HOUSTON - For Astronaut John Herrington, November will always be remembered as a special month. November 23, 2002 was his maiden launch into space, aboard the space shuttle Endeavour on the STS-113 mission. This year Herrington is finding himself very much in demand as a public speaker for Native American History month. Herrington, one eighth Chickasaw and the first tribally enrolled astronaut, said he's doing about eight speaking engagements to public groups ranging from students on the Navajo reservation to employees at NASA who worked on his mission. On Nov. 6, Herrington talked to the Native American Tribal Council at the Kennedy Space Center and the National Management Association. Many of the people in attendance were responsible for Herrington's launch and landing.
Many American Indians traveled to the dinner to meet Herrington. The Chickasaw Nation sent their dancers and several members including Eula "Pearl" Scott, a pioneer aviator and former Chickasaw legislator. The Lakota nation presented Herrington with a Star quilt, several Native musicians played, and traditional dances were performed by several groups. Herrington was asked to join in the Chickasaw dance of honor along with a drum performance by Southern Sun.
Ironically Herrington was the person who almost couldn't make it. Herrington is qualified to fly a T-38 training jet and uses it for official travel. While it may sound glamorous to have a high-performance jet for transportation the T-38s can be affected by weather more than larger commercial planes. Herrington got caught in bad weather over Mississippi which resulted in his late arrival, just as the dinner was ending. But Herrington entertained the crowd, including playing a flute he took into space, and made sure everybody went away happy. He stayed late and everyone who wanted to had the opportunity to talk to him, shake his hand, pose for an autograph, and talk to him.
Each astronaut is permitted to carry two personal items of a souvenir nature which can be accessed during the mission. Herrington chose an eagle feather and a hand-made flute. Because of the busy schedule during the mission he didn't get the opportunity to take them out until the day before the shuttle undocked from the space station. Fellow astronaut Don Pettit is a big fan of the Didgeridoo, an Australian Aboriginal wind instrument. Herrington and Pettit decided to do a musical duet. Pettit had brought along a Didgeridoo for his long term space station stay but it was still packed away. So Pettit improvised and found a vacuum cleaner hose. Herrington said that he played the flute while Pettit "played" the vacuum cleaner hose aboard the space station. Fellow astronaut Mike Lopez-Alegria floated by and was astonished to see his crewmates doing their unusual musical duet.
Herrington announced that he's decided to donate the eagle feather and flute to the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian for display.
Besides those items accessible during the mission astronauts are permitted to carry several additional souvenirs for their schools, families, friends, and organizations which are special to them. Among other items Herrington carried flags for the Chickasaw and Crow nations and another flute. After the mission Herrington sent the second flute back to its craftsman, Jim Gilliland. Gilliland commented "One of these days John and I are going to sit down with a bunch of pieces of cane and just relax and make some flutes."
Herrington noted how much the world has changed in his career as a Navy officer. While on active duty in the Navy he flew anti-submarine patrols, "my job was to kill Russians if necessary" he notes. But in contrast Russia's a major partner now in the International Space Station project and Herrington flew in space with three Russian cosmonauts. He noted "They're just like us - they love their country and their work. They're hard working and dedicated," he added. "And thank heavens they're there now to support the space station." Because of the Columbia accident on Feb. 1 the space shuttle fleet has been indefinitely grounded and all deliveries of supplies and replacement crews to and from the space station have been via Russian rockets.
The easiest question Herrington was asked was would he do it again? "Absolutely, I loved it," Herrington said.