WSU News

Native American astronaut shares comeback

Astronaut John Herrington, rear center, met with students at WSU’s Native American
Student Center. (Photos by Linda Weiford, WSU News)

PULLMAN, Wash. – John Herrington, the first enrolled Native American to soar into space, has degrees in applied mathematics and aeronautical engineering. Exactly one decade ago, he flew aboard the space shuttle Endeavour and floated outside in minus 75 degree temperatures to attach a support beam to the International Space Station.

No wonder people look incredulous when he says he was suspended from college during his first semester.

“I was directionless and lacked focus,” he said of his freshman year at the University of Colorado. “By mid-semester, I only had a 1.72 grade point. They told me I had to leave, so I did.”
The right stuff

Herrington recently visited Washington State University to share his space experiences and the accomplishments of his shuttle mission. But that story wouldn’t be complete without including his life-changing experiences on Earth, he said during an interview between campus appearances.

“It took some twists and turns and the advice of a mentor to get me on track,” said Herrington, whose visit to WSU was sponsored by the Cougar Leadership Program and the Native American student association, ASWSU Ku-Ah-Mah.

A member of the Chickasaw Nation, Herrington is a retired Navy officer and NASA astronaut who encourages young people to overcome challenges and follow their passions.
Sometimes it’s the knowledge gained by failures that launch the greatest journeys, he said. After being suspended from college, he took a job with a highway survey crew.

“It was there that I learned the practical applications of math and it was eye-opening for me,” he said. “Until then, I had no idea I’d find it so useful outside the classroom.”

While being exposed to real-life strength in numbers, Herrington’s boss prodded him to return to school. 

“He’d tell me, ‘You’re smart and capable. Do you want to work on construction sites your whole life or do you want to be in charge of them?’” Herrington said.

Rockets went off in Herrington’s head, so to speak, and he went back to college “focused and motivated.” He earned an undergraduate degree in applied mathematics and a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering while serving as a test pilot in the Navy.

From then on, he was literally on the up and up – selected by NASA in 1996 and then, seven years later, hurtling through the sky at 17,500 miles an hour aboard Endeavor’s 16th mission to the International Space Station.
Launch ‘aha’ moments
Mary Harris, 16, with her dad Stuart drove 155 miles
so she could talk to Herrington about her dreams.
The fact that Herrington walked in space is just the attention-grabber he needs during campus visits to get more students interested in math and science, he said: “I hope my time here can give students the same kind of ‘aha’ moment that I experienced.”
That moment seized Mary Harris, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla, a long time ago, she said at the Native American Student Center during a gathering with Herrington. That’s why the 16-year-old who plans to attend WSU coaxed her dad into driving her 155 miles from Pendleton, Ore. to Pullman.

“I love engineering and space. I came here so I can learn from a real expert,” she said under the proud gaze of her father, Stuart Harris, himself an engineer.

“She’s smart and a self-starter,” he said of his daughter, who flashed a smile of metal braces. “Driving her three hours to meet (Herrington) is part of the path to getting her there,” he said, pointing upward.
Second half of life
Herrington, now retired from NASA, recently embarked on a new mission here on Earth – to earn a Ph.D. in education.

“I want to help students love sciences the way I do,” he said. “The earlier they’re exposed and inspired, the greater the chance they’ll pursue careers in related fields.

“I should know,” he said. “I lived it.”