Astronaut to inspire First Nations youth at Vancouver technology conference

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      John Herrington has done what most kids only dream about. In 2002, the former NASA astronaut blasted off in the space shuttle Endeavour and spent almost 14 days in low Earth orbit.

      Reached by phone in Lewiston, Idaho, Herrington happily recounted his role in the sixteenth shuttle mission to the International Space Station. He told the Georgia Straight that the launch was “exciting” and “dynamic”.

      “It bounces around for like two minutes,” Herrington said. “You get a pretty good shaking. Then it gets really smooth. But you accelerate, and it feels like someone’s climbed on board your chest and is sitting on you—a very big person. So, it takes eight and a half minutes to get to orbit. The engines quit. You’re in this environment—you’re floating.”

      When Herrington returned to Earth, he had carried out three space walks lasting a combined 20 hours. A member of Oklahoma’s Chickasaw Nation, he had also become the first Native American to fly in space.

      On Thursday (February 23), Herrington will be in Vancouver to give the opening keynote speech and participate in a panel discussion at the 2012 Information and Communication Technology Summit. Organized by the First Nations Technology Council and the Pacific Community Networks Association, the three-day conference will be held at the Coast Plaza Hotel and Suites (1763 Comox Street).

      Herrington joined the National Aeronautics and Space Administration after serving in the U.S. navy. As the retired naval commander tells it, he was a fixed-wing engineering test pilot and “hunted Russian submarines for a few years”. But there was a time when he couldn’t have imagined he’d actually take a ride on the Canadarm high above the Earth.

      “I used to play in a cardboard box and dream I was going to the moon, back in the 1960s,” said Herrington, who’s now 53 years old. “Astronauts were on TV. We were in the middle of going to the moon. So, I dreamed about it, but I never realized that I could accomplish it. So, I tell kids, ‘If there’s something you dream about doing, you can do it.’ It doesn’t happen overnight, and it takes time. It takes a lot of hard work, and it takes people in your life to help you go down this path. I was very fortunate that there were people in my life that helped make that a reality.”

      When he takes to the podium at the ICT Summit, Herrington plans to share stories about his journey from his birthplace of Wetumka, Oklahoma, to the International Space Station. As a rock climber who admittedly didn’t study, he got kicked out in his first year at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. He ended up getting a job with a road survey crew. It was the first time Herrington saw math put into practice, and it was enough to make him decide to go back to school and become an engineer. Years later, he’s working on a PhD in education at the University of Idaho.

      Another thing that Herrington is planning on talking about at the conference is how the U.S. space program has been a driver of technological change that has improved our lives. Innovations in artificial hearts, cordless power tools, running shoes, and smoke detectors are among the “outgrowths” of NASA’s work, he noted.

      “I want to motivate kids to learn math and science in the same way I was motivated—by hands-on, real-world, practical application of the stuff they would see in a textbook,” Herrington said. “What does it really mean to them in a real-world environment?”

      At the Coast Plaza Hotel, Sue Hanley, coordinator of the First Nations Technology Council, noted that about 300 people from around British Columbia and as far as Nova Scotia are expected to attend this year’s ICT Summit, which has the theme of “Exploring new worlds”. The conference will kick off with a video link to Brazil, where an elder will virtually present a sacred rattle to Herrington.

      A Human Right CEO Kosta Grammatis, former Doig River First Nation chief Garry Oker, and Simon Fraser University cognitive scientist Steve DiPaola will join Herrington for the panel titled “Technology—What Can We Expect From the New World?” on Thursday. On Saturday (February 25), architect Douglas Cardinal will deliver the closing keynote address.

      Hanley told the Straight that the first ICT Summit took place in 2004 and hosted around 30 First Nations people. Today, it “really has become a First Nations conference”, she noted.

      The FNTC was established by the First Nations Summit in 2002 to address the digital divide affecting many First Nations in B.C. Executive director Norm Leech told the Straight that the role of the organization is to support the development of First Nations communities through technology.

      “There’s an opportunity to leapfrog into current technology today and skip all the growing pains of the past,” Leech said at the hotel. “So, for communities that are just now getting electricity and telephone service and cellphone service, they can leapfrog straight into the 21st century and take advantage of all the benefits that are available, from business and industry, that have been developed over the last 20 years.”

      Ahead of his appearance at the ICT Summit, Herrington commented that he’s not bothered by the fact that he’ll probably be telling the story of his two weeks in space for the rest of his life. As a Native American who was “blessed with the opportunity to do something absolutely remarkable”, he’s happy that his experience offers inspiration to other people with indigenous heritage.

      “When I first came here, I didn’t realize that was a role that I would be in,” Herrington said of joining NASA. “And when I came to that, I realized that it’s a remarkable position to be in. There are indigenous kids around the world that maybe now have the opportunity to say, ‘That guy’s just like me. If he can do it, why can’t I?’”

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