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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


February 23, 2002 - Issue 55


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Indian Astronaut Visits Lodge Grass

by James Hagengruber Of The Billings Gazette Staff
credits: Larry Mayer/Gazette Staff
NASA astronaut John Herrington, center poses for a photograph Tuesday with kindergarten students at Lodge Grass School.
NASA astronaut John Herrington, center poses for a photograph Tuesday with kindergarten students at Lodge Grass School. LODGE GRASS, MT - U.S Navy Cmdr. John Herrington has hunted Russian submarines, broken the sound barrier and will soon be the first American Indian in space.

But one basic question kept arising during his visits with students Tuesday in Lodge Grass.

"How will you go to the bathroom in space?"

Aiming is everything, Herrington said, laughing. Astronauts even practice avoiding messes by using a camera-equipped toilet bowl at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston.

"On earth, gravity is your friend in the bathroom," he said.

Herrington, a 43-year-old enrolled member of Oklahoma's Chickasaw Tribe, will blast off in the space shuttle Sept. 6. He traveled to Lodge Grass to meet with students – many of whom are Crow – after being invited by a group of teachers, including Lisa Smith, Colleen Brien and John Pilch.

Pilch, a junior high science teacher, said students connected with Herrington's background and story.

"He shows it doesn't matter where you come from or what your interests area, if you work hard enough, you can make your dreams come true," Pilch said.

Even with his American Indian heritage and features, Herrington's blue fireproof flight suit and polished combat boots made it difficult to walk through the halls of the southern Montana school unnoticed.

"That's the astronaut! That's the astronaut!" a group of first-graders yelled as Herrington entered an auditorium to give a presentation.

Herrington showed video footage from shuttle missions and told the students he was once like them – even those getting bad grades. As a young boy growing up in Riverton, Wyo., he would sit in a cardboard box in his backyard pretending to fly to the moon. He built model rockets, stashing beetles in the tiny payload compartment.

But his dreams of space travel nearly crashed because of discouragement from a teacher who told him he wasn't smart enough to take algebra. He said he still hoped to be an astronaut, but eventually told himself, "I could never do that."

Herrington went to college but was soon kicked out because of bad grades. He moved from Colorado to Texas and began working long, late hours as a chef in a restaurant. After work, he partied until dawn.

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

A friend called him and convinced him to move back to Colorado to earn money using his rock climbing skills to survey a canyon for a highway project. Herrington eventually returned to the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, paying his tuition by shampooing carpets, selling knives and ushering at hockey games. During his senior year, he worked as a math tutor, where he met a man who had flown fighter planes during World War II. After earning his degree in applied mathematics, Herrington completed the US Navy's Officer Candidate School and quickly found his passion in the skies.

He stuck with the Navy flying submarine-hunting missions off Alaska and also worked as a test pilot. In 1996 he was one of 2,500 to apply for 35 astronaut spots with NASA. He made the cut and has been training ever since.

"Anything's possible," Herrington said. "You need to work hard. You need to listen to all the people around you."

Herrington returns to Houston today to continue his intensive training flying simulated shuttle missions. In less than eight months, Mission Specialist Herrington will be strapped into the space shuttle and will hear the crackling noise as the rockets fire up.

If the launch is at night, the glare from the flames will be bright enough to fool fish in nearby waterways to think it's day, causing them to jump, Herrington said. The shuttle will go from 0 to 17,500 mph in eight minutes.

"I'll be able to look back down and see Lodge Grass," Herrington said.

In space, Herrington will embark on three spacewalks, lasting a combined 18 hours. His job will be to affix special radiators to the International Space Station. Although he described his job as a "glorified wrench turner," the task will be anything but easy. Metal tools and parts of the space station are 200 degrees when exposed to sunlight, making prolonged contact painful. The thick space suit offers some protection, but previous astronauts have had their fingers scraped raw by the gloves.

Herrington will carry a small bundle of personal items into space, including eagle feathers and a flag from the Crow Tribe. He told the students to be proud of their heritage and language. Herrington's family moved away from Oklahoma when he was 1. He never had the opportunity to learn his tribe's language or the intricacies of tribal ceremonies.

"Everyone here is really fortunate," he said. "You get to learn your language and where you came from. I wish I had a chance to do that."

Herrington drew loud applause with his remark: "I know who I am, I'm proud of where I came from."

Sophomore Marcia Blacksmith said she has always been interested in astronomy, but Herrington convinced her to consider traveling to space, rather than peering at it through a telescope.

"He was inspiring," she said.

First-grader Joni Gutierrez had similar feelings.

"When I grow up, I'm going to be like him," she said.

Lodge Grass, MT Map

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