As a part of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Native November, John Herrington, the first enrolled Native American astronaut, shared his career journey to a full audience of students, faculty, community members, and elders at a Nov. 17, 2016, talk on the UW-Madison engineering campus.
To this day, of the billions of people that have ever lived, only 221 people have completed space walks; Herrington was the 143rd. Given that so few people have had the privilege of being an astronaut, Herrington feels like it is his duty to share his experience—in part, to demonstrate to young people from groups traditionally underrepresented in science disciplines that careers like his are within their reach.
Herrington, a member of the Chickasaw Nation, was a mission specialist on the space shuttle Endeavour for the 16th mission to the International Space Station. During that 13-day mission, which began Nov. 23, 2003, Herrington spent nearly 20 hours on space walks and honored his Chickasaw heritage by bringing its flag, as well as an eagle feather and flute, which are now in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.
Though, as a child of the 1960s, his aspirations of space travel might be considered common, Herrington’s journey to becoming an astronaut was far from typical.
A first-generation college student at the University of Colorado, he devoted significant time to rock climbing and ended up falling behind in his studies, so he dropped out and got a job as a rock climber for a surveying team. Herrington’s boss at that job saw his potential and encouraged him to go back to school. So Herrington reapplied with a GPA of 1.72, was admitted, and completed his degree. After graduating, Herrington joined the Navy, where he had to apply twice to become a test pilot.
Herrington entered in the Navy in 1984 and served as a Naval Aviator with Patrol Squadrons 31 and 48. In the Navy he took on many roles including Patrol Plane Commander, Mission Commander, Patrol Plane Instructor Pilot, and Aeronautical Engineering Duty Officer, and learned to pilot many aircrafts including P-3C Orions, T-34Cs and Dash 7s. During his service, Herrington was honored with the Legion of Merit, NASA Spaceflight Medal, Meritorious Service Medal, Navy Commendation Medal and many other service awards.
Herrington said that he focused his talk on the challenges he faced—and ultimately overcame—so that he could inspire the next generation of engineers to pursue their dreams as well. “If you dream about something, you can accomplish anything,” he said. “We need you to make a difference.”
In a similarly inspiring response to an audience member’s question about the self-doubts of up-and-coming Native American scholars, Herrington cited the history of Native American engineering achievements, including those of the Cahokia Mounds and Chaco Canyon. “While Europe was in the Dark Ages, we were building five-story structures,” says Herrington. “You can do that; your ancestors did.”
His story was not all about becoming an astronaut. After he retired from the Navy and NASA in 2005, Herrington turned to education and outreach. In 2008, he went on a three-month cross-country bicycle ride from Cape Flattery, Washington, to Cape Canaveral, Florida. On the ride, which Herrington called Rocketrek, he wrote a story that included a math or science problem every day to raise awareness about science, technology, engineering and math education.
This passion for education and awareness spurred Herrington to return to school once again. At the University of Idaho, he studied the success of Native Americans in math and science, graduating in 2014 with a PhD in education.
While in Wisconsin, Herrington also spoke at the College of Menominee Nation (CMN), which has a main campus in Keshena, Wisconsin, and an urban campus in Green Bay, Wisconsin. At CMN, Herrington shared a similar message encouraging pre-college CMN students to pursue their dreams. (UW-Madison and CMN have a long-standing collaboration aimed at increasing the number of Native American students earning a degree in engineering. This partnership is supported in part by the Tribal Colleges and Universities Program and the Directorate of Engineering of the National Science Foundation.)
Herrington’s talk was one of many Native November events taking place at UW-Madison to celebrate Native American culture, including indigenous cooking workshops, craft workshops, and presentations about Native American culture.
Herrington, whose talks in Wisconsin occurred almost exactly 14 years to the date he made history as the first Native astronaut to travel to space, hopes his successes will pave the way for young American Indian students.
“It is my hope that my story will resonate with students,” he says. “Each of us will experience periods in our lives that will challenge us. Rising to the challenge requires that we believe in ourselves and the people that believe in us.”
Author: Pat DeFlorin