Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Former astronaut encourages kids to reach for the stars


John Herrington said his life was literally held in the arms of Canada.

In 2002, Herrington was part of the crew of the space shuttle Endeavour that was working on the International Space Station. The American spaceman spent 13 days in orbit and conducted several space walks with the help of the Canadarm.

"It's a remarkable piece of technology," Herrington said Monday, pointing to a photo of the arm in action while giving a presentation to a small crowd in the auditorium of Laura Secord Secondary School. "Thank you, Canada."

If he drifted out into space, he said, it would be nearly impossible for the shuttle crew to leave the space station and get him. He would have run out of air before they could reach him. The Canadarm was his lifeline.

Herrington shared his experiences as an astronaut with District School Board of Niagara students as part of an evening that highlighted the successes of the aboriginal education programs at the board.

Maureen Alderdice, DSBN cultural and linguistic diversity consultant, said the board has put an emphasis on positive role models for First Nation students. Herrington, a member of the Chickasaw Nation in the southeastern United States, was an ideal choice.

"He's an astronaut. You don't get role models better than that," she said.

Herrington, who brought an eagle feather and the Chickasaw Nation's flag with him into space, told the schoolchildren that race and creed are not what will make them a success.

"If you are smart enough, if you work hard enough and want it enough, you can achieve your dreams," he said.

While Herrington talked about his space walks and the joy of being among the select few to see the Earth from orbit, his time with NASA came after he was kicked out of university.

He said he spent most of his time as a freshman rock climbing rather than studying, resulting in a suspension for having such a low grade point average. It wasn't until he got hired as a rock climber with a survey team that he realized science could be a career path.

Shortly after that, he followed in his father's footsteps and became a pilot, got a degree in applied math and eventually signed up as a test pilot with the U.S. Navy.

He applied to be an astronaut twice. The first time, in 1991, NASA turned him down. But, he told the audience, if you want something, you cannot allow setbacks to discourage you. He kept working and improving his skills, and when he applied in 1994, he was accepted.

Herrington, who today works to try to get aboriginal American students interested in science and math, said he knows First Nations children sometimes face social and economic challenges that might discourage them from trying to reach their dreams.

"It might make it difficult for them, but it can be done," he said.

Space remains as exciting today as it was when he was eight and playing in a cardboard box pretending to be part of the moon missions of the 1960s, he said.

"Space is still dangerous. Things are not blowing up as often. If they did, we would not be going into space," he said. "But you risk your life every time you go up there. It's still as exciting and thrilling as always."

The former astronaut said space flight is rapidly changing. Recent budget cuts to NASA mean a next-generation space vehicle to replace the aging space shuttle will not be ready.

"So the immediate future is commercial enterprises," he said, noting there is already one American company ready to start ferrying cargo to the space station. Those firms will need people with high levels of education.

"Ultimately, I think, we should go back to the moon and on to Mars, but that will have to be a government and international effort because it will be so enormous," he said.


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