of our science industry (is) all going to outer space,” he said. “I just really want to be a part of that and see what we can do. The things that we can accomplish in the next half century or so are going to be pretty incredible.”

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Roger B. Chaffee Scholarship Fund

Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio.

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