Astronaut returns to state to speak at Wetumka school

Diane Clay Published: January 30, 2003
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WETUMKA The population of Wetumka grew to 1,400 plus one Wednesday when one of the town's favorite sons returned to share the glory of space and tell tales of his "fantastic" journey.

Astronaut John Herrington arrived midmorning in his hometown, about 70 miles east of Oklahoma City. He parked on Main Street near Tyler's Hardware and climbed into a police cruiser for a two-car motorcade.

"You know you're important when you tie up both police cars," said Chris Berry, Wetumka's assistant police chief.

Herrington was clad in his blue U.S. Navy jumpsuit with a cap that read "STS-113" the space shuttle mission that made him a celebrity for a day in Wetumka.

Herrington, an American Indian, rode Space Shuttle Endeavor to the International Space Station in November.

Wetumka schools Superintendent Steve Haynes filled the wooden bleachers of the Wetumka High School gymnasium Wednesday with more than 600 students from Wetumka, Moss, Weleetka and Dustin as well as school alumni and Herrington's family and friends.

They all gathered to hear Herrington talk about his years in Wetumka, his interest in flying, his troubled college years and moving 14 times as a child.

The highlight of the show was a video with images not usually seen by the public.

The video showed frames of Herrington boarding the shuttle and sliding into his horizontal seat, and a camera shot of him in the cockpit while the shuttle took off.

The tape showed him eating floating pistachios without using his hands, and a first-person trip through the space shuttle into the space station.

It was one of the last shots of his space walk that drew silence, even capturing the attention of the four-year-olds sitting on the floor.

As Herrington floated toward the end of the one of the space station's trusses, a fellow astronaut inside the shuttle noticed his position. He ordered fellow space walker Michael Lopez-Alegria to turn the camera.

There was Herrington backdropped with the blackness of space, the space station traveling 17,500 miles per hour beneath him and the edge of Earth spinning by his side.

"That is seared into my brain," Herrington said.

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