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Astronaut travels to the edge of his universe


Cheryl Petten, Windspeaker Staff Writer, Houston, Tex.







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John Herrington went on a little trip recently. It was more or less a business trip, but he did get time to do a little bit of sightseeing.

What made the trip particularly noteworthy was that it was aboard the space shuttle Endeavor, and Herrington's destination was the International Space Station, in orbit 270 km above the earth.

What also makes it noteworthy is that Herrington made history with his flight, becoming the first Native American in space.

Herrington is a member of the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma. He has a background in mathematics and aeronautical engineering, and joined the NASA program in August 1996.

The mission Herrington was part of, STS-113, was originally scheduled for September 2002, but in June of that year, all shuttle missions were put on hold for four months so cracks inside the fuel lines of all four space shuttles could be repaired. The launch was then set for Nov. 18, 2002, but was scrubbed when an oxygen leak was found in the crew compartment. A rescheduled launch a few days later on Nov. 22 was also put on hold because of poor weather conditions at the Transatlantic Landing Abort (TAL) sites, where the shuttle would land if an emergency occurred before it made it into orbit.

The next day on Nov. 23, 2002, the Endeavor was finally able to launch, and Herrington and fellow crew members were able to begin their mission.

While many of us have no doubt tried to imagine the thrill of blasting away from the earth, breaking away from the gravitational pull and hurtling into space, Herrington has now lived that experience.

"Thirty seconds prior to lift-off, it's like, 'I'm actually going to go. I'm actually going to go.' And then once the engines ignited, you just do what you're trained. And you know, you can feel the vehicle moving and shaking and everything, and it's real exciting, and your heart's pounding, but you have a job to do. And the training is great, because it teaches you what you have to do all the way through that. So you get absorbed into your role, and the external stuff is just kind of there."

All the training may have prepared Herrington for the work he had to do during the mission, but it couldn't have prepared him for the experience of actually being in space.

"That's what is the joy about it, is going out and seeing. I've done this work. I've done something like this before, but now, look at the view. Look at where you're at. And it makes you stop and think for a second and say, 'OK, wow. This is a phenomenal place to work.' And the training was so good that the work actually seems much easier than what it was, like say, when we trained in a pool. But to glance over your shoulder and to see, you've got the hint of the sun coming up, because the solar rays just start to change color. Fabulous, just fabulous."

As one of two mission specialists, part of Herrington's responsibilities on the shuttle flight was installing a truss onto the International Space Station, which will provide structural support for the station's radiators. The job of installing the 27,500 lb., 45-ft.-long truss was done during three space walks by Herrington and Michael Lopez-Alegria, the other mission specialist.

For Herrington, those space walks were the most exciting part of the mission.

"Oh wow. It's a treat for the senses. The whole flight was, but to actually go out the hatch in your own little spacecraft, your own little spacesuit, and to go out and climb over this huge, just remarkable vehicle, and to do work. And the culmination of all of that, how bright the sun is, how beautiful white the space shuttle is illuminated. The colors of the sunrise and sunsets were just phenomenal. And to look through this little teeny thin piece of visor at that was just, I wouldn't say overwhelming for your senses, but certainly just, you know, things that very few people in this world have ever seen. And trying to take all that in, and do the work at the same time, you know, it's really, really dificult. You do your work, glance around, take a look, make a mental snapshot, then go back to work is really what it was like," he explained.

"Looking over the side of the truss, looking down at the earth a couple hundred miles below, and then looking at the horizon and being on the very edge of this fantastic piece of hardware, and being that between me and nothing. From there, I call it the edge of my universe, because that was . . . there was just the vastness of space. That really gets to the heart. That was fun. Just a fabulous experience I'll remember for the rest of my life," he said.

"Space walks are the most enjoyable, but they're also the most challenging. Certainly the third EVA (extravehicular activities) the third space walk, was difficult, because things changed. We had a certain time line planned out, and because we had hardware issues. There's a little transport that was stuck, and because it was stuck, I could not use the robotic arm. And because I couldn't use the robotic arm, I couldn't do the task the way I trained to do it. So we had to think on our feet and-no pun intended, but you're not using your feet-you're out there and you have to, real time, try and figure how to do stuff, and we did that. And that's where the satisfaction comes from, having been able to do that, and to do it well was a fabulous feeling."

There was yet another fact about the STS-113 mission that made it historic. Once the mission was over, there was a four-day delay in landing-the longest delay in landing in the 20-year history of the shuttle program-due to poor weather conditions at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida where the shuttle was to land.

John Herrington said he wasn't worried or frustrated by all the delays encountered by the mission.

"It wasn't frustrating at all. I mean, it was one of these things. One, it's a systems issue, initially, which is a safe thing to do. Better to be down here worrying about it than be up there worrying about it. And also theweather you have no control over, and if something happened, you want a place to go where the weather is good, so that's not an issue. It'll happen. I mean, it's just like everything. There were delays way before that too. So you know, it's just, 'I'll eventually get there.'

"And certainly landing, it gave me a chance to look out the window. And if we hadn't delayed, I would not have had a chance to look out and take some just fabulous photos," he said.

"It's nice because it's a chance, you've done your mission, you've done the things you were supposed to do, and now this is just icing on the cake. It's a chance to sit back and actually look out the window for a long period of time. And that was fabulous."

Now that he's got his first shuttle mission under his belt, the wait begins for his next shuttle assignment.

"You know, I'd go do it again and again and again, until they tell me I'm done. Or my kids tell me I'm done, one or the other," he said.

In the meantime, he's keeping pretty busy back here on earth, completing reports about the mission, and doing post-flight appearances.

While Herrington's flight was exciting for him, it was also exciting for his family, especially his two daughters, aged 8 and 12.

"Certainly, it's exciting for my kids, because, you know, Daddy was just a guy that wore the blue flight suit and went to work and flew. But now they had a chance to see Daddy fly into space, and see the actual launch of the space shuttle, which, from talking to my kids, was just a marvelous event for them. It's scary. I think it's scary for anybody when you have a personal relationship to a person on board, because of the unknowns. But now Daddy has taken on a different role, certainly both my kids mentioned that. My oldest wants to be an astronaut now. And that's neat, when your kids say, 'Hey, I'm going to do what Daddy does. It makes you feel good."

But it's not just his own kids who are excited about his mission and his accomplishments. It's kids evrywhere, and he's using that enthusiasm to get the message out that if they work at it, they can reach their goals just as he did.

"I think when I talk to kids, I like to tell them that this is a possibility for them. Yes, dreams can come true, because I dreamed about this. I never thought it would be a reality until a point in my life where I started trying to make it a reality," he said.

"Space is one thing that fascinates just about everybody in the world. And when you can relate it to them, and they can make a connection to you, that you're just like them, that they'll realize it is a possibility. And that's what's important, that kids can do that, and the adults too. You know, folks say, 'Hey, I didn't think I could achieve something,' or 'I've always dreamt about something, but I never thought it was a possibility.' Yes, it is. You just need to find the right people to motivate you, and motivate yourself, and work hard. It works out."