By Danielle Vienneau
HAVE YOU EVER DREAMT OF BECOMING AN ASTRONAUT? OF FLYING INTO SPACE AND LOOKING BACK AT THE EARTH? MAYBE YOU TURNED A CARDBOARD BOX INTO YOUR VERY OWN SPACE SHUTTLE AS A CHILD. WELL, THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT JOHN HERRINGTON DID WHEN HE WAS YOUNG, BUT HE NEVER DREAMT HE WOULD ACTUALLY BECOME AN ASTRONAUT. SO WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO BECOME AN ASTRONAUT? IN THIS INTERVIEW, HERRINGTON LEADS US THROUGH A JOURNEY OF DISCOVERY—FROM UNCOVERING HIS STRENGTHS AND PASSION FOR FLYING, TO TAKING CHANCES AND TRUSTING THE PROCESS WHICH LED HIM TO THE CAREER HE NEVER KNEW HE WANTED.
Herrington was born in the small town of Wetumka, Oklahoma, USA, into the Chickasaw Nation. In 2002, when he made his 13-day voyage to the International Space Station aboard the space shuttle Endeavor, he became the first Native American in space. With three space walks under his belt, Herrington retired from the Navy and NASA in July 2005 but has continued to lead a busy life giving back, educating others and speaking professionally all across the USA and with the International Indigenous Speakers Bureau. Over the last few years, he has filmed an IMAX film called Into the Nature’s Wild, and he’s flown more than 30 types of aircrafts over his lifetime, including F18s, jets and an Airbus 380 simulator. Here’s more about his journey to becoming an astronaut.
SAY: You tried a few things before discovering the career path that was right for you. What was the spark that steered you in the right direction?
Herrington: After attempting to go to college the first time, when I thought I would become a forest ranger, I spent more time outside climbing than studying for school. I ended up with D’s in biology and Western civilization, and a 1.72 GPA by the end of my second semester, which got me suspended. So I took some time off and I got a job working in a restaurant in Texas—I figured out very quickly that working in that industry wasn’t for me.
I eventually put my rock climbing skills to use and got a job working in Glenwood Canyon in Colorado, where my job was to rappel off cliffs and hold a piece of glass against the rocks. The survey team on the ground would then shoot an infrared beam of light at the prism I held in my hand. That was the first spark—I wanted to know how it all worked! I was essentially learning trigonometry on the side of a cliff with a bunch of people who were getting paid to do this kind of work, and I loved it! Because I was intrigued by what I was doing, I decided to go back to school to become an engineer. I reapplied to university, and, sure enough, they let me back in.
SAY: So how did engineering lead to flying?
Herrington: Now, back in school, I had a form of motivation that I didn’t have before. I could see the practical nature of what I was doing, and I had found a group of friends who were interested in the same things I was. It all made a huge difference. Three years later, I was working in the math department and I ended up tutoring a retired Navy captain who had flown in World War II. He asked me what I was going to do when I graduated and asked me if I’d ever thought about flying for a living. Now, I had grown up flying with my dad who was a pilot, and my mom flew as well. I took for granted the fact that flying was something I got to do as a kid. I didn’t realize that I could do it for a living. It wasn’t until I met someone who was doing something I admired and who encouraged me to do something out of my comfort zone that I even considered flying as an option. I joined the Navy in 1983, was commissioned as an aviation officer about a year later, and got my Wings of Gold in 1985.
SAY: How did you get the job with NASA?
Herrington: Once I realized becoming an astronaut was even a possibility, I knew I needed to stay in the Navy, graduate from Test Pilot School, and get an advanced degree, so I got my Masters of Aeronautical Engineering. After applying to NASA a second time, they called me for an interview and I went through an intense week-long interview process, including psychological testing and physicals, and an hour-long interview with people who walked on the moon. It’s a little intimidating to sit across the table from someone you’ve seen on TV and you want their job. NASA also did a thorough, three-layers-deep background check before I got hired for flight testing and engineering.
SAY: What does an astronaut do?
Herrington: As an astronaut, your job is to support all of the astronauts—to support everyone else flying into space, and then you get your turn, however long it may be. I worked at the space centre preparing vehicles for flight, strapping my friends in, watching them fly into space, and making sure they made it home. As an engineer, you’re the eyes and ears of the astral office—you represent the astral office in any technical issues that come up with the space shuttle or at the space station. Then you get assigned to a flight, and you dedicate your time to that crew learning the mission.
SAY: How does your love of science and your Native American culture complement one another?
Herrington: My ancestors gave me the opportunity to walk this earth. They made the right decisions at the right times that ensured our survival. Our ancestors, on this continent way back in the day, were engineers and scientists—they were building things and making structures. They knew how to survive. It’s important to be grateful. I always tell students, “Being a problem solver is in your DNA—it’s what your ancestors did.” My tribe, through good leadership, had to make decisions throughout their existence that allowed them to survive, and they are doing incredibly well now—they had to overcome terrible odds.
SAY: What does it mean to you to be the first Native American in space?
Herrington: When I came to NASA, that was a position I didn’t realize I was in. It didn’t dawn on me until someone from the employment office pointed out that I was the first member of a recognized tribe to be working there. I realized I was in a unique position to be able to be a role model for others—it’s a responsibility I took to heart. I think it’s important for kids to see people they can identify with and realize, “If that person can do it, why not me?” I was initially kicked out of college, but once I had the motivation, I certainly figured it out. For someone to be able to identify with that, it makes their path more realistic. You don’t realize that what you do may have an impact on someone else’s life. That role as an astronaut for me has been so important because it makes me feel like I’m doing something positive in the world. If I’m put on this earth by the Creator to do something to help others, then that’s where I’m at.
SAY: What have you learned as an astronaut?
Herrington: The universe is vast. It’s expanded my visual and emotional horizons. We live on this beautiful planet. We need to protect it, preserve it and take care of it because it’s all we have. The idea of going to Mars is great—exploration is great—but we need to take care of our own planet before we go somewhere else. We learn our lessons here. We need to value science and value the fact that there are some very smart people who can solve some really difficult problems to make life on earth viable. All of this came from going to space. I gained a much bigger, broader perspective on life because of this opportunity.
SAY: Is there a highlight from your career that you are most proud of?
Herrington: From a professional perspective, it’s certainly flying in space. It’s that feeling of being trained to do something and doing it well in a harsh environment. One of my mentors reminded me, “At some point in time, stop and just look around you. Sear the image of what you’re doing in your mind because you’ll never get that chance again. It will carry you much farther along than a picture ever will.” I remember hanging off the end of the space station for the first time in my life, looking over at the earth, when there was nothing between me and whatever else was out there. It gives you a whole different perspective. It was a goosebump moment, and I feel fortunate to have been there.
SAY: What advice would you give to young people trying to choose a career?
Herrington: Find something that really motivates and excites you. Find somebody who is doing something that you think is interesting and talk to them—it may take you down a path that leads you to something you didn’t expect, to another door. The trick is to walk through that door. I joined the Navy to fly airplanes because it was exciting. I didn’t join to be an astronaut, even though I had dreamt about it. Thankfully, I had other opportunities to do more exciting things that led me to the astronaut office—my path was not linear. I think that’s the case for the majority of us. The important thing to remember for anyone reading this is your dream can become a reality given the decisions you make. It’s not just about yourself, it’s also about how others help you. If people hadn’t helped me outside of my normal circle of friends, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
Danielle Vienneau is the Editor-in-Chief with SAY Magazine. To submit your story, email firstname.lastname@example.org.