Chickasaw Nation member followed dreams to NASA
Friday, November 14, 2003

John Herrington's dreams started in a box.

A big cardboard box, to be exact. As a child, Herrington, his brother and a friend fashioned it into a vehicle for space travel.

"I was probably about 8 or 9 years old," Herrington recalled. "We used to sit in this thing and we honestly thought we were going to the moon in a Saturn rocket."

Herrington's boyhood dreams aren't too far from his reality. Only the box became the Space Shuttle Endeavour. And instead of the moon, the destination was the International Space Station.

Not bad for a kid from the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, who moved about 14 times before graduating from high school, who was kicked out of college for having poor grades yet who made history one year ago as the first Native American to go into space.

"I never thought this was something I could actually achieve until I got much older," he said.

Herrington, a commander in the U.S. Navy, was the keynote speaker at NASA's Native American Heritage Month event yesterday. He told a group of young students from Washington, D.C., what it was like to spend 14 days in space, where the sun rises and sets every 45 minutes.

"It gets dark real quick," he said.

But more importantly, he spoke of the importance of following one's dreams. "If you seek out the best in yourself, work really hard and listen to all the folks around you," he said, "everyone here has fabulous potential to do some great things."

Herrington also underscored the importance of role models. He was encouraged to go back to college, enter the U.S. Navy, become a test pilot and eventually a NASA astronaut by people who took an interest in his life. He learned from and listened to those people, he said.

"If there is something in life that you think you want to do, seek out someone who is doing it," he told the students. Ask questions, find out more about the field, discover how to get involved, he said, and education will become more exciting.

For the parents, teachers and adults in the audience, he brought a related message. "Everybody here has the opportunity to make a difference in the life of someone," he said. "If there is someone out there [in need of guidance], seek them out, help them out."

Herrington has become a household name in Indian Country in recent years, inducted into his tribe's Hall of Fame for his achievements and lauded by Native Americans everywhere. He's an active member of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES), which encourages Native Americans to enter math, science and engineering fields.

"When was selected to NASA in 1996, I didn't realize how much my heritage would become a part of what I do at NASA," he told the audience. "It's been a tremendous blessing for me but also an awesome responsibility."

Herrington was born in Oklahoma but didn't grow up in a tribal environment because he left the state at an early age. He also said societal pressures played a part. "My great-grandmother didn't speak the [Chickasaw] language to anyone in her family because you didn't talk about being an Indian in Oklahoma back in that time frame," he said.

In an interview, Herrngton said he marvels at Native youth who have the benefit of being immersed in their culture. It's something he didn't have and it's something that he misses. "It's a natural curiosity for everybody growing up to learn more about where they come from and why are they the person they are," he said.

As he meets with young Natives, he urges them not to take their tribal roots for granted. "Their grandparents are there, their stories are there, their dances are there -- they have it all," he said. "[They] are really fortunate to have that opportunity. . . There are a lot of folks that grew up, certainly a lot of the southeastern Indians, that didn't."

What Herrington may have missed out on, he is more than making up for it by working with the Native community. If he weren't an astronaut, he said he would be a teacher.

"There comes a time in your life when you need to start paying back for what you are doing," he said in the interview. "At least in my case, since I'm so enthused about what I'm doing, to be able to go back and share that enthusiasm with someone and get them motivated, that's the right thing to do."

"A lot of people," he added, "whether they know it or not, they can influence people. You may never know what an impact you may have."

Relevant Links:
John Herrington Bio -
American Indian Science and Engineering Society -

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