Chickasaw astronaut John B. Herrington is well known as the first American Indian to blast off into space. He flew NASA missions in the early 2000s and since then has been working to inspire Native youth to study math and science.
Retired from the space program for several years, Herrington is earning a second master’s degree, this one in education, and giving lectures to students across the U.S. He will offer one such event at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin, on Friday February 28 at 7 p.m. in the Kendrigan Gymnasium. The free event is sponsored and organized by the Native American and Indigenous Cultural Center and is open to the public.
Back in November 2013, Indian Country Today Media Network interviewed Herrington about his anniversary as the first enrolled American Indian to take to the skies. He offered some bits of advice for Natives aspiring to follow their dreams, regardless of what they are.
1. Believe that you’re capable of doing something remarkable.
"I did a remarkable thing,” Herrington said at a lecture at Diné College last August, as quoted in the Navajo Times. “Everybody here has that exact same potential."
Back when he was studying to be a U.S. Navy test pilot, he realized he was doing the same work that many of his predecessors who had gone on to become astronauts. He took that mental leap and thought, Why not me?
“At naval test pilot school, I realized that many people who had graduated before me in the late ’50s, early ’60s, I realized that a lot of them had been NASA astronauts, had been navy test pilots,” he told Indian Country Today Media Network in an interview in November 2013. “I was in the same schools, doing the same career path. There are a lot of kids out there who may not have had a role model in that kind of position before, and the reality is that they can achieve that if they so choose.”
2. Work hard.
As Herrington will attest, nothing fell into his lap. Each stage of his life and career have taken much studying and nose-to-the-grindstone determination.
“People would say, you’ve flown space; why do you go back to school?” he told ICTMN in November, describing his decision to return to school yet again after retiring from NASA, this time for a master’s in education. “It’s because you’re always learning something. You always have to have a challenge in your life. Even today it’s not easy. It takes a lot to be in school. Keep plugging away, and pretty soon you’ll look back and say, Wow, that wasn’t nearly as long as I thought it was.”
3. Listen to others. Listen to people who want to make a difference in your life.
Herrington’s life is full of those people, from the supervisor at his first job as a surveyor, to his teachers, his peers and his own observations. Now he works to make that difference to others.
Back when he was reveling in his first-ever job, earning $4 an hour to hang off cliffs while working as a surveyor, he was not thinking of the future, according to the account in the Navajo Times. But his supervisor was on the lookout, suggesting that Herrington earn his bachelor’s degree. He did, majoring in applied mathematics because of the interest that his surveying work had sparked in the subject.
From there, he followed the example of a friend who had enlisted in the U.S. Navy. And after leaving the space program—which he had to do for medical reasons—he heeded yet another call, this time to educate Native youth about the importance of studying math and science. That led him to pursue a master’s in education, which he is set to finish in May 2014.
4. Dreams can become reality.
It takes believing in oneself as well as applying oneself, Herrington said. One fuels the other.
“When I was growing up I dreamed about being an astronaut but I didn’t realize there was a reality of that,” Herrington told ICTMN. “But it became a reality years later.”
5. Given all those things, you may be surprised at what happens to you in your future.
The course of Herrington’s life to date is testament to that. His work as a surveyor pointed him in the direction of science and math once he looked beyond the boundaries of his first job. His work as a naval pilot led him to consider joining the space program. And then, once he had returned to Earth permanently, his Rocketrek bicycle ride across Turtle Island, designed to inspire Native youth to study math and science, introduced him to his wife and put him on his current path as an educator.