Celebrated American rocket scientist and Super Soaker creator Lonnie Johnson is now giving back to the community by funding high school robotics teams.
The famous NASA rocket scientist and creator of one of the most popular toys on earth now wants to share his knowledge and skills with a new generation of engineers — some of whom are refugees from Africa.
One of the robotics teams, the DISCbots of the nearby DeKalb International Student Center, is made up of refugees from nine countries, including the Central African Republic and Ethiopia, reports NBC News.
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Kalombo Mukuca, a refugee from the Central African Republic who arrived in the United States a year ago, and Emanuel Tezera, an Ethiopian refugee, are members of the DISCbots, which recently qualified for the world-wide robotics competition in Texas.
“If I can have a positive impact, clearly it’s something I want to do,” Johnson says.
Innovative & Curious
Johnson was born in October 1949 in Mobile, Alabama. His father was a World War II veteran and his mother worked as a nurse’s aide.
As a child, Johnson was innovative and curious, with some of his curiosity coming at the expense of his family’s possessions: he reverse-engineered his sister’s doll to understand how its eyes closed.
Growing up at a time when the Civil Rights Movement called for equality in American society, Johnson explained, “When I was a child, the ‘White-only’ bathrooms were still very prevalent. There was a lot of fear, a lot of anxiety, [and] a lot of stress.”
So he turned that fear into motivation to better himself in different aspects of life, including education, by pursuing a career as a NASA rocket scientist.
As a teen, Johnson attended the all-Black Williamson High School in Mobile. By 1968, he was the only Black student representing his school at the Alabama High School Science Fair.
Johnson then attended college at Tuskegee University on a math scholarship, where he earned a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering and an M.S. in Nuclear Engineering.
The idea to create his first prototype, which later became the famed “Super Soaker (pictured),” came unexpectedly when he was designing a water pump. He had already finished testing the pump out in a bathroom when an idea popped up.
“I thought to myself, Geez, this would make a neat water gun! At that point I decided to put my engineering hat on and design a high-performance water gun,” he told NBC News.
Since its official debut in 1990, the Super Soaker water gun continues to be among the world’s top 20 best-selling toys every year.
Johnson has also worked in the U.S. Air Force as the acting chief of Space Nuclear Power Safety section, senior systems engineer, advanced space systems requirements manager for non-nuclear strategic weapons technology, and more.
He is also the founder and president of Johnson Research and Development Co. Inc., Excellatron Solid State LLC, and Johnson Electro-Mechanical Systems.