KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. - After blasting off in the space shuttle Endeavour with an earth-rumbling roar, astronaut John Herrington is spending much of his mission in the solitude of space walks.
The first enrolled American Indian to fly in space, Herrington took off at 7:50 pm (EST), Nov. 23. By Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 28, he was already well into his second spacewalk. (The third was scheduled for Nov. 30)
When Herrington, an enrolled member of the Chickasaw Nation, 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.
Nov. 26 was the day Herrington hoped for since he was selected as an astronaut - his first spacewalk. When he was assigned to the STS-113 mission he said, "I'm so excited about it, you don't have a clue! I'm just tickled pink that I get the opportunity to do that." But by the time the hatch opened Herrington's vocabulary had decreased to a single word - "Unbelievable!" The hatch opened about 2:45 pm as the space station was over the Southern Pacific Ocean approaching the South American coast.
For the first several minutes Herrington marveled at the wonders of doing a spacewalk while also trying to concentrate on his tasks. Spacewalking partner Mike Lopez-Alegria, is a veteran of two previous spacewalks. He told Herrington "The biggest difference you're going to notice, John is the..."
Herrington quipped, "the Earth?"
Lopez-Alegria chuckled and replied, "Okay, the second biggest difference is you need brakes out here." Referring to their earth-bound training in a swimming pool, he said, "The dampening from the water. It feels to me I use more to advantage than I thought about." The large swimming pool simulated the weightless environment. But when you shove something underwater it quickly comes to a stop because of the water's density.
When Herrington was asked what he thought of the view he said, "The view is just phenomenal!"
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. 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 day after launch was spent with the shuttle performing rendezvous engine burns to catch up with the space station, checking out the shuttle's robot arm, and checking out Mike Lopez-Alegria's spacesuit. Contrary to NASA's status reports and public affairs commentary, John Herrington did not check out his spacesuit. His spacesuit was already waiting for him onboard the International Space Station. In fact it's been waiting for him since December 2001, just after he was assigned to this mission!
Endeavour docked to the International Space Station on Nov. 25 as the two spacecraft flew between Australia and New Zealand. By this time Herrington was an old hand at spaceflight, casually floating through the shuttle and space station with ease.
On the Nov. 26 spacewalk, Herrington had three key tasks to perform. The P1 Truss was launched with the Crew Equipment Translation Aid (CETA), basically an equipment cart. It had a set of shipping locks in place to prevent it from getting damaged during launch, and Herrington had to remove those locks. In addition, Herrington and Lopez-Alegria worked together to remove support rods which held the P1 Truss within the shuttle's cargo bay and installed a wireless television antenna which would permit future spacewalkers to transmit video of what they're seeing back to Mission Control.
By coincidence the capcom in mission control, the astronaut who talks directly to the crew, was NASA teacher-astronaut Barbara Morgan. Morgan's first job as a teacher was on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Arlee, Montana.
At one point Herrington had difficulties removing a pip pin, a small rod used to hold two items together. Finally he succeeded and exclaimed, "I have the pip pin," and Barbara Morgan replied, "Houston is very pleased." Herrington replied, "You aren't the only one."
Herrington's first spacewalk lasted six hours and 45 minutes. The additional spacewalks on Thanksgiving day and Nov. 30 were scheduled for the same length.
Nothing special was planned for Thanksgiving dinner though. The astronauts have the choice of adding turkey dinners to their menus, but something else would have to be taken off because of the limited amount of space available. The turkey dinner isn't anything special though - it's an off-the-shelf Dinty Moore box dinner. During his Thanksgiving spacewalk, Herrington had a drink he could sip and a snack bar inside his spacesuit. Most astronauts get a hearty breakfast before they get into their spacesuits and look forward to a decent dinner when the spacewalk is completed.
For the second spacewalk day Herrington selected his menu before the mission - a shrimp cocktail, ravioli, potatoes au gratin, tortillas, strawberries and lemonade.
After the launch, NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe said about Herrington, "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."