Astronaut John Herrington (pictured left) wants to follow in the footsteps of 1964 Olympian Billy Mills, a Native American who unexpectedly won the gold medal in the 10,000-meter race. It's not that he wants to be an Olympic runner. Herrington is more interested in doing what Mills did later. Herrington, a member of the Chickasaw Nation, wants to devote much of his time helping young Native Americans realize and pursue their dreams, just as Mills has.

As a child, Herrington had the potential for a career in engineering, although it took him a while to realize it. But thanks to some guidance and encouragement, Herrington became the first tribally enrolled Native American astronaut. His accomplishments have inspired both the Native American and scientific communities and have created an interesting confluence of cultures.

Finding His Way

Space and flying were nothing new to Herrington. While he was growing up, his family moved from one part of the country to another, and he took flying lessons and attended many air shows with his father, who worked as a flight instructor. Earlier in his childhood, inspired by the space program of the 1960s, Herrington loved playing in a cardboard box, pretending with his friends that it was a rocket ship headed to the moon.

But at that time, the idea of becoming an astronaut was "just a dream," Herrington says. When his eighth grade teacher told him that he wasn't smart enough to do algebra, it seemed the odds of him ending up in space were against him.

Because his parents encouraged him and his siblings to become well-educated, he attended college in Colorado, but he didn't want to be in school. He disliked his courses and was homesick and lonely. Being outdoors was the only thing that made him feel good, so he spent a lot of time rock climbing. He was dismissed from college because of poor academic achievement.

Herrington's love of rock climbing, however, soon netted him a job as a climber on a land-survey crew. To his surprise, he found the job rewarding and fulfilling. He enjoyed learning how engineers use math as part of the job. His boss recognized his intellect and encouraged him to go back to college. He did.

A Desire to Fly

The second time around, Herrington had a better experience in college. He received a B.S. in applied mathematics from the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. He survived this time, in part, because he acquired a close circle of friends who formed a study group.

During his senior year, he served as a grader and a tutor for the math department. Among his students was a retired navy captain who talked about what it was like to fly for a living. This encounter renewed Herrington's desire to fly. He became convinced that it was a "pretty neat thing."

After receiving his bachelor's degree in 1983, he heeded the captain's advice and entered the U.S. Navy's Aviation Officer Candidate School in Pensacola, Florida. He went on to complete pilot training and eventually attended the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School in Patuxent River, Maryland. He logged more than 3800 hours of flying time in more than 30 kinds of aircraft.

While attending test pilot school he started to believe his dream of becoming an astronaut could actually come true: "All the people I admired as a kid were in the space program. A lot of them had been navy test pilots, which was the exact same thing I was doing."

To gain a competitive edge, he completed an M.S. in aeronautical engineering at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, and in 1996 he was among 44 candidates selected from an application pool of 2500 for NASA's astronaut program.

After completing his 2-year training, Herrington spent a lot of time assisting the launch and recovery operations of NASA's space shuttle. He also continued to train using simulators and worked on avionics and motion-control systems for the space shuttles and international space station.

His big moment came on 23 November 2002, when the space shuttle Endeavour, flight STS-113, flew into space. For about 2 weeks, Herrington served as a flight engineer for the mission, making him the first tribally enrolled Native American to go into space. Herrington's tasks included helping deliver the new inhabitants to the space station and installing a 55-meter, 14-ton structure at the station--which required three spacewalks--to enhance the station's power, data, and temperature controls. To honor his culture, he brought along some native flags and feathers. His childhood dream was a dream no more.

Herrington recalled his time in space with satisfaction. Working in zero gravity gave him the opportunity to do and witness things that people on Earth can't do or see, like watching his books hover in midair and sleeping on the ceiling. As he put it, as a child, "you always want to be your own airplane." He was one of the very few kids who actually managed to fly on his own when he grew up.

One Man's Accomplishments Benefit Everyone

Herrington's presence in NASA's space program has helped bridge the world of Native Americans and science. Prior to his 2002 space mission, for instance, NASA held an event in Herrington's honor that brought together hundreds of Indians and non-Indians. The Tribal College Journal reported that leaders and representatives from at least 45 tribes and 11 of the 35 tribal colleges attended. The event combined science and culture through Native American dance and music, while NASA representatives talked to Indians about the agency's programs and goals.

Giving Back

Part of Herrington's role as an astronaut involves community outreach. Through formal presentations and visits to Native American communities, Herrington actively promotes the benefits of higher education by helping them understand the challenges he faced in becoming an astronaut. For those interested in pursuing science or engineering careers, he gives the following advice:

  • Get a good college education.

  • Surround yourself with the right people. Build close ties with the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES).

  • Set goals and remain motivated.

  • Realize that Native Americans, or members of any other underrepresented minority, make great scientists if they are willing to work hard and stay focused on their dream.

  • Eventually, Herrington wants to spend more time helping children find and accomplish their dreams. He is considering a career in teaching, combining, he hopes, the children's enthusiasm for space with his knowledge of the field. He hopes these interactions will motivate youngsters to become engineers, mathematicians, and astronauts. According to Jerry Elliott, Herrington's close friend who's also an engineer at Houston's Johnson Space Center, "[Herrington] is a wonderful role model, giving much inspiration and hope that anyone can truly be what they want to be."

    Edna Francisco is a contributing writer for MiSciNet and may be reached at eofrancisco@nasw.org.