On Dec. 7, 2002 John Herrington put his feet down again on Mother Earth. Herrington had been 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 made 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. The total mission duration was 13 days, 18 hours and 47 minutes.
While many of us have 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."
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