January 4, 2008

Oklahoma Astronauts Reflect on Early, Recent Days of Exploration

By Marie Price

Today, when many have become blase about space shuttle missions that now number 120, it's hard to imagine what it was like 38 years ago to lead the advance-scout team for the first-ever manned landing on the moon, in a tiny capsule latched to a rocket.

Weatherford native Tom Stafford doesn't have to imagine.

Like no one else, he knows.

"We knew it was exploration," says Stafford, "a heck of a risk."

Stafford, now 77, commanded Apollo 10 in May 1969.

His job?

An unprecedented dress rehearsal for the historic moon landing planned for July of that year.

By the time they splashed down in the Pacific Ocean after eight days in space, Stafford and crew had essentially performed the entire moon mission, except the actual touchdown.

As history's first lunar test pilots, Stafford and astronaut Eugene Cernan detached from the Apollo 10 command module to explore the surface of the moon from a height of only 10 miles or so in the lunar module.

Their charge was not only to make sure that everything worked in the spacecraft, but to scout potential landing sites for Apollo 11. Two months later, Neil Armstrong became the first man to step onto the moon's surface in one of those selected sites in the Sea of Tranquility.

This was a vitally important coup for the United States, in Stafford's eyes.

"It was very important for our national image, and in front of the rest of the world," he said.

The U.S. and the Soviet Union were engaged in a space race, during which the Soviets had beaten America into orbit.

"It was service for your country," Stafford describes how he viewed the risky space reconnaissance mission at the time. "It was something where you're charged up and go do it."

Earlier, Stafford took part in Project Gemini missions, including the first rendezvous in space in December 1965.

In 1975, Stafford undertook his fourth space flight as Apollo commander of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, a joint space flight highlighted by the first meeting in space between American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts.

After retiring as a lieutenant general in the U.S. Air Force in 1979, Stafford continued to advise the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the first Bush administration on space- related issues. He is currently chairman of the International Oversight Committee for the International Space Station.

Former astronaut John Herrington, who lives near Guthrie, is a native of Wetumka.

Herrington, 49, flew on the Space Shuttle Endeavor in late 2002, on the 16th shuttle mission to the International Space Station. The mission's accomplishments included delivery of the Expedition Six crew and bringing home its predecessor, delivery and installation of a large truss and transferring cargo. Herrington performed three space walks totaling almost 20 hours. The mission lasted almost 14 days.

"It goes by too quick, I'll tell you that," he said of the experience. "You're so busy."

Herrington described his contribution to the truss installation, needed for the station's cooling system, as being something like a "high altitude iron worker."

A naval pilot, Herrington said his experience in space exceeded his expectations, and was the culmination of listening to people who encouraged him always to do his best and take a path he might not have chosen on his own.

"If I hadn't listed to certain people in my life, I never would have had the opportunity," he said.

Herrington said one of these was a man he worked for after his first year of college, during which he did not do very well.

"I just wasn't motivated, didn't study," he said. "The gentleman I worked for convinced me to go back to college, because you can't make a living on four bucks an hour."

Herrington said that rock climbing while working on a survey crew during that year out of school helped him put a face on things he had seen in books and motivated him to get into other things he enjoyed, like engineering.

Tutoring a retired Navy captain in calculus during his senior year sent him in that direction.

Herrington takes great pride in his Chickasaw heritage, which he said gives him opportunities to share his story with children and perhaps provide them with a role model.

"If you can relate how you did it, with their life, then it makes it more of a reality for them," he said. "I think that's been the biggest blessing for me out of it, that I've been able to do that."

Herrington is now engaged in a new space endeavor as vice president and director of flight operations for Rocketplane-Global Inc. in Oklahoma City.

He is also scheduled to pilot a Rocketplane vehicle on its first commercial flight.

"It would be a historic experience," Herrington said.

Rocketplane recently unveiled a redesign of the vehicle, of which the company wants to build at least two.

"We're still in the process of looking for funding to help build a vehicle," he said.

He said scheduling a date for its first flight hinges on that.

"No bucks, no Buck Rogers," Herrington quipped.

It is anticipated that passengers would pay in the neighborhood of about $200,000 for one of the vehicle's five passenger seats.

Herrington also serves in an advisory capacity for an educational program through an institute at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, aimed at getting middle school students more interested in math, science, technology and other disciplines needed for aerospace work.

"We're trying to build it as a model," he said.

Herrington was also on the board of directors for a Native American science and engineering society.

He told of a Navajo boy who built a solar heating system out of soda cans and a car radiator for his family's home, which lacked heat. The boy's invention placed high in a national science competition.

The family was later featured on "Extreme Home Makeover."

"Getting kids motivated is what it's all about," Herrington said.

Other Oklahoma astronauts have included:

The late L. Gordon Cooper, of Shawnee, who piloted the Faith 7 craft on a 22-orbit mission in May 1963, part of Project Mercury. Cooper spent more than 34 hours in flight, attaining a speed of 17,546 mph and traveling more than 546,000 statute miles. Cooper also piloted the eight-day Gemini 5 mission, establishing with Charles Conrad a new endurance record of traveling more than 3.3 million miles in almost 191 hours.

Owen Garriott, an Enid native and one of the first six scientist- astronauts. Garriott flew aboard Skylab in 1973, setting a duration record of about 60 days. He also flew aboard Spacelab-1 in 1983 on an international mission during which 70 experiments were conducted in six different scientific disciplines.

Shannon Lucid, a native of Shanghai, China who considers Bethany her hometown. Currently serving with the management of the astronaut office at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Lucid logged five flights covering 223 days in space. In 1996, aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis and the Russian Space Station Mir, Lucid traveled more than 75 million miles over 188 days.

William R. Pogue, of Okemah, was a member of the astronaut support crews for the Apollo 7, 11 and 14 missions. He was the pilot of Skylab 4 during the final manned visit to the Skylab orbital workshop during an 84 day flight that began Nov. 16, 1973, logging more than 13 hours in two space walks outside the craft.

Source: NASA

Originally published by Marie Price.

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