KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. - Space smells "like burnt metal, it actually does," Astronaut John Herrington told Indian Country Today in a recent exclusive interview about an amazing thirteen days - his first spaceflight on the STS-113 mission in November and December.
"The spacewalks were the high points of the mission," he said. "Every part was fabulous, everything had something unique about it, but the EVAs [Extravehicular Activities - NASA's official term for spacewalks] were certainly the high point for me.
"The work was phenomenal. The views were phenomenal. I had a chance to sit back and look over my shoulder at the horizon. The colors were just the most brilliant crystal clear colors you could imagine. The whites were incredibly white and the blacks were the darkest blacks you could see. The sounds and smells, the smell of space - how it smells like burnt metal, it actually does [when you come in after a spacewalk]."
Herrington, an enrolled member of the Chickasaw Nation, said he hadn't expected all of the interest from the American Indian community. He said "I didn't realize there'd be that much attention. I told people I'm humbled about it - humbled that there are that many people who seem to take an interest in it. And to make a difference in somebody's life, that's what's important."
Herrington's new assignment will be a 'capcom,' the astronaut in Mission Control who talks directly to the shuttle or space station. He said, "They need capcoms. I need to finish my postflight stuff first." The capcom is considered a fairly prestigious position and has the added advantage of less travel so Herrington can spend more time at home with his family.
Herrington is still finishing paperwork from the STS-113 mission and his various public relations responsibilities. Herrington's shuttle crew and several space station crewmembers recently went to the White House to meet President Bush. Herrington noted that he wishes he had the time to talk to all of the Native Indian groups who would like to talk to him, but doesn't have the time to fulfill every request while also doing his job. He said, "I've got all kind of requests and appearances cross country - which is great. I have to determine how many I can do and still maintain my job."
Astronauts actually spend very little of their time flying in space, or even assigned to a specific spaceflight. In between spaceflight assignments they have technical jobs where they support other missions or work on future projects. But Herrington's memories of his flight overshadow all his other work.
He said, "It was just a fabulous experience from the get-go. You train for it, it prepares you for the procedures, but not the sights and sounds. The sights and sounds are just awe surprising. The launch was very dynamic. Every movement of the vehicle is new and unique.
"Getting to orbit and transitioning from one G to three Gs to zero G is quite a challenge. I transitioned to zero G really quickly. I had a little bit of 'stomach awareness;' you realize there's something in your stomach but it's no longer at the bottom but kind of hanging around in the middle. It was an easy feeling to suppress and it passed really quickly. I felt great through the flight, a little congestion because of the microgravity and fluid shifts. Everything I had been told to expect."
What could top Herrington's thrills of flying and space and even greater amazement on his first spacewalk? The second spacewalk which featured two incredible events - looking out over the end of the space station and carrying a Crew Equipment Translation Aid (CETA) on the space station's robot arm in a big sweep from one side to the other.
During the mission Herrington told ICT, "When we started the CETA cart it was dark, but half way through the maneuver the sun rose and it just bathed the whole space station in a beautiful, beautiful glow of orange and then a brilliant white light. When I first climbed to the top of the P1 Truss I poked my head over the top and it was like I had my own wide-angle lens. Just a beautiful view of the Earth stretching from one side of the visor to the other, just a fabulous view. I'd like to think that my first climb up on P1 was the most exciting."
But spacewalks and being an astronaut isn't all glamour. Getting out of a spacesuit can be a challenge, and often a three-person task. Herrington said, "It was easy to get in [the spacesuit]; it was harder to get out. You can push yourself up into it, but you can't pull yourself out because gravity isn't assisting you. That was the hardest thing, Don [Pettit] wrapped his legs around me or put his foot on my waist and pushed down and had a hand on my head to push me out. That's how you have to do it. But it was a perfect fit. It worked out very well."
Once all three spacewalks were completed, and transfers from the shuttle to the space station or from the station to the shuttle were finished, it was time to come home. But the weather in Florida didn't cooperate so managers decided to keep the shuttle up and hope the weather would improve. Many members of the media were confused and thought the shuttle couldn't come home and was in danger. But the reality was simple - while the shuttle could have landed at the backup runway in California it would have cost about $1 million plus extra time to return the shuttle to Florida. As a bonus the crew got the chance to relax and look at the Earth.
Saturday, Dec. 7 was the decision day. And waiting for the weather to improve worked - the weather was almost perfect and Commander Jim Wetherbee brought Endeavour to a smooth landing in Florida.
As Herrington exited the shuttle he had a pleasant surprise. One of the members of the astronaut support team, Louise Kleba, Chippewa, was the engineer holding a duct which provided fresh air into the shuttle after landing. She was wearing her ribbon shirt and feathers. Herrington said, "That was great, Louise is a sweetheart, I think the world of her. It's nice to have good friends like that be there to share it with you."
For his first spaceflight Herrington logged 215 orbits around the Earth, traveling a distance of 5.7 million miles. His three spacewalks totaled 19 hours and 5 minutes, making him the 19th most experienced American spacewalker.