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U.S. Indian on next space shuttle

©Associated Press
November 9, 2002

CAPE CANAVERAL -- When NASA's first American Indian astronaut embarks on his long-awaited journey into space in a few days, he will fly with eagle feathers, arrowheads, a handful of sacred ground and the blessings of the Chickasaw Nation.

"I've always imagined what it would be like to be able to go out the hatch and to see the Earth in all its glory," John Herrington said. "I think it's going to fill me with an incredible sense of who I am."

His flight aboard space shuttle Endeavour is slated for liftoff early Monday.

Herrington will conduct a series of spacewalks outside the international space station with Spanish-born astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria. Not long after Columbus Day, the two crewmates, 44-year-old U.S. Navy pilots, discussed the historic significance of their pairing.

"It would be like having a German and a Jew go out together" on a spacewalk, Lopez-Alegria said.

Bill Anoatubby, governor of the Chickasaw Nation in Ada, Okla., said it is wonderful to see two men, whose ancestors may have been enemies, on the same spaceflight. "It has come full circle," he said.

Anoatubby traveled to Cape Canaveral for Herrington's launch with 200 members of the 35,000-strong Chickasaw Nation. An Indian ceremony is planned on the eve of his flight.

"It's a source of real pride for all of us," Anoatubby said.

Herrington's great-grandmother on his mother's side was Chickasaw, making the astronaut one-eighth Indian. Although he did not grow up in an Indian environment, his mother made sure he was registered as a member of the Chickasaw tribe. Herrington said there is Choctaw on his father's side, but he cannot document it.

"I take tremendous pride in who I am, where I came from," Herrington said. "I know that the people I meet who are Native American, there's a connection to me, there's an immediate recognition or belonging."

By the time he got to college, Herrington wanted to be a forest ranger but flunked out. He and his family were always moving -- 14 times by his count in Oklahoma, Colorado, Wyoming and Texas -- and he lacked ambition. A fellow rock climber persuaded Herrington to return to school and he took up math and engineering at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. That led to the Navy, test pilot school and, in 1996, NASA's astronaut corps.

Herrington, who is married to a non-Indian and has two daughters, is considered the first self-identified American Indian bound for space. Robert Crippen, the pilot of the first shuttle flight, had long thought he was part Cherokee but recently discovered he has no Indian blood.

Six eagle feathers are tucked away for Herrington's 11-day flight. Chickasaw Nation and Crow Nation flags also will accompany him into orbit, along with a braid of sweet grass, two arrowheads found by relatives, a rock from the sacred site of Bear Butte in South Dakota's Black Hills, wooden flutes and flute music, and a piece of pottery by a Hopi artist.

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