Los Alamos National Labs with logo 2021

From Los Alamos to outer space

On the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, former scientist and astronaut John Phillips talks about his time at Los Alamos and NASA.
July 18, 2019
An astronaut on a spacewalk.

Attired in a Russian Orlan spacesuit, astronaut John Phillips participates in a session of extravehicular activity (EVA). The 4-hour, 58-minute spacewalk by Phillips and cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev (out of frame) was the 62nd EVA in support of International Space Station assembly and maintenance, and the 34th conducted from the Station itself.CREDIT: NASA


“The Lab is a wonderful place to achieve your scientific goals.”- John Phillips

By J. Weston Phippen

On July 20, 1969, John Phillips, an 18-year-old midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy, was in a bar in Tijuana, Mexico. The next day, he would be shipping out for six weeks. So of course, before that next assignment, he and some friends headed for Tijuana to celebrate.

There, on a small, roundish TV screen, he watched Neil Armstrong touch the moon’s surface, a moment that cemented his desire to go to space, he says. “The entire Apollo program, not just Apollo 11, was a profound experience for me.” It would take nearly three more decades before Phillips got his own chance in a rocket. And a major part of accomplishing that goal, he says, was the time he spent at the Laboratory.

Starting in 1987, Phillips worked at Los Alamos, first as a J. Robert Oppenheimer Fellow and then as a staff scientist until 1996. “Coming to the Lab was a fortuitous stepping stone,” Phillips says of his journey to NASA. “It definitely helped me get in.”

Today Phillips lives in Sandpoint, Idaho, about 50 miles from the Canadian border. The town of 8,000 people is just north of the Coeur d’Alene National Forest, and Phillips can almost make out the ski slopes from his window.

Now 68 years old and retired, he says he spends most of his time “skiing and kayaking the great West.” In fact, when National Security Science caught up to Phillips, he’d just returned home from a weeklong trip rafting the Green River in Utah.

“I achieved all of my work goals, and now I’m achieving all my life-balance goals,” he says. “You probably won’t see my picture on the front of a scientific journal anytime soon.”

NSS spoke to Phillips recently about his time at Los Alamos—how it prepared him for becoming an astronaut and what he believes the U.S. should have done after the Apollo landing.

A man in a spacesuit poses for a photo; he is holding his helmet in his lap.

In addition to authoring more than 150 scientific publications, John Phillips was the principal investigator for a plasma experiment on the Ulysses spacecraft as it flew over the poles of the sun. In 1996, Phillips was selected by NASA as an astronaut; he has flown into space three times. Photo: NASA.

Why were you drawn to Los Alamos?

Primarily, it was because I met some LANL people when I was a grad student at the University of California at Los Angeles. They really talked the place up. They talked about the work, but they also talked a lot about the lifestyle. I like to ski and climb mountains, so it really appealed to me. But at that time, I wasn’t even sure where Los Alamos was. I think I thought it was in southern New Mexico or something. Ultimately, the Lab made me a very nice postdoc offer.

Tell us about your early work at the Lab and how that prepared you for a job with NASA.

At first, I worked on existing Lab projects in spacecraft instrumentation. And when I say instrumentation, it wasn’t testing and building, it was analyzing the observations. I was more of a data guy than a hardware guy.

So, I was working on all these varying projects when I got involved with the Ulysses mission—a partnership with NASA on the first space probe to study the north and south poles of the sun. Then I kind of inherited the role of principal investigator.

As it turned out, the bulk of my work at the Lab was on the Ulysses project. That helped me the most in my NASA career. Unlike a lot of people at LANL, I did mostly unclassified work. And almost all the reports I published were public, so I was able to work with scientists in Japan, Russia . . . all over the world. That kind of international exposure helped later on when I was applying to NASA.

Exploration and adventure are often associated with astronauts. But did you also experience those feelings with your work at the Lab?

A bit, yes. There was nothing I did at Los Alamos that was physically risky or demanding in the sense of being an explorer. But I will say that when I was principal investigator for the Ulysses spacecraft, I was the first person to see the measurements we received—and this was from a place no human had ever seen before. I would sit behind my keyboard, looking at the data as it came back, and in a way, it was kind of like being in the Amazon jungle, exploring. Being the first person to see this part of space was similar to being the first person to paddle around the bend of an unexplored river. I mean, I was always going home at night to eat dinner with my family, but the experiences share something wild in common.

Had you always planned on becoming an astronaut?

I don’t know if it was a plan. It was always a dream. But I never had much of a career plan. I’d thought about being an astronaut since I was 10 years old, when Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to fly in space. I first put in to be an astronaut when I was a 25-year-old Navy pilot, although they didn’t hire me for another 20 years. I always followed my nose.

Did you take the job at Los Alamos thinking it would help you reach that goal?

I made the decision to come to LANL because of the work I could do at the Lab and because of even more mundane things—it was a good place to raise a family, and the pay was good . . . that kind of stuff.

I will say, though, a lot of my time at NASA was much more like being in the Navy. The Lab always valued creativity and intellectual achievement. NASA valued attention to detail and teamwork. So, the experiences were kind of opposite. The job of an astronaut is to operate a spacecraft. You don’t need to be a physicist; you don’t need to have a long list of published work. A lot of my research with NASA didn’t correlate at all with my previous work at the Lab.

A man floats through a laboratory in the International Space Station.

John Phillips floats in the Destiny laboratory of the International Space Station. Photo: NASA.

What were some of the experiments you conducted in space?

The primary mission for my first flight was to deliver a robotic arm to the International Space Station and install it. The arm helps astronauts move equipment around and maintain the craft. On my third flight, the mission was to deliver and install big solar panels.

Scientific experiments were never my primary mission, and of the ones I did, at least half had a medical purpose. We learned how to do ultrasounds in space. We did an experiment that looked at wear and tear on the lower body while living in space—how to avoid kidney stones. The experiments were almost all biological in nature, and I have no biology background.

You had three missions to space. What was the most memorable moment?

I think my second flight. I was training on Russian rockets in Kazakhstan, and I’d been speaking Russian for half a year, training as if I were a Russian cosmonaut. For me, that was the most challenging thing I’ve done. Not everyone makes it through that training, and there are times when you feel completely overwhelmed. That was the most accomplished I’ve ever felt.

That’s maybe not the response most people expect—they’d expect it to be something like looking back on Earth, or at least something about space.

Well, of course. My first spacewalk was certainly cool. And so was the first time the rocket engines cut off, and we were floating. But I think as far as personal satisfaction, launching with the Russian flight is one of the things I’ll remember most.

The Lab is currently doing a lot of work to get to Mars. Given your science and space experiences, what do you think of that goal?

I’ve thought a lot about the years that followed the Apollo program, almost 50 years ago now. Instead of focusing on Mars, I thought we should have established a semi-permanent base on the moon. But over the past 30 years, our emphasis has bounced back and forth between Mars and the moon. We’re a long way from putting people on Mars—decades probably. I’d really love to see Los Alamos become a major player in researching and developing science for a moon base. That would be wonderful.

What advice do you have for LANL people interested in a career path similar to yours?

First off, the Lab is a wonderful place to achieve your scientific goals. When I was there, it always had huge resources, and you could find an expert on anything and everything you wanted. Specifically, for Lab folks interested in NASA, I’d say gain some expertise in what I’d call expeditionary projects, in places that are far off and hard to reach and that require teamwork, toughness, and an element of survival. You need to show you can work on deadline with a team, in demanding circumstances.

A full moon serves as a backdrop for a space shuttle sitting on the launchpad.

The space shuttle Discovery sits atop a launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on March 11, 2009. The Discovery would fly to the International Space Station, where astronaut—and former Laboratory staff member—John Phillips would deploy a robotic arm to install the S6 truss, part of the station’s “backbone.” Photo: NASA.