John Herrington, born in Wetumka, Oklahoma, is an enrolled member of the Chickasaw Nation. Neither of his parents graduated from college, and he dropped out after receiving a 1.72 GPA. After that, John decided he’d rather tool around Colorado climbing rocks and working on a crew that built Interstate 70.
Oh, and he’s also been to space.
What led John down this path? It was a moment of realization he had while rock climbing. “I was hanging off a cliff in Colorado, and these guys would shoot a beam of infrared light into a prism I held in my hand,” he told Indian Country Today. “Since light travels at a constant velocity, you can determine the distance, if you know how long it took the light to travel from one point to another. If you know the angle of that beam of light, you can determine the horizontal and vertical distance using trigonometry. For the first time in my life I actually saw the practicality of mathematics in work, and it was fun!”
This realization spurred John to re-enroll in college to get a Bachelor’s in Applied Mathematics and pursue a career as a pilot in the Navy. From those first steps, John went on to earn his Master’s in Aeronautical Engineering, became a test pilot, and joined the astronaut training program at NASA.
In 2002, John joined the crew of the Space Shuttle Endeavor on a trip to the International Space Station and spent approximately two weeks in the Earth’s orbit. Along with him on the trip was the flag of the Chickasaw Nation, a flute made by a Cherokee artist and friend, and an eagle feather. It was important for John to honor his heritage, because it was part of his success. He told The Oklahoman, “[Ancestry is] inherent to who you are. It’s not just a label, it’s the natural way in which you go about what you do.”
Since returning to Earth, John has earned his PhD and dedicated himself to inspiring other Natives to get an education and pursue a career in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Science is in our blood, John says, “I think we should show students examples of the wonderful feats of engineering our ancestors were able to accomplish over the past centuries, using basic tools and understanding their environment. Without the use of western mathematics or engineering, our ancestors were capable of building and inhabiting cities that exhibited tremendous engineering and scientific skill.”
The road is difficult, says John, but it’s worth it. “The easy things in life don’t have the same return on investment that education does.”
Hear John tell his story in his own words:
Learn More About Astronaut John Herrington:
Mission to Space by John Herrington
Heavens: John Herrington Gets Isolation – John compares his experience training for space to the isolation of COVID-19.
Reach for the Stars: 5 Nuggets of Inspiration from Chickasaw Astronaut John Herrington
From Space to Indigenous Ancestral Engineering: Commander John Herrington Charts New Territory
Image Source: Chickasaw Nation