Before Bernard Harris Jr. was allowed to take a Navajo flag aboard Discovery, tribal medicine men had to bless it with corn pollen and make sure the space shuttle's path fit with their beliefs: It had to orbit clockwise.
When the Navajo decided that Discovery's orbit met their requirement, all signals were go for Harris to carry the first Navajo item to fly in space. NASA allows astronauts to carry up a few small belongings for whomever they want.
"I'm flying this flag for them because being there I could see their plight as the original Americans," said Harris, a 38-year-old physician who lived on a Navajo reservation from ages 7 to 15. His mother taught at boarding schools run by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Harris, who will become the first African-American to walk in space today, approached the Navajo in December about taking some tribal item with him on the mission.
Navajo Nation President Albert Hale decided on a flag after consulting with medicine men to make sure no spiritual traditions would be violated. The flag was blessed last month by Navajo medicine man Ross Nez.
Through a ceremony, Nez "was told by the Creator and the Holy People that it would strengthen the Navajo Nation for this flag to go around Mother Earth," Navajo spokeswoman Valerie Taliman said Wednesday.
The Navajo flag depicts the four sacred mountains that delineate traditional Navajo territory. "The flag is a symbol of our nation and reminds us of how we must live in balance with our Mother Earth to survive," Hale said.
Nez blessed the flag by sprinkling it with corn pollen, which has an importance for the Navajo roughly similar to holy water in the Catholic church.
Hale sent the blessed flag to NASA. A few days later, he said, an official called: "We have the flag, but we have a question. What is this yellow stuff on it?"
Hale assured NASA the powder was sacred pollen used in prayers.
After the eight-day flight, scheduled to end Saturday, the flag will be returned to the Navajos. Then it will be flown at the Navajo Nation Capitol in Window Rock, Ariz.
The 200,000-member Navajo nation is the largest Indian nation in the United States. Its 125,000-square-mile reservation covers much of northeastern Arizona plus adjoining sections of New Mexico and Utah.
Hale said that while the Navajos are proud of Harris, "We, too, aspire to have Navajos walking in space."