KF center accepted into NASA program

Published 8:18 pm Thursday, January 13, 2011

King’s Fork junior Zach Johnson is the Bulldogs’ starting center and the lone KFHS student in the Virginia Aerospace Science and Technology Scholars program run by NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton. Outstanding science and math students are accepted into the program.

When Tuesday night’s city rivalry basketball contest between King’s Fork and Lakeland ended, one of King’s Fork’s best players still had a lot of work to do for the day.

Junior center Zach Johnson led a Bulldog victory with 20 points and tough, physical play in the paint on both ends of the court.

Johnson’s basketball talent sets him apart but part of his homework late Tuesday night into Wednesday morning demands academic ability that puts him into an even more elite class.


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Johnson’s the only King’s Fork High student in the Virginia Aerospace Science and Technology Scholars (VASTS) program run by the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton.

“It’s an introduction for us into the aerospace engineering field. It’s perfect for me. If basketball doesn’t work out, I want to have a career in aerospace engineering, making and designing aircrafts,” Johnson said.

“My Math Analysis teacher, Ms. (Susan) Braford, told me I should apply. I did and it was a real honor to be accepted,” Johnson said.

Being accepted is just the first step and the honor means a lot of complex, extra work to follow.

Students in the program complete the course online and outside of normal school hours. All the time Johnson puts into the course has to be during nights or weekends.

“It’s a lot of research, physics, complicated math and solving problems. It’s a lot of work but it’s going to pay off in the end,” he said.

Scholars go through 10 modules with a test on each module once every three or four weeks. NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston designed the modules.

Langley Research Center’s VASTS Web page describes the program, saying, “students … are immersed in NASA-related research through interaction with scientists, engineers and technologists.”

Students who complete the program earn college credits and could be invited to a summer program at Langley.

Johnson says math and science have always been his favorite subjects and “I’ve always been interested in how things are put together.” At the same time though, “(those subjects) have always been the hardest for me.”

“There are other classes that come easier but I’ve always liked things that are challenges,” Johnson said.

There’s probably not a link between offensive rebounding and aerospace engineering but there is a similarity in Johnson’s work ethic in both fields.

“He plays hard every night and what he does, it’s not always glamorous, the points or the numbers might not always show it but his rebounding, his blocked shots and just lots of hard work is all so important for us,” King’s Fork head coach Joshua Worrell said.

“If he continues to work hard and progress he can be a tremendous player,” Worrell said.

Johnson transferred from Norfolk Academy to King’s Fork between his freshman and sophomore years. Last hoop season he made the Bulldog varsity squad but didn’t see much playing time, which was an understandable problem as KF’s two main post players last year, Davante Gardner and Jay Copeland, are now playing at Marquette and Ball State respectively.

“Going up against those big guys, Davante and Jay, every day in practice made me tougher. I know I can take whatever contact I face now,” Johnson said.

Johnson credits his family for keeping him optimistic while having to sit the bench most of the time. The same goes for motivation academically.

His older sister Danielle, now a student at Howard, pushes him to set and reach new goals, he said.

“She’s always a straight-A student. I’ve never been a straight-A student, only As and Bs,” he said.

“Now you can tell people, ‘Yes, I am a rocket scientist,’” he recalled her saying.

“It’s God first, my family second,” Johnson said. “I’m really glad I have God’s blessing. Academics, sports, I couldn’t do anything without Him.”

“Sometimes I’m up until 2 a.m. Last night (after the Lakeland game), I had to do some work on one of the modules after my regular homework,” Johnson said.

“After the game I was so tired. I got home, showered, ate, then had to work,” he said.