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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


September 21, 2002 - Issue 70


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First Indian in Space Began Journey in State

by Diane Clay Staff Writer The Oklahoman

John HerringtonIt was a typical Friday night. John Herrington and his brother James huddled with a friend in a cardboard box in their back yard, pretending to fly to the moon.

If only one day they could get there.

By the end of this year, one of the boys will get the chance -- not to fly to the moon, but for a trip almost as good.

John Herrington, born in Wetumka, is to be one of seven men to fly into space in November aboard space shuttle Endeavour for flight STS- 113. The mission will attach the first truss to the International Space Station and propel Herrington into history as the first American Indian in space, according to NASA.

Joyce and James Herrington Sr., will travel from Marble Falls, Texas, to be at their son's first blast into space. John's younger sister Jennifer and several other family members and longtime friends will also make the trip.

"I hope I can stay conscious. It's going to be quite an event," said James Herrington, a graduate of Wetumka High School.

"Knowing your son's in there, it's something that's hard to describe."

His wife is a little more anxious.

"That's my son that's going up. That's my son sitting on that big rocket," she said.

She's already told her son to be careful and required him to tether himself to the ship while on space walks. He promised he would.

"He better be," she said.

Herrington's mission is to deliver and install the first truss of the International Space Station and drop off the station's next crew. They will pick up five astronauts and Russian scientists from the station and return them to Earth.

The launch has been delayed twice.

The crew originally was to take off in September but was grounded because of changes aboard the space station.

Plumbing problems in several shuttles delayed the launch a second time.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has grounded all the shuttles until they can fix a problem with the flowliners -- the metal channels that ensure the liquid hydrogen fuel flows smoothly to the shuttle's engines.

Herrington should take off Nov. 2, 9 or 11, depending on weather and other factors.

Herrington doesn't talk much about his historical journey that will officially make him the first American Indian in space, although he said he is proud of the honor.

Herrington, 43, is a registered Chickasaw and an active member of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, where he often talks to students.

Convincing children, especially those with Indian ancestry, that they can succeed no matter what their background as long as they work hard has become Herrington's second job.Herrington has become a sought-after role model for children, not because he is an astronaut, but because of how he got there.

His family left Wetumka in the early 1960s, when Herrington was a toddler, after his father was transferred from Tinker Air Force Base to Ent Air Force Base in Colorado.

It was there his father began flying and eventually earned his pilot's license. It wasn't long before John and his older brother James were tagging along.

On Nov. 16, 1969, John Herrington took his first hour of flight instruction from his father in a Cessna 150. Herrington's father eventually bought a plane and taught his wife to fly.

John Herrington looked at flying as a hobby and never showed much interest beyond that. What he was interested in was science and tinkering with just about anything.

He and his family launched model rockets with beetles in the payload compartments.

Herrington began to think about a possible space career but was discouraged when a teacher told him he wasn't smart enough to take algebra.

He made it to college but was kicked out for bad grades.

He moved from Colorado to Texas to work as a chef and then party after hours.

"I was going down the wrong path," Herrington said.

A friend persuaded him to return to Colorado, where Herrington paid for his tuition at the University of Colorado by shampooing carpets, selling knives and ushering hockey games.

Astronaut TrainingHis senior year, he worked as a math tutor. One of the men he tutored was a former Navy fighter pilot, who convinced Herrington he not only could succeed at getting his degree in applied mathematics but should become a U.S. Navy pilot.

Herrington graduated from the Navy's Officer Candidate School in 1984 and soon began Russian submarine hunting missions off the Alaskan coast. He moved to the Navy's test pilot program in 1990 before leaving for the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, where he earned a master's degree in aeronautical engineering.

In 1996, he was one of 2,500 candidates to apply for 35 astronaut spots with NASA. He made the cut and has been training since.

"Anything's possible," he said. "There is a great amount of responsibility. It can motivate people. They can realize their dreams can come true."

To honor his Indian ancestry, Herrington said he plans to take eagle feathers on the mission.

Joyce Herrington said, "I'm very proud. I don't think I could be more proud."

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