The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

John Herrington has traded in his NASA spacesuit for a commercial flightsuit, working for Rocketplane as its chief test pilot. (NASA)

Astronaut Herrington makes no bones about it

Oklahoma connection

The Space Review: Were you born in Oklahoma?

John “Bone” Herrington: Yeah. I was born in Wetumka.

TSR: Do you have any relatives out here?

Herrington: Oh man. Let’s see. So my grandparents passed away. They most all lived in Wetumka. I got aunts, uncles. Both sides of my family, my mom and my dad’s, are from Wetumka. My mom’s from Fitzshugh down around Ada. My dad’s from Wetumka as well. My brother was born in Tinker.

TSR: Now tell me where all those cities are compared to Oklahoma City and Burns Flat [Rocketplane’s headquarters and launch site.]

Herrington: Wetumka: you go out Highway 9 about 45 minutes, an hour to the east of [Oklahoma City] going to Shawnee, out that way. Fitzshugh’s down south of Ada. South of [Oklahoma City]. All of my aunts and uncles live up around Broken Arrow, Sapulpa, Bartlesville, Tulsa, and such.

TSR: I’ve been to Tulsa.

Herrington: I like it out there. A couple of years ago at Christmas time they did a parade out there. Great folks. I always start talking with a drawl when I come back too.

Becoming an astronaut

TSR: Were you born 20 years too late to go to the Moon and 20 years too early?

Herrington: No. The time we were growing up back in the 60s, every kid wanted to go to the Moon. I think a lot of the folks that I worked with at NASA were from the generation that grew up at that period of time. That was what inspired them. That’s why they’re doing what they’re doing.

TSR: Did that inspire you too?

Herrington: It inspired me. I dreamed about it, but I never thought it was something I could do. It was always, “I saw other people do it.”

TSR: When did you figure out that was something that you actually could do?

The time we were growing up back in the 60s, every kid wanted to go to the Moon. I think a lot of the folks that I worked with at NASA were from the generation that grew up at that period of time.

Herrington: Test pilot school. When I was a test pilot, in the hangar, there’s a bunch of plaques of all the people who graduated before you. In your curiosity, you start looking at the names of all the people who graduated in the past—

TSR: Armstrong—

Herrington: Armstrong, Jim Lovell, John Young, all those folks. All these people that made history back in the 60s and the folks that we’ve watched had been doing the same thing—

TSR: The Apollo astronauts and the Mercury astronauts, almost all of them are there.

Herrington: You go, “Wow.” It’s a natural extension. A lot of folks apply to NASA coming out of test pilot school, coming out of their first tour as a test pilot.

TSR: How are Navy test pilots different from Tom Cruise, Top Gun?

Herrington: Tom Cruise is an actor. That’s a big difference.

TSR: I mean what he portrayed.

Herrington: There’s an outside glamour to what you do, but the work is incredibly difficult. It takes a lot of effort. I think people like doing it because of the challenge that’s involved in it.

TSR: So you’re not on the line out in the Gulf, but it’s harder to become a test pilot than an ace pilot?

Herrington: There’s a selection process for going to test pilot school. It’s a pretty rigorous process based on what your technical background is and your performance in the squadron. They got a lot of people apply to it. They’ve got to look at it and narrow it down.

TSR: Is it one of the most exclusive programs that’s offered?

Herrington: It’s one of the most difficult programs, yeah, to get into.

TSR: Who graduated ahead of you in Aviation Officer Candidate School (OCS)?

Herrington: Oh, what was his name? Reddin. Mark Reddin. Number one. He was number one, I was number two.

TSR: You are not used to being number two at anything.

Herrington: It’s funny. It’s really strange. I’ve been number two most of my career. Of all the stuff I have done, I have mostly been number two.

TSR: Really? You are first lieutenant in this and first lieutenant in that.

Herrington: I graduated in the top 10% of my class in OCS. Out of thirty people, there’s three.

In a squadron, you rise to the top and you work very hard. There are a lot of folks that work incredibly hard. Some folks have different ways of doing things. Some skippers like some and some skippers like others.

TSR: How do you distinguish yourself? Obviously, you toe the line on discipline.

Herrington: Yeah. Do your job. Do your job as effectively as possible. Be a good person.

TSR: Do you have to initiate stuff?

At the very end of the launch, I remember one of the first things I did once the engines quit was I had to let go of my book to prove I was in space. I said, “Wow, this floating stuff really works!”

Herrington: Yeah, it’s the people who come up with ideas and step out in front. And don’t always wait for someone to say, “Hey, go do this!” Yeah, it’s people who take the initiative. When somebody gives you something, you take it and run with it, too. That happens a lot. I tell kids, “You don’t have to be the smartest kid in class. It helps to be one of the best who works with others.” It’s a team effort. You can be the smartest person in the world, but if you can’t work well with others, you can’t work in this type of environment. You really can’t. You can be a research scientist and go off and do research by yourself if that’s what you want and that’s what you like. To each their own.

STS-113 and science fiction

TSR: That brings me to NASA. On STS-113, did you sometimes wonder if Stanley Kubrick [Director of 2001] was going to yell, “Cut!”?

Herrington: 2001: A Space Odyssey. I was waiting for HAL the computer to start talking.

TSR: I was going to ask you that next.

Herrington: It’s this unique environment. You’ve got to pinch yourself and go, “Wow, I am really here!” I was looking at a video of my flight. At the very end of the launch, I remember one of the first things I did once the engines quit was I had to let go of my book to prove I was in space. I don’t remember what I said until I was seeing the video. And I said, “Wow, this floating stuff really works!” My book was in front of me. It was pretty cool.

TSR: Picture perfect. When you went out to fix the UHF antenna, did any of your computers tell you that [the antenna] had a fault, and did Mission Control tell you to leave it in there and see if it failed [like in 2001]?

Herrington: No. No. That was neat. We didn’t know what happened to that antenna.

TSR: What happened?

Herrington: When we were in the airlock waiting to go out and do our spacewalk, it was a spacewalk where I had to ride the robotic arm to put a series of these little gadgets on these fluid connectors. My job was to ride the arm because every time I trained for [the space walk] in the pool, I couldn’t [traverse the truss without the arm] because the structure in the pool was right close to the surface of the water. I couldn’t get into position because my feet [would have been] out of the water; you can’t do that—you don’t float any more. We never trained for it that way. I always trained to ride the arm. That morning, the arm didn’t make its way down. The mobile transporter that works its way down the rail got stuck. We don’t know why it got stuck. We didn’t know what the reason was. Mike [Lopez-Alegria] and I [were] in the airlock. I was going to be the first one out of the airlock that day.

TSR: You said, “I can do this upside down!”

Herrington: No. I didn’t know what it was until I got out there. We thought we had done something. We thought maybe we had left a tether or we may have done something that had caused it. That was just excruciating thinking, “What could we have done to mess this up?” Until you get out there and you realize—it was actually a feeling of relief—I saw that what was impeding the thing from moving was the antenna! And then I deployed the antenna. It was fun because it was not what we had planned to do. You get creative. You think on your feet.

TSR: Or in your case, off your feet. As long as it’s not serious.

Herrington: Yeah. If it’s not serious.

TSR: If it’s unplanned, then you see what happens.

Herrington: It changes the whole dynamic of the EVA. Now you can’t do what you trained to do for months. Now you have to do it completely different. The people on the ground worked incredibly hard to re-plan this whole thing. At the same time you’re thinking, “How can I do this?” And you come up with a plan and then hope your plan matches their plan; you come to some agreement. It worked out great. Mike and I actually went off and did the task that I was going to do primarily; we did it together just doing heads-down work getting into position that was a really difficult position to get into. But it all worked out. We did everything we planned on doing and then some.

TSR: Did you ever lose the handhold and have to climb back up your tether?

Herrington: Oh no, no, no. That would have been a bad day. You make a point of not doing that.

TSR: I can imagine. What was your title on the flight?

Herrington: I was a Mission Specialist Two. The way it works is you’ve got the Commander and the Pilot and the Flight Engineer, there’s Mission Specialist Two, while Mission Specialist One usually sits next to him on the flight deck. Any other mission specialists or payload specialists are on the mid-deck.

TSR: Did the Flight Engineer ever say, “We need more power, Bones!”

Herrington: My nickname is “Bone” actually, not “Bones”.

TSR: Is that based on your middle name?

Herrington: No, it’s based on my last name. Herrington. Herring bone. That’s the story. I’m sticking to it.

TSR: Any EVAs planned for Rocketplane?

Herrington: Not planned, not unplanned, no. To leave this vehicle would not be a good thing.

TSR: Okay. So you’ll wait for the next generation vehicle?

This is a high-speed vehicle flying in a regime we haven’t done since the late 50s, early 60s. You talk X-15 and things like that. That’s pretty much about the lines of what it’s gonna be.

Herrington: At some point in time, maybe the opportunity presents itself. When we have a follow-on vehicle where that could be done, that would certainly be something we would entertain. It’s a fabulous thing to do.

TSR: Did you have you have [Rocketplane] go to V-tail and delta wings to be like Firefox?

Herrington: No. I was not involved in the process at all in terms of changing the design.

Getting personal

TSR: So you’re just getting up to speed. When was your first day?

Herrington: Tuesday [September 6] was my first day. I am in the process of learning. I have a bunch of stuff here to read. Going to the standups [engineering meetings].

TSR: You also restore cars as a hobby?

Herrington: I got a Volkswagen Karmann Ghia that I restored a bunch of years ago. I am going to bring it up here shortly.

TSR: Not Corvettes like the Lunar astronauts?

Herrington: No. Uh-uh.

TSR: Not yet, not on a government salary?

Herrington: Certainly not on the cost of gas any more.

TSR: So now you’re going to soup up a Learjet.

Herrington: Yeah. That’s a good way to put it, I suppose.

TSR: So is it a nostalgia thing like cars? Are you going to relive the glory days of X-15 in this thing?

Herrington: This is a high-speed vehicle flying in a regime we haven’t done since the late 50s, early 60s. You talk X-15 and things like that. That’s pretty much about the lines of what it’s gonna be. It’s going to be fly by wire though which is going to be a different extension of [the regime]. Certainly the flight tests are going to be along the same lines [as X-15].

Next week: Testing Rocketplane XP