|FLAGSTAFF — At one point in his life, Commander John Herrington thought there was no better
way to make a living than rappelling down the face of a cliff as part of survey crew.
In some ways, he says, he was right. But Herrington hopes to leave behind the cliffs of his youth for a new challenge as part of another survey crew — on the surface of Mars.
Herrington spoke to a packed auditorium on the Northern Arizona University campus on June 29 as part of the Stargazers program, which is designed to expose Native American high school students to both modern and ancient star knowledge, including knowledge passed down in their own cultures.
Herrington himself is one-eighth Native American; he is an enrolled member of the Chickasaw tribe and he is the only Native American astronaut.
But Herrington was on-hand to help change that, encouraging all the students in the audience, Native and non-Native alike, to pursue careers in space exploration.
"I'm here,” he said, “to give the human aspect of the space program, to give people a face to identify with.”
Herrington pointed out that he was not always focused on a career with NASA, although he did have an interest in space and in flying. As a child, he would even stuff beetles into the payload of toy rockets, “not out of malice,” but to see how they would react once back on the ground.
But his youth was “migratory” — his family moved 14 times before he graduated from high school. As a result, he said, he was known “as the kid who moves a lot,” and not as someone who had particular interests or talents, and he himself did not know that he had a marked talent for math and science.
Once he graduated high school, Herrington’s parents stipulated that he must attend college. “My wife says I should never show this picture,” he said, bringing up the slide of the college-aged Herrington with long hair and a mustache, a Herrington who was kicked out of school for academics. He had, he said, been rock climbing instead and could imagine nothing better.
Herrington took a job in Dallas as a chef after leaving school, for the “worst four months of his life,” before landing a job where he could use his rock climbing skills — as part of a survey crew. But scaling canyon walls was only one aspect of the job. Herrington also had to use math, but differently than in school, he said. Here, it was applied math; here, it made sense to him. And it was here, for the first time, that someone asked him what he wanted to do with his life.
He was told to go back to school, to become an engineer. “If it weren't for him,” said Herrington, “I wouldn't be here wearing this blue flight suit.”
Once back in school, Herrington met another influential man, who convinced him to join the Navy, where he became a Navy aviator. Then he became a test pilot, flying over 30,000 planes and relating what he learned about them to engineers. That experience, he said, taught him a lot, and revealed one important fact — many NASA astronauts had been test pilots first.
He went to school to get his masters, and in 1996, was selected to join NASA in a class of 44 students.
Now, Herrington lives and works in Houston as a mission specialist, aiding with the shuttle launches. He himself hopes to go on three or four missions, hopes to help build and live on the next space station, and, someday, hopes he to be one of the first astronauts to land on Mars.
Mars, says Herrington, is the “most earth-like planet.” There is more evidence that Mars once had water, a fact which lends credence to the idea that Mars once had life. If that is the case, says Herrington, it will irrevocably change how we see ourselves.
Space is, in fact, full of the potential to change how we think. There are 1500 galaxies, he says, in a section of space that is the equivalent to Lincoln's eye on the penny. The chance that there is life within just that space is “very, very good.”
Right now, it will take us 69 months to travel to Mars, and the effects on a human body in space for that long are unknown. With new propulsion systems, though, that time could be decreased to 3 months, and it is must a matter of time until those systems are developed, says Herrington.
Still, Herrington acknowledges that he may not be the one to go. “Maybe it will be the kids I talk to in class. Maybe if they meet the right people, and take the right classes,” those kids will be the ones to reach Mars, he says.
In the meantime, our presence in space can teach us much, says Herrington, simply because there is no gravity. Studies can be done on proteins, on the human body, and perhaps, even on the beetles of Herrington’s youth.
“We are separated from space only by this thin blue line,” says Herrington, pointing to a slide of earth as seen from space.
And if people take the time to make a difference in kids lives, kids from all walks of life, that is a line that they too can cross.
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