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Herrington space flight delayed: NASA works to fix leak on shuttle

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KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. - Indian Country was holding its breath at press time to see if the first tribal member to go into space would fly on a rescheduled Nov. 18 launch. Although the oxygen leak that postponed the first launch Nov. 11 has been fixed, an accident during the repairs might have damaged another crucial piece of equipment, the robot arm in the shuttle bay, and technicians were trying to assess if it could still be used as is.

Just as an honoring ceremony was ending for Astronaut John Herrington on Nov. 10 and less than three hours before his first flight into space, NASA engineers detected an oxygen leak in the space shuttle Endeavour and postponed the mission.

According to close observers of the space program, odds are 50-50 that a shuttle mission will launch on schedule.

The launch was scrubbed just as a ceremony was wrapping up to honor Herrington as a role model for American Indians. Herrington, a commander in the U. S. Navy, is enrolled in the Chickasaw Nation, which sent over 200 members, including students and elders, to witness the launch in Florida.

Over 1,500 American Indians affiliated with other tribes also attended the program, which included a weekend conference on Indian opportunities with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

In the honoring ceremony, a trio of Seminole war veterans presented the flags of the United States, Florida and the Seminole nation. Miss Navajo Nation Radmilla Cody sang the "Star Spangled Banner" in the Dine' language. Jerry Elliot, a 40-year veteran with NASA, presented a flute solo and Buffy Sainte-Marie sang "Up Where We Belong." The Chickasaw Dance Troupe put on a demonstration with the participation of Herrington's parents.

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Chickasaw governor Bill Anoatubby said about Herrington, "[he 's] a source of pride to us. He's a role model for our youth. Anybody who has missed a goal and decided it's really tough - you know that you can pick up again and start going and get back in the groove and get it done. He's certainly a source of pride for us because he's Chickasaw and a Native American. He's a source of pride for all Native Americans."

The astronauts were released from their preflight quarantine, which prevents anybody with an illness from passing it on to the astronaut. Herrington was able to spend a short time with his two daughters and his wife Debra. Then the crew flew back to the Johnson Space Center in Houston and re-entered quarantine where they'll remain for several days before flying back to Florida for the next launch attempt.

Herrington and his six crewmates were entering the space shuttle when the final check detected a leak in the plumbing that supplies oxygen to the crew cabin. The space shuttle has two separate sets of metal hoses that transfer oxygen from storage spheres underneath the shuttle's cargo bay into the crew cabin. Ultimately engineers decided that caution was the better choice and scrubbed the launch for the day.

Finding the leak was easy. Technicians gained access to the cargo bay on Nov. 12 with a special platform that reaches into the shuttle's cargo bay, similar to a diving board. Technicians planned to use a mass spectrometer, an electronic 'nose' similar to the device an auto mechanic would use to test a car's air conditioning system to see if it is leaking Freon. In the case of the shuttle, pressurized helium is forced through the system and a technician holds a mass spectrometer next to the hose.

But when technicians gained access to the area they could clearly hear a hissing sound coming from the faulty hose. Unfortunately their work platform accidentally scuffed the shuttle's robot arm. As we went to press engineers were examining the arm to see if it was damaged. The robot arm is highly delicate, designed to be used only in space, and a team of technicians was dispatched to Florida from the Canadian company that made it to give it a careful examination.

NASA is officially saying the planning date for the next launch attempt is no earlier than Nov. 18. To make that date managers would have to make the decision quickly that the arm is not damaged and to button up the shuttle, reload its supplies and restart the countdown.

The Nov. 18 launch would coincide with the annual Leonid meteor shower, which NASA has decided would not threaten the shuttle. Along with sightings of the shuttle and the space station, it would, however, make a spectacular two nights of sky-watching.