Summer 1977. John Herrington, suspended from the University of Colorado for lousy grades, hangs by one arm from a cliff, holding a prism for highway surveyors, earning four bucks an hour.
Winter 2002. John Herrington finds himself hanging by one arm once again, far above solid ground. Though hanging isn’t the right word – you don’t “hang” in space. Herrington holds on to the International Space Station with one hand, using the other to perform a bit of ad-hoc maintenance. Two hundred miles below, the Earth spins rapidly.
“Oh, look, there go the Bahamas,” Herrington said, joking about the view.
A lot happened to Herrington between the two suspensions. But a primary pivot came when he decided to go back to college. He studied engineering and graduated, joined the Navy, became a test pilot and then an astronaut – and now he’s become an evangelist for science and math education, particularly for Native American kids.
This fall, he’ll be back in school again, as a 51-year-old Ph.D. candidate in education at the University of Idaho. He’ll be the first doctoral student in a UI program to encourage education in math, science and engineering for Native Americans. As part of his work, he’s participating in a project to create a battery for classroom use that shows students how you can – pardon the phrase – turn poop into power.
“Kids like space,” he said. “Kids like dinosaurs. And, for whatever reason, fecal matter’s interesting (to them).
“If you catch their attention, they’re going to start asking why.”
Herrington makes things awfully hard on a poor hack trying to tell a story. Should you focus on his years as an astronaut? On the fact that he was the first Native American to fly in space, as a member of the Chickasaw Nation? On his time as an executive in a company that tried to develop a “space tourism” project? On his five-month cross-country bike ride to promote science and math education – a journey on which he met his wife? On his latest chapter as a Vandal?
With this much life in his first half-century, you wonder what all he might do in his second.
Born in Oklahoma, Herrington grew up in Colorado, Wyoming and Texas during the height of the space race with Russia – with the country all jazzed up about trying to reach the moon.
But by the time he enrolled in the University of Colorado, he was not exactly on track for a career in the sciences. He spent his first year rock-climbing and avoiding homework, he said, earning a 1.72 grade-point average.
That’s how he wound up climbing for the highway surveying project. But he was starting to see the connection between adventure and math and science – the survey engineers used trigonometry to calculate the readings he was helping gather with that prism.
He returned to the university, studying engineering. After graduation, he joined the Navy and became a test pilot. Eventually, he went back to school for a master’s degree and applied to NASA, and the agency accepted him in 1996.
He spent six years in different roles before he got the chance to go up on space shuttle Endeavour. On that mission to the International Space Station, he and a colleague conducted three spacewalks, installing a truss to support one of two cooling systems for the station. The other cooling system failed recently, prompting a series of repairs that are still under way.
Herrington said the experience of being in space – even given all that preparation time – was overwhelming.
“All of a sudden, stuff floats in front of you,” he said. “It’s sensory overload.”
On his final spacewalk, he was forced to improvise a way of attaching small devices all over the station to correct a design flaw in the ammonia line connections. Plans called for him to be held in place by a robot arm, but the arm became stuck. Thus he found himself faced with the task one-handed – which would have been tricky in normal gravity, let alone floating above the Earth wearing a glove like an oven mitt.
Making that work gave him an enormous sense of satisfaction. “You can’t buy that type of feeling,” he said.
He left NASA in 2005 and became the vice president/director of flight operations for a company looking to provide space flights to paying passengers – like Richard Branson’s efforts with Virgin Galactic.
“I was in the right spot, right time, doing what I was trained to do,” he said. “But we couldn’t pull the financing together.”
In 2007 he went to work for the Chickasaw Nation, later deciding to do the cross-country bike ride. He passed through Lewiston in August 2008. That’s where he met Margo Aragon, an English professor and journalist who lived there.
They hit it off, kept in touch, and in January of last year he proposed. Once he moved to Idaho, he reconnected with Ed Galindo, a UI professor he had met following the Columbia shuttle tragedy in 2004. The two men had crossed paths again during the bike ride.
Galindo – who is co-directing the effort to develop the classroom battery – proposed a new challenge for Herrington, a man who seems to need one.
“He said, ‘Hey, are you interested in getting a Ph.D.?’ ” Herrington said.
Like that, he was off on another mission.