Former astronaut recounts how he reached for the stars

“My ancestors have given me the opportunity to walk the earth and fly above it,” Dr. John Herrington, the first American Indian (Chickasaw tribe) NASA astronaut and a retired Navy commander, said at NAVAIR’s virtual national American Indian Alaskan Native Heritage Month event Nov. 5. This year’s event theme was “Many Nations, One Fight!”

An 8-year-old boy built a rocket ship out of a cardboard box, dreaming he could fly to the moon.

That boy was Dr. John Herrington, who grew up to become the first American Indian (Chickasaw tribe) NASA astronaut, flying to space with STS-113 Endeavor in 2002. Herrington, a retired Navy commander and graduate of the Naval Test Pilot School (TPS) here, shared his story at NAVAIR’s national virtual American Indian Alaskan Native Heritage Month event Nov. 5.

“My ancestors — my parents, my grandparents — were able to make decisions that allowed them to survive,” he said. “My heritage, based on making good decisions, allowed me to do what I’ve done. It’s influenced my life greatly. My ancestors have given me the opportunity to walk the earth and fly above it.”

Herrington made decisions that took him down an unorthodox path of becoming an astronaut. Both his parents loved to fly; he got his first flying lesson from his father at age 10. After graduating early from high school in Texas (but subsequently suspended from college for poor grades), he turned to something entirely different: rock climbing.

Learning to calculate heights, navigate sharp angles and solve puzzles on how to place his body to avoid falling, Herrington realized, in the process, he was becoming adept at mathematics.

“I learned trig on the side of a cliff,” he said. “I saw the practical nature of mathematics.” Spurred on by his hiking partners, he reenrolled at the University of Colorado. “I had a motivation to learn something I’d only seen in a textbook,” he said.

He joined the Navy and graduated from TPS in 1988. “I took my math background and applied it to fly airplanes in TPS,” he explained. “[At TPS], you’re the bridge between the engineering world and the operational world.”

He later became an aeronautical engineering duty officer and earned a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School. He was selected by NASA in 1996 and formed part of the largest class of NASA selectees. Nicknamed “the Sardines,” their motto was “Space is no problem.”

That motto proved true for Herrington, who fulfilled his childhood dream and logged more than 330 hours in space, including close to 20 hours doing space walks, during the 16th Shuttle mission to visit the International Space Station. In honor of his heritage, Herrington brought a hand carved flute and eagle feather on the voyage; both are now displayed at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

For Herrington, diversity and inclusion are imperative to mission success.

“Honor and respect people of all ethnicities; we’re all on this team together and have the same goal,” Herrington advised. “Honor them for who they are and what they’re capable of doing and what they believe in.”

Herrington’s remarks echoed the theme of the event, “Many Nations, One Fight!” The event was co-sponsored by NAVAIR’s American Indian Alaskan Native Diversity Action Team and the NAVAIR Equal Employment Opportunity Office.

The team’s mission is to support and enhance the recruitment, retention, professional development and advancement of members of the American Indian and Alaskan Native communities within NAVAIR. Currently, NAVAIR is comprised of 0.7% American Indian men and 0.3% American Indian women. Within the Department of Defense, there are 21,000 American Indian and Alaskan Native service members and civilians.

“When we bring together teammates from diverse backgrounds, we can leverage that diversity of thought and perspectives,” said Gary Kurtz, the team’s executive champion. “These important discussions have the power to galvanize our organization and compel us to action. More importantly, treating our teammates across the board with dignity and respect is foundational to how we operate as a command. Treating others with dignity and respect is, after all, not only the right thing to do, but also critical to mission success.”

American Indian Alaskan Native Heritage Month is observed each November to celebrate the diverse cultures, traditions and histories of native people and acknowledge their contributions to the U.S.