KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla.—With an earth-rumbling roar, the space shuttle Endeavour took off at 7:50 pm (EST), Nov. 23, carrying astronaut John Herrington, the first enrolled American Indian to fly in space.
Eight and a half minutes after launch the main engines shut off and Herrington became weightless. The shuttle SST 113 is carrying a seven-man crew toward a rendezvous with the International Space Station.
When Herrington was assigned to the mission last year it was scheduled for September 2002. But somehow it seems appropriate that the mission's delays caused it to coincide with Native American month.
Herrington is the mission's flight engineer. In that role he sits on the flight deck behind commander Jim Wetherbee and pilot Paul Lockhart, assisting them during the shuttle's ascent. Herrington monitored the timeline and called out critical readings while the pilots monitored the shuttle's critical systems. Also on the shuttle's flight deck was Mike Lopez-Alegria. Sitting 'downstairs' on the shuttle's mid-deck was the most important 'cargo' for the mission, astronauts Ken Bowersox and Don Pettit and cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin. That trio forms the "Expedition 6" crew, which Herrington's crew is flying to the International Space Station Alpha.
The nighttime launch lit up the Central Florida skies, literally turning night into day for a couple of seconds. Because of the twelve-day delay, most of the VIPs who were in Florida for the first launch attempt couldn't stay or come back for the actual launch, although many of Herrington's family members were present.
NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe said, "On the original announced launch effort there was a tremendous contingent here from the Chickasaw nation as well as so many other Native Americans. I met the governor and lieutenant governor of the Chickasaw nation and they were just the most excited and delighted by the whole opportunity to see a member of their nation."
O'Keefe praised the "continuing support of native Americans in pursuing this set of opportunities and realizing it's well within reach by the quiet pursuit John demonstrates every day." The Chickasaw leaders "really accented [this] to me several times when I talked to them," he said.
About Herrington, O'Keefe said, "We are very, very proud of John. He's a remarkable guy. It's really remarkable to get a guy of his background and capability and certainly the excitement he has generated in his very quiet way - just by his competence and his extraordinary diligence in what he does and how well his does it. The motivation in the Native American community I think is really quite impressive."
O'Keefe added, "A member of my staff, Retha Whewell, a Mohawk, was here and is very excited by the historic demonstration of the native American community in seeing John Herrington's flight."
After the shuttle reached orbit, Capcom Duane Carey told the crew, "You're off to a great start; you really rocked the house with that ascent." The crew spent a couple of hours changing their rocket ship into a spaceship, folding and storing seats, putting away their bright orange launch and entry suits, and reconfiguring the shuttle's systems. About half of all space travelers feel slightly nauseous when they first arrive in space, but it generally goes away after a couple of days.
For his first meal in space Herrington selected smoked turkey, turkey Tetrazzini, broccoli au gratin, tortillas, a cherry blueberry cobbler and grape drink. Most of the food is freeze-dried, the same food available in camping stores. The smoked turkey is in a sealed foil pouch.
Then came what has to be the most challenging part of the mission - going to bed. Nov. 24 is certainly one of the most exciting days of Herrington's life - but he had to go to sleep just six hours after launch. By this point Herrington already has more time in space than John Glenn's 1962 Mercury space flight. The early bedtime is needed to keep the crew on the proper timetable for the mission's activities. They have to be awake for the launch, landing, docking and undocking.
See photos of Herrington on launch day.