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Herrington mission preview

Kennedy Space Center, Fla. - Navy Commander John Bennett Herrington, the first tribally enrolled American Indian astronaut, was scheduled for his first space flight, a spectacular early morning blast-off aboard the space shuttle Endeavour, on Nov. 11.

Representatives from all over Indian country were invited by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to witness the launch from the VIP stadium on Banana Creek. They ranged from student winners of essay contests to dignitaries of the Chickasaw Nation, which claims Herrington on his mother's side. Born in Wetumka, Okla., in 1958, Herrington is an enrolled member of the Chickasaw Nation.

Inside the shuttle, formally called by NASA the STS-113, Herrington will be prepared to realize what he had hoped for since becoming an astronaut in 1996, a "good spaceflight assignment." Herrington said that on his rookie flight he had hoped either to get a spacewalk or be assigned as a flight engineer. On his very first spaceflight he will do both.

"If I can be [the flight engineer] or walk in space that would be fantastic," he told Indian Country Today "I get to do both. Isn't that something? I couldn't ask for more."

Herrington's double duty results from NASA's decision to make the STS-113 mission the first that will both perform space station assembly tasks and exchange long-duration crews. As a result the crew faces a heavy workload, and an unusual amount of planning has preceded the launch.

On launch and entry Herrington will be the flight engineer assisting pilots Jim Wetherbee and Paul Lockhart. Herrington will read out checklists and critical instrument displays to assist the pilots during the eight-and-a-half minute climb to space. At the space station, he will become the ultimate Indian high-steel worker. The construction plans call on him to take part in three spacewalks, including a spectacular ride on the station's robot arm in which he will be looking over the assembly into the depths of the universe.

After the shuttle arrives on orbit the crew will convert their rocket ship into a spaceship. They will get out of their orange launch and entry suits (nicknamed pumpkin suits for obvious reasons), fold and store most of the seats and do other maintenance tasks. For the rookie Herrington it will be an amazing experience adapting to space, taking in the wonders and adjusting to being weightless. He has been weightless for up to 30 seconds in aircraft flying on paths which cancel the effects of gravity but this will be his first prolonged exposure. About half of the astronauts encounter queasy stomachs or disorientation and may get sick. It generally takes a day or two to recover completely.

Herrington's first meal in space will consist of smoked turkey, turkey Tetrazzini, broccoli au gratin, tortillas, a cherry blueberry cobbler and grape drink. Most of the food is freeze-dried, the same type available in camping stores. The smoked turkey is in a sealed foil pouch.

Then comes the most challenging part of the mission - going to bed. It will certainly be one of the most exciting days of Herrington's life - but he has to go to sleep just six hours after launch. By this point Herrington will already have logged more time in space than John Glenn on his 1962 Mercury spaceflight. The early bedtime is needed to keep the crew on the proper timetable for the mission's activities. The crew has to be awake for the launch, landing, docking and undocking. So space station missions required the crew to go to sleep shortly after the shuttle arrives on orbit.

As spacewalkers, Herrington and his partner Michael Lopez-Alegria will make three six-and-a-half hour EVAs on the outside. They'll be assisted by Paul Lockhart inside the crew cabin. Lockhart will monitor the checklist and what the spacewalkers are doing.

During the three spacewalks, Herrington and Lopez-Alegria will do something no other astronauts have done - work on the outside on all seven U.S. components. They'll start off by exiting the space station's airlock. The airlock hatch faces down towards the Earth and that first step is a long one - 240 miles to the ground. Assuming the launch takes place on time and the hatch is opened on schedule, the first view will be the southern Pacific Ocean, a couple of minutes before the space station passes into darkness.

Herrington will remove four locks, which hold a movable tool cart in place for launch. Next Herrington and Lopez-Alegria will remove additional equipment required for launch but not required in orbit and install a wireless video antenna. That antenna will permit spacewalkers to transmit videos back to the ground.

The second spacewalk will start with the astronauts acting as high-tech plumbers. They'll install hoses between the brand-new P1 truss their mission is bringing to the space station and the S0, which is already in place. Next is the removal of the V-shaped keel pins that held the truss within the shuttle's cargo bay. The two astronauts will board a manually operated work cart with Lopez-Alegria holding the keel pin. Herrington will move hand-over-hand to pull himself, the cart, Lopez-Alegria, and the keel pin to the proper location where the keel pin will be stored. Spacewalk officer Dana Weigel said, "it's basically like having a little red wagon attached to your feet"

A second wireless video antenna will be installed at the far end of the P1 truss. Herrington will release a set of clamps to prepare for a future shuttle mission and test a set of latches, which will be used to attach future space station components. Herrington will be at the end of the 42-foot truss - over 50 feet from the airlock. When he looks out over the end of the truss he will be looking out at the entire universe - and nothing.

He said, "I have the opportunity to poke my head over the side of the truss into nothing. So it will be real exciting for me." Later space station flights will add additional trusses and solar arrays to that location.

Then will come what will certainly be the most thrilling panorama ever, far better than any other spacewalker has ever experienced. Herrington will stand on a platform attached to the end of the space station robot arm and grab on to the work cart the spacewalkers used to store the keel pin. The robot arm will move him from one side of the space station to the opposite side - a total distance of about 45 to 50 feet. But the arm has to go through a long arc to avoid running into anything else and in the process Herrington will be tipped upside down and upright again

In space the 600-pound cart won't weigh anything, but it will still have all of its momentum so he'll have to be careful how he handles it. It's similar to pushing a sled on a frozen lake or a heavily loaded shopping cart. Once you get it moving, it takes only a little force to keep it moving but you'll feel all of its momentum and mass when you try to stop rapidly. So the trick is to use very gentle small motions, just holding on by your fingertips.

It isn't difficult if you know how to handle a large mass in space so Herrington can take in the view, - and it's going to be spectacular. Astronaut Don Pettit will operate the robot arm very slowly and carefully. It will take about five minutes for Pettit to move Herrington away from the space station, then about 15 minutes through an arc to the other side, and another five minutes to fine-position Herrington next to the truss on the opposite side. As Pettit put it, it's enough time to go to the refrigerator and get a snack.

Pettit quipped, "And while John's getting this great view on the arm, he has to remember that there's a scientist driving it, so that will probably be the scariest part of the mission for John."

Herrington replied, "I'm just looking forward to the ride, even with a scientist running the arm. Don and I have worked really well together in the pool and the Virtual Reality lab. He seems to know what I'm thinking and we work together really well."

Herrington has a pretty good idea of what the move is going to be like because of high quality virtual-reality simulations. But the real view and sensations will certainly be far more impressive than a computer simulation. He said, "I'm going to have a very unique perspective on the station which very few other people have had."

After the robot arm arrives in the proper location, the spacewalkers will attach it to its proper location on the space station's truss.

For the third spacewalk Herrington and Lopez-Alegria will install several adapters on existing space station plumbing. Engineers noticed a design flaw in the connectors used to hook up the fluid lines, which go between the various modules. Under certain circumstances the lines can be over-pressurized making them very difficult to remove, similar to trying to unscrew a garden hose while the valve is open and the hose is very stiff. But instead of water these lines carry ammonia which is used to cool the space station's electronics and cabin. Engineers designed Spool Positioning Devices, which fit over the connectors to solve the problem. Most of the third spacewalk will be spent installing these adapters around the space station's exterior.

There's one extremely tricky area where three modules intersect and there's lots of plumbing and electrical cables nicknamed the 'rats nest' for how it looks. Lopez-Alegria will install the adapters in that area because of an extremely simple reason. Herrington said "My arms are too short to reach into the 'rats nest'" Lopez-Alegria noted, "I don't have particularly long arms, but at least they're longer than John's."

Besides his spacewalking tasks Herrington will assist the pilots during the shuttle's rendezvous and docking with the space station and during the undocking. He's also responsible for hooking up the computer network, which is used for the handful of laptop computers, the off-the-shelf inkjet printer used to printout messages from the ground and a handheld LASER. The LASER is identical to the units used by police to catch speeders. Herrington will aim it outside of the shuttle's window at the space station to give the pilots an accurate distance away from their destination.

While Herrington is busy with his activities the other astronauts will be using a pair of robot arms (one on the shuttle and one on the space station) to maneuver the P1 truss into place, transferring cargo to and from the shuttle, moving into the space station for a long term stay in space, moving from the space station over to the shuttle to prepare to come home, and making sure the shuttle and space station are both properly maintained. An amazing space flight for any rookie astronaut.