Gravity Wins: NDN Geek Reflects on Not Having the Right Stuff
Back in the mid '80s I had a dream, a dream that quite possibly was shared by many other children of that era. I wanted to attend NASA’s Space Camp. Now realistically there was no way this Native was getting on a plane by all by himself and even less of a chance that I would choose to leave my mom for longer than one night, but that's why they're called dreams, right? We all have them. Sometimes though we take different paths than those we imagine.
In the last couple weeks, two things happened that made me think about what might have been. Former Astronaut Scott Carpenter, one of the original Mercury Seven, passed away; and the blockbuster film Gravity, staring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, has taken America’s imagination by storm. Both caused me to take a moment to ask What if?
My space dream had its start with the peak of the Space Shuttle Program and the film The Right Stuff, which was based of the best selling novel by Tom Wolfe, about the selection of the crew for Project Mercury, the United States' first manned space flights, back in the late '50s, and early '60s. The pilots in The Right Stuff were larger than life: Heroic, funny and cocky. Even though the movie showed some of their flaws, it didn't deter me from wanting to be one of them.
So what stopped me from pursuing this dream?
One: Fear of flying. I am still scared to get on a plane or anything that takes me any higher off the ground than I can jump down to safety.
Two: Math, my Achilles heel. I was first really introduced to the villain Math in fourth grade, and he has been one of my archenemies ever since. I spent many a school night battling him under a desk light with nothing more than a number 2 pencil, fighting my primal urges to stop trying to find what X was to Y and use that paper for its real purpose: drawing. I hated Math with a passion all the way through art school (I still cannot believe that I had to take Math courses in pursuing an artist degree). So you can see I clearly did not have “the right stuff” to be an astronaut. But what if?
What if I had been aware that there was another Indian out there who defeated these demons, who had the courage and fortitude to reach for the stars, then maybe I could have been motivated to be Buck Rogers instead of merely drawing him.
Enter Commander John Herrington…Naval Aviator, NASA Astronaut and an enrolled member of Chickasaw Tribe.
In November of 2002, Commander Herrington became the first enrolled Native American in space. Serving as the Mission Specialist onboard the space shuttle Endeavour, he proudly carried the flag of the Chickasaw Nation with him on his 11-day journey into space. He was the 143rd person to walk in space (only 203 as of 2013 have done this), the first enrolled Indian to space walk, and he spent spent nearly 20 hours in three days out in the silent vacuum of the dark heavens above.
What a cool legacy and a strong reminder of what we as Natives can do. In the days of old, how many of his ancestors looked up at the moon and the stars and dreamt of dancing with them? Could you imagine the pride they would have felt now knowing the pride we share today for men and women like John Herrington? Being certain that in this age nothing is beyond the reach of our people. That dreams are the untouched reality for those hungry enough to ask. And speaking of asking, if I ever get a chance to meet Mr. Herrington, I want to ask him three things. Well, maybe four:
• Who were his heroes growing up?
• What were the challenges he faced as a Native?
• What did it feel like the first time he stepped out of the space shuttle?”
And if he seems like he has a good sense of humor:
• What does going to the bathroom in zero gravity feel like?
Maybe if I had heard the answers to these as a kid, things could have gone differently. In place of this blog, I could have been writing an official mission log. Maybe, just maybe -- because I am pretty happy as an artist.
Jeffrey Veregge, Port Gamble S'Klallam, is a graphic designer and lifelong fan of comic books and sci-fi based in Seattle. To see examples of his Native/superhero art, read the ICTMN story "Superheroes Meet Native Design in Jeffrey Veregge's Work" or visit his personal site, jeffreyveregge.com.