Pioneers of the Final Frontier
Oklahoma’s long-standing connection to NASA holds true to the state’s adventurous spirit.
So, what’s it like in space?
Astronaut, pilot and Wetumka native John Herrington chuckles and describes this thought as “the million dollar question.”
From launch to re-entry, every little snippet of the process, he says, makes for an experience that can only be described as “dreamlike.”
“When you get into space and the engines quit, you go from 3Gs (three times your body weight) and you’re floating. You’re not accelerating anymore – you’re weightless. You’re floating for the first time and watching stuff float in front of your face. The first thing I did was let go of my checklist and watch it hover in front of my eyes. It’s fascinating. You look down at the Earth and are able to point out different places you’ve only seen before on maps,” he recalls.
“I think the most remarkable part is being able to see places around the world that you’ve been – knowing that you’ve been there and viewing them from a vantage point that so few people in the history of the human race have gotten to see. I was up one night looking out of the window and I could see Paris. I could see London. There are so many beautiful things you can see on Earth, like the turquoise blue water in glacial lakes. It’s an amazing, beautiful moving picture. The Earth is a living, breathing thing.”
Although breathtaking and hypnotic, he’s quick to point out that those moments only lasted for so long before he’d be back to the task at hand.
There was work to be done.
“Beyond the freedom of flight, what I enjoy most about flying is the responsibility it gives me, not just for myself, but for the crew of people I’m responsible for,” says Herrington. “As a pilot, you have to be at the top of your game and perform well in all sorts of different conditions. You have to accomplish the mission and bring everyone back safely.”
This kind of work ethic says a lot about the hard-working stock that Herrington comes from, and on a broader spectrum, speaks volumes for his home state’s extensive involvement with the NASA program as a whole.
Whether piloting spacecraft, conducting experiments in space or building parts and pieces for spacecraft and modules from down on terra firma, Oklahomans have participated in every phase of the NASA program.
From the very first Mercury mission through the Gemini, Apollo and Shuttle programs, Skylab and MIR and International space stations, in no other state is the connection between exploring new frontiers and outer space more evident and alive than it is in Oklahoma.
A Natural Progression
Something very special happened when the first covered wagons rumbled across the wide-open prairies of Oklahoma: The adventurous spirit of the pioneer dug its roots deep into the red dirt and became embedded into the very essence of the new frontier.
With the predecessors to space flight being the earliest airplane pilots that first explored the open skies, the state’s historical ties to aviation played a key role in a natural progression into the widest open spaces of all – outer space, the final frontier.
“Both our terrain and weather are ideal for aviation, so Oklahoma has more flyable days in a year than most other states. This has made for many young folks here growing up involved in flight – be they pilots or military or simply enthusiasts. Historically, some of the most prominent folks that were involved in aviation very early on, like Wiley Post, Will Rogers and Clyde Cessna, were Oklahomans,” explains Kim Jones, deputy director curator for the Tulsa Air and Space Museum.
“There’s also the oil connection to aviation, which was huge. In the early days of the Wildcatters, if oil was struck somewhere, they had to get there in a hurry to get the royalties and rights to drill on the land. If they had an airplane and a pilot they could get there in a short period of time. Everybody in the oil business had a connection with aircraft and aviation to get them to these places quick.”
By the late 1950s, after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first human-made satellite, into orbit, the sky was no longer the limit, and as the United States entered the race for space, Oklahoma was right there on board from the get-go.
The first American satellite into orbit was manufactured at the then-Douglas Aircraft factory in Tulsa, and after assuming the Senate Space Committee chair, Oklahoma’s own Sen. Robert Kerr wasted no time requesting that the First Peaceful Uses of Space Conference be held in Tulsa.
Former president of Oklahoma City’s Kerr McGee, James Webb, who had just been made NASA’s first administrator, was happy to oblige.
One day after John F. Kennedy delivered the speech that would commit the nation to putting a man on the moon, the First Peaceful Uses of Space Conference brought all of the prominent names in space from around the world to Tulsa’s fairgrounds, and America’s journey into the unknown took off.
Bill Moore, author of Oklahomans and Space, found in his research that in every chapter of space exploration, the name of an Oklahoman astronaut can be found, whether they were born in, grew up in or spent a significant amount of time in their careers in Oklahoma.
One of the Original Mercury 7, Shawnee’s Gordon Cooper was not only Oklahoma’s first astronaut, but one of the nation’s first.
Having piloted Faith 7, the last and longest Mercury flight, he later proved on the Gemini 5 mission that human beings could survive in space long enough for a round-trip to the moon.
Weatherford native Gen. Thomas Stafford is an early space pioneer, literally cut from vintage pioneer cloth. His mother arrived with her family to their sod dugout, Western Oklahoma property in a covered wagon in 1901.
She lived to watch her son orbit the moon on colored television.
“I’ve wanted to fly since I was about 5 or 6 years old – around the time that the first transcontinental airlines were set up. Every day I would look up outside and watch as a couple of these big silver airplanes would fly over head and I would say, ‘That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to fly,’” Stafford says.
And fly he did.
Amongst numerous other feats spanning his career at NASA, his time on the Gemini missions in particular was essential to “thawing the Cold War” with the Soviets, conducting the first-ever rendezvous with them in space, proving that humans could not only dock there, but that it was possible to do extravehicular activities as well.
“It was a high and fast tempo, and we lived it. We did so many things so fast, which worked well for me because I always wanted to go higher and faster. It was a very exciting time and it was great to be a part of it all,” he recalls.
Owen Garriott, of Enid, was chosen by NASA as a member of the first group of scientist-astronauts, working as a mission specialist on America’s first space station, Skylab; William Pogue, who considers Sand Springs his hometown, also served on Skylab and multiple Apollo missions.
Apollo 13’s Fred Haise was from Mississippi but spent an extensive part of his career as a fighter pilot in the Oklahoma Air National Guard, while Stuart Roosa, of Claremore, served as Command Module Pilot on the Apollo 14 mission that would allow two astronauts to walk on the moon.
“At a time when there wasn’t much known about how humans would react in space, every step of the way there were potential life-threatening hazards. You looked up to these guys who were putting their lives on the line. They were heroes. The very first flight they wondered if humans could even survive space flight. There were a lot of unknowns. Some doctors predicted that blood would boil, and that without gravity, the body functions would cease to work. Our early astronauts were beyond brave,” says Moore.
“Also in the beginning, we were in a pretty stiff competition with the Soviet Union. There was a very real fear that when Sputnik flew over the Earth, they could drop bombs on us from space, so our astronauts were not only heroes, they were out there in a quasi battle with the Russians in space.”
Two Oklahoma astronauts in particular reached milestones beyond the boundaries of Earth’s atmosphere, expanding their reach into “firsts” of new classes.
As part of the first group of females to come into the astronaut corps in 1978, Dr. Shannon Lucid of Bethany came to work for NASA when the country first began incorporating females into the general workforce.
Although she had decided that she wanted to be an explorer as a little girl, Lucid says that growing up in the 1950s meant that she had many obstacles to overcome to get her there.
“Back then, girls weren’t allowed to do anything. You weren’t expected to do anything, so any time I said anything about wanting to become an explorer, I was told that, ‘Girls can’t do that.’ I just tuned them all out and decided I was going to do what I wanted and be whomever I wanted anyways,” she says.
After graduating with a degree in chemistry from the University of Oklahoma, the sixth woman in space battled years of struggling to find employment because of her gender before applying and being accepted into NASA.
Lucid would become the first woman to hold an international record for the most flight hours in orbit by any non-Russian, and, until June 2007, she also held the record for the most flight hours in orbit by any woman in the world for her scientific work on the MIR Russian Space Station.
The first enrolled Native American in space – a member of the Chickasaw Nation – Herrington remembers sitting in a cardboard box and dreaming of going to the moon as a kid.
It wasn’t until he was a Navy pilot with a master’s degree in Aeronautical Engineering that he realized his childhood dream wasn’t as far-fetched as he’d once thought it would be.
“I learned that a good portion of the people that I watched on TV had been Navy test pilots before they became astronauts, so to me it was a natural career progression,” he says.
Behind The Scenes
When you take into account the extensive number of Oklahoma engineers and scientists who have worked behind the scenes within the space program, what you get is a very comprehensive involvement in space exploration by Oklahomans.
After all, without scientists and engineers, astronauts would not only be lost in space, they couldn’t make it up there in the first place.
“Many of the engineers who first went to work for the newly created NASA in the beginning came from farms in rural areas,” Moore explains. “They were ambitious to move beyond the farm to do something bigger, so they were motivated when they got to college to do something where they could use their common sense and farm mechanical aptitude to get out and work on the vehicles that would take Americans out into space.”
Over the decades, countless engineers and scientists – both homegrown and imported from out of state – have first-handedly helped to further the country’s’ progress in space.
Some worked to design and assemble crucial spacecraft parts at Tulsa’s now-Spirit Aerosystems facility, which is comprised of many significant aircraft and aerospace company histories, like Douglas, North American Rockwell and Boeing.
Others began what would become their long-standing scientific careers at Oklahoma colleges and universities, moving on to provide their expertise and extensive research to the NASA program.
Dr. Vernon Jones, senior scientist for suborbital research at NASA headquarters, came to Oklahoma from Arkansas, earning his undergraduate degree in engineering physics at the University of Tulsa amidst the beginning of the Race for Space, just a few weeks before Sputnik was launched in 1957.
Although he doesn’t consider himself a “rocket scientist” per se, his work explores the kind of mind-boggling astrophysics, heliophysics and study of cosmic matter from both inside and outside of our galaxy that throw the layperson’s mind for a loop.
A manager of science activities, as well as a program scientist for one of the largest missions on the International Space Station – the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, launched last May – Jones explains that by constantly soliciting and receiving research proposals from scientists and institutions around the country, NASA is always hard at the grind, striving to dig deeper into space exploration at every level.
“I’ve never been as busy as I’ve been in the past year. NASA is a great agency to be a part of. The people here are very dedicated to what we do. It’s definitely exciting work. Our country – and the whole world, really – is fascinated by space. We always have been. There are always infinite possibilities that have yet to be explored,” he says.
Where Do We Go From Here?
As it stands currently, with the end of the shuttle program, the U.S. space shuttles are now dismantled, and the country is facing the challenge of forging ahead in new directions to carry on the pioneer spirit that will extend our reach farther out into the universe.
“There will always be kids looking for something in the future that is as challenging and exciting as space exploration – something that pulls them in and makes their imaginations spin wild with ideas,” Herrington says.
Sadly, many lament the recent de-emphasis of NASA’s deep reach into space.
“I think we really lose something as a country when we don’t have that as a national goal and priority,” Herrington says.