As a national news leader in the American Indian community Indian Country Today was invited by NASA to interview astronaut John Herrington during the STS-113 shuttle mission. The interview took place on December 1st as the space station flew over the Pacific Ocean off the coast of South America, just south of the equator. A digital recording of the interview is available on the Indian Country Today website.
ICT: This is Tim Johnson, executive editor of Indian Country Today, and a Mohawk from Six Nations of the Grand River. On behalf of our newspaper's national network, first of all, I want to congratulate the entire crew of the space shuttle Endeavour on your successful mission.
Commander Herrington, as the first American Indian to travel into space, I'm sure you realize how very proud you have made all of Indian country. There are many stories within our cultures that speak of the Skyworld. So my first question is philosophical. Please describe as best you can what you are seeing and feeling as you look down upon our Mother Earth from the Skyworld.
JH: The first time I had the opportunity to look out the window was on flight day 1. I was amazed at how massive the Earth is and looking at the atmosphere how it [is] so small relative to the rest of the Earth and to realize how insignificant we are in the great scheme of things. In a spiritual sense it makes you appreciate how grand the grand scheme is of Mother Earth.
ICT: What inspired you to carry the various Native objects which you are flying?
JH: There are a lot of reasons. I've been presented some beautiful mementos that represent a lot of Indian country. There's an eagle feather, a flute, arrowheads, and some sweet grass that I think represents a lot of the spiritual sense we all feel.
ICT: Would you have liked to have taken tobacco along with you and could you explain the difference between its sacramental use and the bad habit of cigarette smoking?
JH: I did have some and recognize it's something we can't fly. I understand the fact that we use it for purification and understand the significance of that, but a lot of folks don't recognize that we do use it in a spiritual sense. Just prior to flight [with] a very good friend of mine at Kennedy Space Center, we smudged outside of crew quarters prior to flight, recognizing using smoke for purification.
ICT: How does it feel to be one of the first Indian steelworkers or construction workers in space? You've obviously taken that tradition to new heights.
JH: I was really fortunate to travel to the Akwesasne Mohawk reservation in upstate New York two years ago. I saw a small monument to a town of steelworkers that had perished on a bridge that had collapsed in New York State. I thought about that as I'm working up here. I'm working on something that's really considered high steel and in my thoughts [are] condolences to those folks that perished in that mishap.
ICT: How much more difficult was it to install the SPDs (Spool Position Devices) free-floating since you didn't have the use of the robot arm?
JH: All during training that was probably one of the hardest tasks we had. That's why we went to use the arm. The access is so poor and the possibility that of contacting the radiators with your body drove us to use the arm. But once we were in a position where we couldn't [use the arm] we had to improvise and do the best we could and I think it worked out really well.
ICT: What was more thrilling for you ? looking off the end of the P1 Truss or moving the CETA (Crew Equipment Translation Aid) cart from one side to the other?
JH: 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.
ICT: My 12-year-old daughter Chelsey Johnson, Oneida and Bear Clan, and her school Emily C. General, would like to know why did you want to become an astronaut? I'm sure many Indian kids across North America would like to know the answer to the same question.
JH: I dreamed about becoming an astronaut when I was about eight years old. [My brother Jim and I] used to sit in a cardboard box in Black Forest Colorado and dream we were Apollo astronauts going to the moon back in the '60s. But I never thought it was a dream that would turn into reality until about the time I was a test pilot and realized that a lot of the folks that had gone before us to test pilot school were the astronauts that I had admired so much in the 60s. So I strove from that point on.
ICT: Is there anything you want to tell American Indians about your experiences?
JH: It is probably the most fulfilling thing that I have done in my professional career, flying in space. Not just to live in space but to do productive work. I think it's the most important thing we can do up here is show what we're doing is very productive and will lead to greater gains and possibly leaving low Earth orbit and long duration spaceflight. I think it's the work we do up here is the most promising.
ICT: Thank you very much Commander Herrington and the rest of the crew for your time, we wish you a good flight and a gentle landing.
JH: Thank you very much, appreciate it.