KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. - Everybody knows John Herrington is the first tribally enrolled astronaut. But he's much more than that.
Herrington grew up in an era when many American Indians were encouraged to keep quiet about their cultural background. So Herrington was not exposed to Indian customs. But when he was a teenager, his mother, one-quarter Chickasaw, told him and his brother Jim that they should enroll in the tribe because they should be aware of their heritage.
Herrington said, "I know what my heritage is, that's who I am. If I go to New Mexico and I meet people who have grown up and lived all of their lives on reservations, I can meet my uncle. Identical, same type of person, same personality. We just didn't grow up in that environment. It's just a part of you.
"I identify with all of the people I meet, because we're all the same. Be they Hopi, or Eskimo, or Mohawk. You meet the people and you have this connection and say, 'yeah that makes sense
to me,' and you realize there is a connection no matter where you're from."
Like typical Americans, many astronauts have a small amount of Indian blood, but none have identified themselves as Native. Many believed that early shuttle astronaut Robert Crippen was a Native American but he recently did some genealogy research and is fairly certain he doesn't have any Indian blood. Certainly Crippen never claimed that he had any Indian blood.
Herrington said he didn't realize at first that he was the first American Indian astronaut. "It wasn't until I got here [at NASA] that I was told that," he said. "I didn't intend to be a role model when I came here. But I think it's a very important thing to do. I think it means a lot to a lot of people. If what I do makes a difference to somebody and they can realize their dreams, that's what's important."
And the Chickasaw Nation is certainly proud of its kinship with John Herrington.
But John Herrington is an individual with many different interests. He loves the outdoors and working with his hands. He said, "I loved to ride bikes. I've been skiing since I was a little kid, about fourth grade. I just love things outdoors. Even today I've got a kayak. I don't climb as much as I used to, wish I had. There's not much rocks in [Houston] Texas."
Herrington's love for climbing led to his first career. After dropping out of college, he worked for an engineering company surveying the land for Interstate 70. Herrington would climb down the face of a mountain and hold a grapefruit size prism in his hand. Another surveyor would aim a Laser at Herrington's prism to measure the distance. It was a high school geometry problem - calculating the unknown length of a side of a triangle in a real-life situation. Herrington said, "I learned trigonometry on the side of a rock pretty much."
"I love to work on cars, I rebuilt a Volkswagen from the ground up. I loved building things. I built a 600-square-foot deck. I like doing that kind of work. Like what I did [when building the highway]. Working with your hands and knowing your surroundings."
Aviation has been part of Herrington's life since he was a child. He attended many air shows as a child, and his father taught him how to fly. However he didn't actually fly solo until he joined the Navy.
As a five- or six-year old, Herrington was at an air show at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs. He said, "When I was a real little I have a home movie of me walking up the ladder of an airplane at an air show. The squadron emblem on the side of the plane was one I was an instructor at 25 years later."
Not surprisingly many of NASA's astronauts already know each other from their careers before they became astronauts. Fellow spacewalker Mike Lopez-Alegria knew Herrington when both were stationed at Patuxent River, Maryland, for three months.
Herrington was selected as an astronaut in 1996. The class had 44 candidates, the largest number NASA selected in its history. At that point NASA had anticipated larger crews on the space station and more shuttle flights and expected a need for more astronauts. Since the class was so large they were nicknamed the "sardines" (as in how tightly they would need to be packed to fit into the shuttle - or even a conference room - at the same time.)
After the class completed basic astronaut training, members were given various technical assignments. Some worked as support members for crews preparing for upcoming shuttle missions. Others were assigned to act as technical advisors for engineers and scientists working on the shuttle and space station. They would provide inputs from an astronaut's point of view. In many cases an astronaut will use expertise from their career before becoming an astronaut. Herrington's Masters thesis was on using Global Positioning Satellites for navigation systems, and he was assigned to work with the engineers developing similar systems for the space station. So even before he was assigned to STS-113 some of his work was already felt on the space station.
But his most memorable assignment was the two-and-a-half years serving as the "Cape Crusader." No, he didn't wear a Batman costume. He worked at the "Cape" (the nickname for Cape Canaveral) helping shuttle crews prepare for their space flights. So Herrington helped several of his classmates and other astronauts get into the shuttle for their missions. He said, "The chance I had to work here for two and a half years as the Cape Crusader was one of the fabulous times I had in my career."
By coincidence three other members of Herrington's astronaut class will be with him in space. Peggy Whitson is a member of the Expedition 5 crew already living on the space station. Pilot Paul Lockhart is also a member of the 1996 class, as is Don Pettit, a member of the Expedition 6 crew. This will mark the first time four 'sardines' have been in space at the same time. It's rather appropriate because their class motto is "for sardines, space is no problem."