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 (part 3)

Awe and satisfaction

TSR: Do you feel more divine awe after your trip into space?

Herrington: You feel a certain kind of spirituality that reinforces your beliefs when you get back and look at the Earth again.

TSR: Can you talk about what you believe in, in a spiritual sense?

Herrington: You look down at the Earth. You can’t help but think that there is some greater power that produced this wonderful jewel. It’s fabulous to go back and look at it. But you can’t see the tiniest thing. You can see everything in its entirety. It’s all put together and it’s a remarkable world to look at. That’s when you’re filled with this sense of awe that there’s got to be something that has made this possible. In my mind, it can’t be happenstance. It can’t be let’s come together and get a big bang, boom.

TSR: This is on purpose. This is too unlikely a beauty to be random chance.

Herrington: I’m not a scientist. I’m not going to argue creationism, evolution, and all that stuff. I’m just going to look at it and say, “From my perspective, it’s remarkable.”

TSR: Kudos to the artist.

You look down at the Earth. You can’t help but think that there is some greater power that produced this wonderful jewel.

Herrington: It’s a beautiful thing to look at. From the perspective of flying in space, I got a chance, a year ago, to go underwater and live underwater for ten days. It was a spaceflight analog, but underwater. It was exactly like flying in space except it’s wet. You’re floating, but you’re floating and scuba diving. There you see the tiniest thing. You can’t see the entirety, but you can see the smallest thing. So I got a chance to see things at this very macro scale, and then go down and see them on a micro scale. Shrimp krill is about yea big.

TSR: A millimeter?

Herrington: Yeah, millions of them. You watch the fish dart in and out. You see this other perspective and get a really nice balance to what I could see from space.

NASA and space tourism

TSR: So how many tourists do you think you can fit in the Shuttle-Derived Heavy-Lift Vehicle (SDHLV) if I wanted to rent one?

Herrington: I have no idea.

TSR: One hundred tons. What’s your payload at Rocketplane?

Herrington: We are seating four. Pilot, co-pilot, and two paying passengers.

TSR: About one ton for four people, so you might be able to have 300 people in the SDHLV in the back?

Herrington: You’ll have to talk to NASA about that. It’d be quite a ride, wouldn’t it?

TSR: Do you think NASA has gone overboard on the safety?

Herrington: No. I don’t think so at all. I think the people work very diligently and look at every aspect of what details. The cost of doing that is a very methodical process that takes an incredible amount of time, and an incredible number of people to be able to answer those questions.

TSR: Should the goal be 1-in-200 or 1-in-400, or should the goal be 1-in-50?

Herrington: I would put a marker on it. Make it as safe as you can, but you’ve got to accept a level of risk based on what the outcome of that is going to be. If you are willing to accept a 1-in-50 or a 1-in-300 chance when you’re flying in space, what is the outcome going to be? What are we trying to get from that? Is it go up and come home? Is it worth it to go up and look out the window and come back?

TSR: Do you think if we spent an extra $X on better flood control, we might be able to increase safety more than an extra $X on NASA?

Herrington: It all depends. How much do we spend on flood control? How many billions of dollars do we spend on infrastructure? How much dollars do we spend on people going to space?

TSR: For rebuilding New Orleans, you are talking ten times NASA’s entire annual budget.

Herrington: We have priorities in this country, and the government is responsible for setting the priorities on how our tax dollars are spent. The taxpayers, as voters, it’s our responsibility to tell them how we want that money spent. If we want the money spent on New Orleans and saving lives, then that’s where it should be spent? And that’s what Congress is doing. That’s what they have to do.

TSR: $60 billion in the last couple of weeks.

Herrington: They spend the money where it should be spent.

TSR: Do you think that if NASA was under less scrutiny it might be able to do its job better?

Herrington: I don’t think it’s a matter of scrutiny. You have a job to do with an amount of dollars that you are given. You have to find ways to utilize that. If the process with which NASA does things to produce a product costs a certain dollar figure, to optimize that, that’s what they need to do.

TSR: It’s constantly in the press for every little decision, every little flaw. Is that a big distraction?

Herrington: It’s frustrating to see a lot of the articles written. A lot of times the articles talk only about the bad part of what’s going on. They focus on the negative rather than focusing on the positive. At the launch of STS-114, it was a fabulous experience to see the positive aspects of flying humans into space. But after launch occurred and foam fell off the tank, we once again focused not on the positive aspects of what we were doing, but on the negative aspects of it. Fortunately, there were no fatalities out of that, but [the focus was on], “Why did something else occur again?” A lot of times the media does focus on the negative side of it.

TSR: Not the picture that you’d want to paint of NASA, the more balanced picture where there’s a lot you guys are accomplishing.

Herrington: The picture I would paint of NASA, having been involved with NASA, is of the people. The people love what they do. They want to do the right thing. They love flying into space. They love helping fly people into space. It’s a pride, a sense of personal pride of the people there. Having said that, they have to work through a bureaucracy that costs a lot of money to get accomplished what flying in space is all about. But people are doing the right thing. They want to do the right thing. Unfortunately, I think sometimes the bureaucracy is so big, it’s difficult for them to do that in a cost-effective manner. I am making the transition of going from the public sector to the private sector to see how things are done.

TSR: How long were you in the public sector?

Herrington: Twenty-two years in the Navy and nine in NASA.

TSR: Were you Navy and NASA at the same time?

Herrington: Yes, I was assigned to NASA for my time there like being assigned to a squadron. That’s what I did.

TSR: How would you like to be a reserve pilot for NASA like in the naval reserves, in case they need a spaceship guy? They need to call up the reserves because they build a lot of extra spaceships.

Herrington: I’d love to fly in space again. I’d love to fly in space with NASA. I’d love to fly with Rocketplane. Space is a fabulous thing. I want to do what I set out to do with Rocketplane because I think it’s unique, it’s a one-of-a-kind vehicle.

TSR: What would you pay to go to ISS again as a tourist?

Herrington: I’d prefer not to pay. As an astronaut, you go up to do the work. You go up for the sensation of flying—you want to do that—but you have a job to do. It’s the satisfaction that comes back from doing that job as an astronaut. There’ll be a point in time where people can pay to fly; that’s what we’re trying to do here [at Rocketplane]. People can fly in space and get a chance to experience that, OK? But an extension to that is to be able to go up and do something.

The picture I would paint of NASA, having been involved with NASA, is of the people. The people love what they do. They want to do the right thing. They love flying into space.

It’s in the nature of all of us that we’d like to go up and do something and get a feeling of satisfaction from doing it. [Rocketplane’s flights] are just an opportunity to go up and experience what it’s like. There’s an extension to that, we had the opportunity to go up and do work and be productive and that’s what’s fantastic about STS-113: not just looking out the window, but going up and doing some work and coming back and experiencing that feeling of satisfaction from doing what you were trained to do.

So flying Rocketplane XP for me, personally—involved in the development of it, to actually see it through that, to actually fly it into space—that will be a huge feeling of satisfaction. I get to look out the window too. But what it’s going to be for me is to take something from a creation that folks have done here and be able to take people up and let them experience that and share that. That’s where my feeling of satisfaction is going to come from.

TSR: You wouldn’t think it would be enough to just be a passenger. You’d want to be the enabler.

Herrington: If I didn’t have another opportunity, being a passenger is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. You go to see some place. You go to a spot in the world that you just want to go see, you get a huge feeling of enjoyment out of that. If I had the opportunity to go and do something else, an extension of that—

TSR: It’s a whole ‘nother level.

Herrington: It’s a whole ‘nother level. But if I only had one opportunity to go and could pay money to do it, I’d do it! Because it is a fantastic place—

TSR: Like Dennis Tito said, he’d pay all his money except for $1?

Herrington: I’d like to talk to him and see what his perspective on this is. I never got a chance to do that.

TSR: Does the public think it is worth it for NASA to fly?

Herrington: For the longest time the main reason to fly in space has been the political reason. International cooperation is fabulous when it comes to the space station. It’s not making a dollar off of it. The money you spend on going to space, you don’t throw it into space, you spend it on kids going to lessons, buying cars. The money that is used for infrastructure at Boeing or United Space Alliance or Lockheed or NASA civil service, that all goes into the economy. People don’t realize that. It’s not tossed away in space.

TSR: It’s sitting up there. It’s not like something we send to Department of Defense that when it’s done, it’s blown up.

Herrington: People pay taxes for flying the space shuttle. It’s a tax. It’s a value people don’t want to spend. I use this argument: on average it doesn’t cost the American taxpayer that much to fly the shuttle. A while back it was about $3.2 billion per year. I went into the NASA budget and pulled up something on the web that said about $3.2 billion to operate the shuttle.

TSR: It’s about ten bucks a person per year?

Herrington: I figure there are about 300 million people so it’s eleven bucks per person per year. We spend about $6.9 billion on Halloween every year. We spent about $3.2 billion to operate the shuttle at the time, and $6.9 billion that same year on the cost of the candies. I use the argument, “If we are willing to spend billions of dollars on something that is one day out of the year. Why do we do that?” One lady came back and said, “That’s money we choose to spend. It’s not tax dollars; it’s our choice.”

TSR: More people agree that we have a shuttle than actually go out trick-or-treating. Because if the majority of people didn’t want it, they could squash it.

SpaceShipOne, Rocketplane, any of the corporations, we’re not doing what NASA does. NASA has a particular mission to do and it’s not to fly tourists in space.

Herrington: I try to put in perspective that it’s an eleven-dollar value. That’s not much money in my pocket. I spend huge amounts of money on other things and I see return on my NASA investment. I’m wearing a quartz watch. I’ve got running shoes. There’s a smoke detector in my house. I just poked a thermometer in a kid’s ear. Those are an outgrowth of the space program I just took for granted. Most people don’t realize.

TSR: Having that kind of technical challenge spurs innovation. NASA doesn’t really have a revenue generation culture, more of a cost minimization culture.

Herrington: It’s an organization dedicated around safety and using the public dollar to do what it sets out to do. You can’t go out and put an advertisement on the side of the vehicle. It’s just not allowed.

TSR: It’s not really geared to setting up a hotel like the National Park Service or a toll bridge like the Department of Transportation?

Herrington: No. One of the astronauts did a very good editorial when SpaceShipOne first flew. SpaceShipOne, Rocketplane, any of the corporations, we’re not doing what NASA does. NASA has a particular mission to do and it’s not to fly tourists in space.

TSR: Not yet.

Herrington: It’s meant to do exploration. It’s a research platform. It’s to do things that take us beyond.

TSR: The Aldridge Commission does say that it has a commercialization mission.

Herrington: I think at some point in time in some aspects it does in terms of what the outgrowth of what NASA does is used in commercialization. What are the byproducts of flying in space? If NASA does something and a corporation produces a product that is available to the public and can sell it to the market. In that sense, yeah, that is commercialization. There’s all kinds of stuff.

TSR: Sure. Bigelow’s taking some of the NASA technology. It’s transferred to Bigelow and he’s going to put up a space station with it and we can buy flights to it maybe on Rocketplane.

Speaking of it

TSR: I am sure Rocketplane will want you to keep talking up space.

Herrington: I am still looking at doing talks. Along with the rest of the NASA astronauts I’ve got a lot of requests to speak. And that is not going to subside now that I’m at Rocketplane, probably even more so. I can only do so many. I’ve got a job to do, but I’d love to go out and talk about flying in space, the motivational aspect of it. A lot of the groups that I want to speak to, that need to hear what I want to talk about can’t afford it. I am talking to schools, I am talking to groups of kids. There’s a message I want to get out to students.

TSR: Will you emigrate to the Moon with your kids?

What it’s going to be for me is to take something that folks have done here and be able to take people up and let them experience that and share that. That’s where my feeling of satisfaction is going to come from.

Herrington: I would love to take the kids with me. I wouldn’t say I’d want to live on the Moon the rest of my life. There’s a lot of places you want to go, you want to visit, you want to see, you want to experience, you want to touch. To have the opportunity to do that would be fabulous. I would like to think in my kids’ lifetime, hopefully in my lifetime, that we’ll be able to do that.

TSR: Hopefully in the next 20 years.

Herrington: I’ll be in my sixties, that’s not bad.

TSR: You’ve outlined a kind of purity of thought, of vision of action. Fly people into space, do it well, tell people about it.

Herrington: Do it safely, do it well, get people to experience it.