Part I: From Aimless Youth to Naval Aviator and Astronaut
Born in Oklahoma into the Chickasaw tribe, John and his family moved around a lot when he was young. His father was in the Army, and then the Civil Service, working in electronics manufacturing and engineering for several years in Colorado, then Wyoming and Texas. After graduating from high school in Texas, John returned to Colorado for college, called back by the mountains he’d loved as a child. He enjoyed the outdoors sports he could afford – climbing, running, cycling – and when fortunes allowed, skiing.
Knowing he loved being outdoors and active, John started college thinking he’d become a forest ranger. “I didn’t know what a forest ranger did, except they work outside,” he says, smiling. He was introduced to rock climbing during his freshman year. Spending lots of time climbing and too little time studying, Herrington had a 1.72 grade point average and was kicked out of school after his second semester. The restaurant chain he’d been working for sent him to Texas to learn how to be a chef. “I left Colorado and it was just absolutely the most miserable time in my life,” Herrington says. “I called a friend back in Colorado who said, ‘Hey, I’ve been looking for you. I’ve got a job for you. Do you want to work as a rock climber?’”
The job – which Herrington quickly applied for and got – was on a road survey crew working on Interstate 70 in Colorado. One of the last major U.S. stretches of two-lane interstate, through Glenwood Canyon, it was to be widened to four lanes. The crew’s job was to set centerline for the new highway and measure the canyon. They performed cross-section work so they’d know where and how much canyon wall to remove, how best to fit the widened road through the canyon. They needed a climber to hang off the canyon walls. “There wasn’t any climbing involved,” Herrington admits. “Rappelling is what it was, but you still had to have the right gear and ropes, and not kill yourself. Four bucks an hour and I could ski on weekends!”
It All Begins to Make Sense and Fall into Place
Fate had more in mind for Herrington than just a cool job hanging from cliffs, for this is when and how the college dropout discovered his true calling. “The crew was triangulating distances of the canyon walls,” Herrington explains. “But if there’s a big overhang on the cliff, you can’t use usual methods. I’d rappel down to the lip of the overhang, and they’d shoot the distance to that overhang. I’d go down a little farther, the guy would swing me in and I’d grab the back of the overhang, hold there, and they’d shoot that distance to determine the size of the overhang. They could actually draw the cross-section. I asked how it worked and learned that light travels at a constant velocity. An infra-red beam of light from here to there determines the distance. They also measured the angle from the base of the cliff and they could determine the hypotenuse using trigonometry. It was mathematics on the side of a cliff. And guys got paid to do it. What I had seen in a textbook was now, ‘Oh, that’s how it works.’” Math suddenly not only made sense, but was cool, and fun.
The owner of the company that Herrington worked for – John Haley – convinced Herrington that he shouldn’t just be the guy hanging from the cliff, that he could become the person responsible for the entire project. But first he’d have to return to school and get a degree. “They [the college] actually let me back in, which was amazing,” says Herrington. “Now I understood the purpose behind the math. I had a great instructor who I took all my math from, college algebra and trig – I didn’t take trig in high school – all my calculus.”
Herrington worked in the math department during his senior hear. The head of the department – Jim Modeer – was a former Navy officer. He quizzed Herrington on his future plans. At that point, Herrington thought he’d go work for Digital Equipment, a local electronics firm. Modeer – clearly seeing a bigger picture, even if Herrington couldn’t – asked if Herrington would be willing to tutor a retired Navy Captain who was getting a degree in computer science and needed help with calculus. Herrington agreed. “This guy flew dive bombers in WWII and was one of the first hundred helicopter pilots in the US Navy,” Herrington says, remembering how impressed he was at the time. As often happens, the older man asked the college kid what he wanted to be when he grew up. “He said, ‘You should join the Navy and do what I did,’” Herrington recalls. “He explained what he did, and it sounded so exciting. He said, ‘Go see the movie Officer and a Gentleman; that’s what you’ll have to do.’ As a college graduate, to join the Navy you have to go to Officer Candidate’s School. To be a Naval Aviator during the 1980’s you had to go to Aviation Officer Candidate School in Pensacola, Florida. I went and saw the movie, and thought, yeah, that looks exciting. So I took the test – things like spatial awareness and mechanical aptitude – and I did well.” Herrington graduated college with a bachelor of science degree in applied mathematics, went to Officer Programs in Denver and was accepted to Navy Aviation Officer Candidate School in January 1983, officially starting in November 1983.
Dream Jobs: Test Pilot and Astronaut
After completing the training to become a Naval Aviator, Herrington flew P-3 Orions, a four-engine turbo-prop maritime surveillance aircraft developed by Lockheed for the Navy in the 1960s. “I hunted submarines,” is how Herrington describes his job then. It was during this time that he had his first exposure to experimental test pilots. The Navy was looking to replace the P-3 and Boeing proposed a version of the 737. Herrington visited Boeing Field in Seattle, met some of the test pilots there and left thinking their job was pretty cool.
“I dreamed about being an astronaut as a kid,” Herrington says. “I’d sit in my cardboard box and dream about going to the moon, but I never really thought I could do it. But then I realized that if I did want to be an astronaut, I had to go to test pilot school to be competitive. I applied, but didn’t get looked at.” Looking at who did get selected and who the alternate was – a friend in his own squadron who Herrington was sure would get selected the next year – he was ready to give up. “I didn’t think I stood a snowball’s chance, so I wasn’t going to apply. I thought, I’ll go work for the airlines. A former squadron-mate worked for the Admiral who commanded all patrol planes in the Pacific fleet asked if I had reapplied to test pilots school. I said no, the other guy’s going to get it. But he said, ‘No, you need to reapply.’ He was pretty insistent, so I reapplied. I went to my friend and congratulated him in advance, and he said he didn’t apply, he wasn’t ready for it. I got selected. So bizarre. Serendipity, I guess.” Or as Seneca, the ancient Roman philosopher, once said, luck is a matter of preparation meeting opportunity.
At the United States Naval Test Pilot School (USNTPS), Herrington’s proficiency with math was an asset. “Differential equations, all the stuff I’d learned in college…higher level mathematics applies to how airplanes fly and how they respond to what you do as a pilot,” he says. “It’s the test pilot’s job to go out and identify the deficiencies in the airplane, its flying qualities and performance, and relate all that in an engineering sense to the engineers so that we can work together to resolve whatever issue the airplane has.” Herrington stresses the importance of math in his and so many other occupations. “If you can’t do the math, you can’t be the engineer; if you can’t do the math, you can’t be the scientist. It all comes down to mathematics. It’s problem-solving. To be able to apply it to flying in the Navy, it was great.”
Shortly after completing Test Pilot School, Herrington became involved in a new Navy program called JPATS (Joint Primary Aircraft Training System), to find a replacement for the Navy T-34 and Air Force T-37 trainers. Herrington was given enormous responsibility to test and assess the various options proposed by manufacturers, putting his new test pilot skills to use. He also applied to NASA for the first time.
Herrington applied to be a pilot astronaut, but because he had spent much of his career flying the P-3 Orion turbo-prop and didn’t have the required thousand hours flying jets, he wasn’t qualified. He changed his career path within the Navy so that he could get a master’s degree. “I went from being a fleet aviator to an aeronautical engineering duty officer,” he says. “I wanted a no-kidding engineering degree.” When Herrington applied to NASA the second time, he had a masters is aeronautical engineering with an emphasis in global positioning system (GPS) and inertial navigation system (INS) integration. He still didn’t have the required hours in jets, so this time he applied as a mission specialist. “Mission specialists get to walk in space,” Herrington notes, eyes bright. “Shuttle pilots didn’t do space walks.” Herrington was elated when he was asked to come in for an interview. “If that’s all I do in my lifetime, is get interviewed to be an astronaut, that’s just fantastic.”
Herrington remembers that during that stress-filled interview, Bob Cabana, the Chief of the Astronaut Office at the time, asked him two final questions: Why should I hire you? What makes you more qualified than everyone else? “I replied, well, I’m a test pilot, I’ve done really well in my squadrons, I have a masters in aero…. But everybody else applying has those same credentials. I’ve worked with stuff my entire life – I’ve rebuilt Volkswagens, constructed a large deck at my house. I think the Space Station is the ultimate construction program. I would love to turn a wrench in space. He said thank you and I walked out thinking that was a stupid thing to say. After the interview I went to do a claustrophobia test. They zip you up in a Mylar ball the size of the hatch of the Space Shuttle air lock. If you had to evacuate the vehicle in space, they would put you in this Mylar ball and pump it full of oxygen, and they would be able to pull you out the hatch. For the test they zip you up in this ball, with an EKG and a headset and a microphone; you’re supposed to evaluate – do a flight evaluation on the ball – but that’s not what it really is, they’re seeing if you freak out. I’m curled up in the ball thinking, ‘Such a stupid answer, the stupidest answer you could ever give.’ I just hated my answer. I knew I was toast, I wasn’t going to get selected. But I told everybody else congratulations, I know you’re going to get selected, you’re what they’re looking for, and they would tell me the same thing but I was like, nah, it’s not gonna happen.”
But it did happen. In April 1996 Herrington got the call while at work, asking if he’d like to come work for NASA. “I stood up at my desk and said, ‘It would be an honor to come work for NASA,’” he remembers. Herrington and his family – wife and two daughters, Jessica, age six and Amanda, age two – moved to Houston in August 1996 and he began training with 43 others in the largest-ever class of new astronauts. They were nicknamed The Sardines because there were so many of them.
One day while in a classroom, the head of Mission Operations – the person who oversees all of the flight directors and flight controllers– came in and asked, “How many of you folks work on your cars?” Herrington remembers raising his hand along with a few others. “He then said, ‘The Space Station is a construction program. I need people who know how to use tools. I don’t want to have to teach you to do something that you should know how to do,’” Herrington says. “To myself I went, ‘Right answer.’ You just never know.”
Herrington had a long wait – six years – before getting assigned to a shuttle flight. While waiting, he kept flying jets to keep his skills proficient; each pilot astronaut was required to get 15 hours per month on top of all their other duties. He was also given specific jobs. His first assignment in “The Office” (how Herrington refers to NASA) was as crew representative for GPS/INS integration for the Space Station and Space Shuttles, putting his masters degree to good use. Then he received a new job. “I was assigned as what’s called a Cape Crusader,” Herrington says. “Sounds funny, but it’s the best job in The Office. My job was to support all launches and landings and be the crew representative at Kennedy Space Center. One year I think we launched eight or nine shuttles – in 1999 or 2000 – and I was one of the Cape Crusaders, an ASP (Astronaut Support Personnel). One of us would be the Prime ASP, the one who actually strapped the crew in. I’m the last one in the shuttle, pulling the last of the stuff out, and then we close the hatch. Then you do pressure checks, you close out the White Room and you run away – about three miles away – and watch your friends fly into space. Just great job satisfaction. I loved it. I got to be a part of real space flight even though I still haven’t flown yet. It made it less daunting when I actually did fly. When you walk up to the shuttle and it’s fully fueled and you think, it’s a living, breathing being, it’s venting off O2. You’re like, ‘Wow, this is no kidding, this is the real deal’ and you’re in it. As the Prime ASP I used to sit on the flight deck looking out the overhead windows as the crew came up the launch pad. That’s a pretty neat experience.”
All of the NASA training, and working as a Cape Crusader/ASP at Kennedy Space Center in Florida for so many shuttle flights added to the toll already taken on Herrington’s family life by years of military life. His wife and daughters saw less and less of him.
In 2000, Herrington was assigned to STS-113 with the shuttle commander, Jim Weatherbee, pilot Paul Lockhard, and mission specialist Michael Lopez-Alegria (known as Mike L-A). Launching in November of 2002, Herrington performed three space walks assembling the P-1 truss on the International Space Station. Looking back on his astronaut interview and the answer he thought was stupid, he now has a video of him turning a wrench on a CETA cart (crew equipment translation aid). “I’m doing exactly what I told them I would do – construction,” Herrington says with a smile. “I did everything on my mission I could ever have done as an astronaut, aside from flying the space shuttle. I got to do it all.”
Herrington’s mission was slotted to be 11 days, but bad weather in Florida meant they were waved off of their planned landing. They were up just shy of 14 days. “I had a three-day vacation in space,” Herrington says. “I got to look out the window, I answered Internet questions, I got to play with my food, I got to enjoy the things that I didn’t have time to do earlier. I didn’t have time to take a picture out the window for pleasure during the mission because I was just so busy.”
Herrington brought two special, symbolic items with him on his mission to commemorate the fact that he would be the first tribally registered Native American in space. “The two things I really wanted to take, that I thought were the most important, were an eagle feather and a flute.” The eagle feather was given to Herrington by an elder of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, a non-profit dedicated to increasing the number of Native Americans in science and engineering. “My very first talk as an astronaut was to that group, in Houston, Texas,” Herrington says. “It was like I was talking to my aunts and uncles and my brothers and my sisters…there was such a connection. I told my story about where I came from, my heritage. It actually clicked for me. One of those elders gave me a little feather, saying, ‘It’s a little eagle feather because you haven’t flown yet so you’re a little astronaut.’ When I was ready to fly, he gave me a big eagle feather. It’s in the Smithsonian now. That eagle feather was beaded in multiple colors representing Mother Earth and Father Sky and all the people in the world.”
The flute Herrington carried into space was made by a Cherokee friend, Jim Gilliland. A former engineer at the Kennedy Space Center, Gilliland taught Herrington how to make a flute using math to determine where the holes go based on the length and diameter of the flute. “I played Amazing Grace, and Don Pettit, an engineer we took to the ISS, took a didgeridoo. But he hadn’t unpacked it yet, so he grabbed a vacuum cleaner hose and he’s playing that, so whatever solemn nature there was went out the window….” The flute Herrington played in space is also on display at the Smithsonian. Herrington has several similar flutes made by Gilliland at home and graciously plays Amazing Grace upon request.
Of course, Herrington hoped to fly into space again, but the mission after his was Columbia, the space shuttle that disintegrated upon reentering Earth’s atmosphere on February 1, 2003, killing all seven crew members. “I lost seven friends and three classmates,” says Herrington. “I worked debris recovery for six months in east Texas and that was excruciating. And I was away from home again.”
During the time that shuttles were grounded Herrington was assigned to an expedition crew, a six-month space station mission, as the commander. He was also the backup commander to a Russian cosmonaut. He’d travel to Russia for training in Star City for a month, return home, go back to Russia…off and on for nearly a year. Herrington was intrigued to be working with people he had been trained by the Navy to fight. “Part of my time was learning the Russian language and Russian space station systems, but part of it was learning about Russians, because that’s who I was going to fly with,” he says. “What better way to get away from what we were trained as military officers to do, to…we’re going to fly with these people. It was fascinating. Once I went to the base of the Kremlin with my instructor and an interpreter/guide, drinking cognac and eating chocolate, standing next to the changing of the guard, an American military officer. It was surreal.”
Herrington’s training came to an abrupt halt after receiving a call from his flight doctor advising him he had osteoporosis and was at high risk of fracturing his back on the Soyuz upon landing. Herrington quipped he rather liked walking and didn’t want to risk his ability to continue doing so. He also wondered if he could regain bone mass, having been a runner since college, and a cyclist. But one can have strong legs and still have low bone mass in the spine; many cyclists do. Herrington returned to The Office in Houston. While there, he watched STS-114 Discovery launch in July 2005, the first “return to flight” after the Columbia disaster 29 months earlier. Viewing a TV replay of the launch with Bob Woodruff of ABC News, Herrington saw the protective foam piece come off the external tank as it ascended toward space, the same fault that led to the Columbia disintegrating upon re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere. While Discovery completed its mission and landed safely, NASA resolved there would be no more shuttle flights for the foreseeable future as the problem was analyzed and corrected. This news, combined with the ending of his marriage while training in Russia and his diagnoses of osteoporosis, left Herrington’s future uncertain. He knew he wouldn’t ever “fly” in the Soyuz for a mission to the Space Station, and with the future of shuttle missions unclear, he wondered if he would ever be selected to fly as an astronaut again. At age forty-eight, he asked himself, “What’s next?”
Next week, Part II: From Space Back to Earth-bound Endeavors
Watch John Herrington talk about a minor tool mishap during one of his space walks here.
All photos courtesy of John Herrington or NASA.