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.
"To look at the Earth 220 miles below you is just a fantastic, fantastic experience ... It was the most fun I had in my life."
The crowd clapped.
For the next 20 minutes, Herrington took questions from the young audience on topics such as hard work and space fun.
They asked about aliens and got an interesting answer.
"I firmly believe that there is another planet the right distance from a star with the right temperature for some type of life. Do I think flying saucers come down here and chase us around? No, why would they?"
Students laughed. Most agreed having a "super star" visit Wetumka was a pretty cool event; some began thinking about careers in space.
"It's really great. I'm really glad someone from out of town can give a testimony for all of us Wetumkans," Naomi Bremer, 14, said.
"A lot of people think Wetumkans are nothing, and he's proof otherwise."
After his speech, Herrington, 44, was honored with a standing ovation followed by the presentation of a Wetumka ball cap and T-shirt and a brass key to the city. Hayes made him an honorary graduate of Wetumka High School.
Herrington presented the city and the school district with identical framed montages of photos and flags that flew aboard the shuttle. He also unveiled a No. 50 Wetumka Chieftains basketball jersey that traveled in space nearly 6 million miles.
Officials herded Herrington out of the gym to the police cruiser for an autograph and picture session at the nearby Wes Watkins Technology Center.
On his way to the center, Herrington, who lives in Houston, took a quick trip through the small town he once called home.
"It's a part of who you are. It's the nature of the folk," he said.
"You're taking a part of wherever you came from to wherever you go. It's important to maintain that connection."
His advice to Oklahomans on the way out of town: "Find something that really motivates you. It's not about the money ... A lot of people think it's impossible. It can't be, I made it."
Herrington will stop today in Bixby before flying out of the state in his T-38. He promised to return soon.Archive ID: 1140993