Chickasaw tribal member becomes first American Indian astronaut

Monday, November 19th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ALBUQUERQUE (AP) _ John Herrington has ties to the land that go back to a time beyond remembering, and he will be the first American Indian to stretch that bond by traveling in space.

Herrington, 43, a Chickasaw Indian born in Oklahoma, is living proof that he and others from many backgrounds can do what once seemed impossible.

He is one of seven crew members who will take a space shuttle flight to the International Space Station on Aug. 22.

``It was never something I thought I could do,'' Herrington has said. ``I get to do what kids dream about.''

He said the young people who stood in line to meet him here over the weekend can achieve what they set out to do. ``They need to recognize people care about them,'' he said.

He spent Saturday signing autographs and posing for photographs at the NASA booth during the American Indian Science and Engineering Society's 23rd annual conference, which brought delegates from some 260 chapters nationwide. Herrington has been on the society's board of directors since 1999.

Sponsors say more than 1,500 students came to Saturday's event to meet and interview with major corporations such as Intel, Ford Motor Co. and Lockheed Martin.

``This isn't about me _ it's about that all the kids here know what they are capable of,'' Herrington said.

Born in Wetumka, Okla., Herrington grew up in Colorado Springs, attended the University of Colorado, joined the Navy, received a master's degree in aeronautical engineering, trained as a test pilot in Pensacola, Fla. and now is a Navy commander with 18 years' service.

Herrington, a flight specialist on next year's shuttle mission, will be one of two space walkers to do assembly work on the International Space Station. To do so, he will wear a suit that would weigh 300 pounds in Earth's gravity.

The space station, about the size of a three-bedroom house, is the destination of many shuttle flights.

The 10-day mission will dock at the station for assembly chores, leave three men to stay in space and pick up three others.

To honor his Indian ancestry, he said, he will take eagle feathers on the mission.

American Indians, he said, ``can know they are a part of the mission.''

When he took the job, he didn't intend to be a role model, but it happened anyway and ``it's an honor,'' he said.

``There is a great amount of responsibility. It can motivate people. They can realize their dreams can come true,'' he said.