First Native American in space reflects on the journey

On the anniversary of the Apollo 11, and the first moon landing, Indian Country Today speaks with Natives Americans at NASA

John Herrington has seen the world in ways many only dream they could.

He’s traveled across the country on his bike, starting on the Pacific coast in Cape Flattery, Washington, and peddling all the way to the waters of the Atlantic Ocean in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

He took part in a mission that had him spend 10 days underwater, with the idea of working and living in an environment not hospitable to life.

And, oh yeah, Herrington spent nearly two weeks aboard the International Space Station, performing three spacewalks 220,000 miles above Earth hanging by a thumb and a forefinger.

“I’ve had a 3D view of life on this planet,” Herrington said, “it makes me appreciate it even more.”

As a kid growing up in the 1960s, Herrington, Chickasaw, and his brother would build spaceships out of cardboard boxes, lay in them and dream about going to the moon.

“We’d draw stuff on the inside of it and pretend we were Apollo astronauts,” Herrington said. “I dreamed about it (becoming an astronaut) but it was not something I really pursued until much later in my career.”

This Saturday, July 20th, NASA and the United States celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing mission, a feat that hasn’t been accomplished since Apollo 17 in 1972.

Just a few months away from his 61st birthday, Herrington remembers gathering around the TV with his family to watch Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon from his home in Black Forest, Colorado.

Although he may have dreamed about becoming an astronaut as a kid, Herrington’s path to the launch pad in 2002 was somewhat unconventional. He admits to having some troubles growing up and not doing well in school but ultimately found a passion for mathematics through rock climbing on a survey crew in the mountains for Colorado.

“I was learning mathematics in a practical, every day way and the guy I worked for convinced me if I wanted to be something, I needed to go back to school and become an engineer and get a college education,” Herrington said.

Herrington went on to get his Bachelor of Science degree in Applied Mathematics and later his Master of Science degree in Aeronautical Engineering as well as a Ph.D. in Education. He’s quick to credit his mentors and people who pushed him to be better.

“I’ve had people in my life that encouraged me to do something,” he said, “I took their advice and I did it, I wouldn’t be talking to you if I hadn’t.”

Ultimately, he became the first Native American to fly into space.

On his trip, Herrington took with him the flag of the Chickasaw Nation, a friend’s 100 year old regalia, as well as eagle feathers and flutes.

It was an honor of a lifetime and being able to share his background and upbringing is something he takes very seriously.

Today, Herrington does a lot of speaking engagements and work with Native students, looking for the factors that motivate and engage them to learn math and science, spreading the idea of living your dreams.

“I think that’s one of the biggest things that came out of me being an astronaut is having the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others,” he said.

Given the chance to do it all over again, Herrington said he would in a heartbeat, adding he wouldn’t think twice about going to Mars either given the opportunity. There is always another challenge, something new to learn.

“Apollo inspired us to do the space shuttle and station,” he said. “Our lives would not be the same if we didn’t aspire to go to space.”

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Kolby KickingWoman is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today. He is Blackfeet/Gros Ventre from the great state of Montana and currently reports and lives in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter - @KDKW_406. Email - kkickingwoman@indiancountrytoday.com

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