KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. - The space shuttle Endeavour landed at the Kennedy Space Center Dec. 7 at 2:37 p.m. EST, completing John Herrington's first spaceflight. The Chickasaw astronaut traveled 5.7 million miles in his 215 orbits around the Earth, flying over almost all of North America dozens of times. The only portions of Indian country not covered by Herrington's mission were Alaska and northern Canada.
An Indian was waiting for Herrington and his crew as they left the shuttle. Louise Kleba, Chippewa, was aboard the Crew Transport Vehicle, a laboratory on wheels, which drives up to the shuttle's hatch. Kleba, wearing her native ribbons, was kneeling by the hatch and holding a duct that provided fresh air into the crew cabin after landing.
Among the spectators viewing the landing was Deborah Coombs, Oglala Lakota, who works on the shuttle's parachutes. Each solid rocket booster has a set of parachutes. In addition the shuttle has a drag chute which is deployed when the shuttle lands. She said, "It's just a deeper feeling - one of your own, finally a Native American. It's so important Native Americans be recognized in what they do."
So what was it like to see her parachutes help slow the shuttle down? Coombs said, "I felt pride. We see these chutes as they come into us, we see the packers pack them, repair them, make new parts as needed, and to see it deploy right there first hand is a good feeling - it's exciting."
The STS-113 mission was supposed to land Dec. 4 but bad weather kept the shuttle in space an additional three days. NASA prefers to land the shuttle in Florida to avoid the expenses and delays to the turnaround schedule for the next flight that result if the shuttle lands at the alternate site in California. So as long as supplies hold out, the shuttle can wait for acceptable weather. Herrington's mission set a new record for the number of extensions.
Because of orbital mechanics, most of the shuttle's passes over the United States while the crew was awake were at night, especially during the spacewalks. But the additional days in space permitted the Earth to rotate enough to result in daytime passes. Herrington grew up in a wide variety of locations. He was born in Oklahoma and lived in Colorado, Wyoming and Texas as the family moved to follow his father's work.
Herrington said, "One pass we were coming over Mexico and I looked on World Map (a computer program which calculates the shuttle's position and orbit) and I could see we were passing right over Houston, so you get the cameras ready. I realized I was looking out at Edwards Plateau and I could see San Antonio past Dallas. It's amazing. I thought about my sister, who just had a baby, (she's) still in Austin. So I took some long distance shots with a 400-mm (lens) and a Hasselblad, and then some really nice photos of Houston.
"It was really, really neat to be able to realize - Hey, I used to stomp around down there, and I've got family stomping down there and friends. It's moving, it's a really moving experience to be able to look down and see where you've been."
The next orbit over North America was just as spectacular. Herrington continued, "I was on the ergometer (exercise bicycle) pedaling past Australia. I pedaled from Australia to just about the coast of California. I knew we were going to pass over Colorado and I had the cameras ready. Then came California before I knew it. There's the Rocky Mountains, there's Pike's Peak, I took a great photo of Colorado Springs and Black Forest. It's moving, it's a very moving experience."
Any spacecraft in low earth orbit travels at 17,500 miles per hour, so every three minutes Herrington's shuttle flew the distance of the "Trail of Tears" - but going the opposite direction, from Oklahoma to the East.
Herrington is the 70th person to do a spacewalk using the shuttle's spacesuit. His three spacewalks totaled 19 hours and 55 minutes, making him the 19th most experienced U.S. spacewalker. His partner, Mike Lopez-Alegria, has a total of 33 hours and 58 minutes on his five spacewalks (including two from a previous mission), making him the fifth most experienced U.S. spacewalker.
Herrington's spacesuit set its own record. It was launched to the space station in December 2001 and was already used four times before Herrington first saw it aboard the space station. So it's NASA's most experienced spacesuit, with a total of seven spacewalks by four different people.
So what happens now? Herrington will get a little time off, and plenty of paperwork to complete for post-flight debriefings. The crew will visit the various NASA centers responsible for making their mission possible to personally thank the workers. In addition Herrington will make several official public relations trips, especially to return special items he carried into space like flags for the Chickasaw and Crow nations.
In a couple of months Herrington will be given a new technical assignment. He may become a capcom, the astronaut in Mission Control who talks to the shuttle or space station, or technical representative to one of the major contractors, or be asked to go to Russia and help support future long-term space station crews, or be asked to take a temporary management assignment. Eventually he should get another spaceflight assignment, either another short-term space shuttle mission or possibly a long-term space station flight. He does have one advantage over other astronauts. NASA prefers to assign an experienced spacewalker to work with an astronaut who hasn't performed a spacewalk, similar to the way Lopez-Alegria and Herrington were paired. So Herrington may get assigned to do additional spacewalks on his next mission.