Former NASA astronaut John B. Herrington (Commander, USN, Ret.) made a special visit to Mesa Community College on Thursday, September 26, to speak to a group of Native American students and invited guests. Commander Herrington, a former U.S. Navy pilot and NASA mission specialist, is an enrolled member of the Chickasaw Nation. He flew on the STS-113 mission of the Space Shuttle Endeavour in 2002, the first enrolled member of an American Indian tribe to have flown into and walked in outer space.
Herrington’s visit to Mesa Community College was made possible by a grant from the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community to the Maricopa County Community Colleges.
MCC President Dr. Shouan Pan welcomed everyone and shared some notes about MCC and the college’s Native American Program. Then Commander Herrington took the podium, speaking about his life and how he became an astronaut.
“I want to share my journey with all of you, how I got the opportunity to fly in space and the people I got to meet,” said Herrington to the guests and students assembled along MCC’s North Lawn.
Like many youth, Herrington used to imagine what it would be like to be an astronaut, but he told himself it was something that other people do, not him.
He graduated from high school in Plano, Texas, in 1976. Although his education credentials are impressive, getting there was not a straight, easy path. He enrolled at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs because his family told him he had to, but he was literally unprepared. He had no knowledge of how to prepare for college, what classes to take or what the experience would be like.
“I stepped into a college [environment] that was foreign [to me],” Herrington said. “I was very shy and wasn’t comfortable at all, but I attended every day because I knew I had to.”
With outdoor activities so popular in Colorado, he would go out and watch the rock-climbers in the area. One day, someone asked if he would be interested in learning how to rock-climb. He did, but his grades began to suffer as a result.
“I didn’t know at the time that I was supposed to be making good grades, and because I was a part-time student at the college, I received a letter in the mail that said I was suspended for making poor grades,” said Herrington.
“After a while, I didn’t have the desire to be at college. I thought it wasn’t my thing. So, I became a full-time worker, starting off at a restaurant working six days a week. And then I got another job offer, to be a rock-climber in an area where a highway was [being built].”
He took the job because he enjoyed rock-climbing. “Rock-climbing gave me the self-confidence that I never had before, in doing things that I never thought I would be able to do or accomplish,” said Herrington. That job led to working with the highway survey crew, measuring rocks that needed to be removed for the highway’s construction.
He also had another job, tutoring a student in calculus. The student, a World War II veteran, asked Herrington about his future plans. Eventually, Herrington earned a bachelor of science in applied mathematics from the University of Colorado in 1983. Since Herrington seemed to be very good with numbers, the student suggested that he try out to become a Navy pilot.
Reaching for the Sky
Herrington got into officer candidate school, but after the first week he didn’t like it and wanted to quit. His father told him not to quit, saying that it was only going to be for a short while, about 14 weeks. So Herrington stuck it out, and learned something important about himself: he is exceptional at math, science and engineering.
He reapplied to become a naval aviator, taking classes and putting that math to good use, and eventually became a successful pilot. Herrington received his commission from Aviation Officer Candidate School in March 1984 and was designated a naval aviator in March 1985.
“I graduated from flight school and spent 22 years in the Navy,” said Herrington. While in the Navy, Commander Herrington flew over 25 different types of aircraft. He was encouraged to try out for the NASA astronaut program, but at the time he didn’t have a master’s degree. He thought it over and finally earned a master of science in aeronautical engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School in 1995. Then, along with a friend, he gave NASA a shot.
“I got an interview, which lasts one week—one day is for the interview, and the rest is physiological tests that they run on you,” explained Herrington. “I had one hour to sit in front of astronauts and staff from NASA where they ask you a series of questions.”
After the week was over, he was sure he was not going to be picked for the job. But a few days later, in April 1996, NASA called to let him know he was accepted and was asked to serve his country as an astronaut.
His was the largest astronaut class to date, including Herrington and 36 others. They were nicknamed “The Sardines” because there were so many of them.
“Once you got into space, it was very important that you stay focused on your job, because many things can go wrong. So we stayed busy throughout the time in space.”
He talked about his very first moments leaving Earth’s atmosphere and entering space. “I remember when the engines cut off, you kind of jerked, and I accidentally let go of my check-off book and watched it float right in front of me.
That was an incredible moment, because I was seeing something happen that I had only heard about,” said Herrington.
He continued, “Imagine for the first time in your life that when you sleep you are not touching anything. Nothing is upside-down or right side up when you are in space; it is just bizarre. And once we arrived at the space station, we spent seven days working, getting our job done.”
Herrington explained how the effects of gravity mess things up for a while after returning from space. “You became incredibly heavy, and when you were finally home sleeping in your bed, many of the astronauts found themselves waking up trying to figure out if they are still floating in space. Your body quickly reminds you that you aren’t, but this feeling took about a week to get back to normal. When you would walk around a corner, you would hit the corner of the wall, no matter how hard you try to miss it, [because] you were so imbalanced,” he shared.
“[With] everything you do in life, something always messes up, even though you plan it out,” said Herrington about his life experiences. “Even in space we made mistakes, but you make it through and get it done and feel accomplished. To fly in space was the best experience I have had.”
Currently, Herrington is on the board of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science, where he serves as a role model and advocate of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields, trying to increase the interest in these fields among American Indian students. He is also chairman of the board of the American Indian Institute for Innovation and the STEM Ambassador for the Chickasaw Nation.
Name: John Bennett Herrington (Commander, USN, Ret.)
Occupation: NASA astronaut (retired); ambassador for STEM programs in Native America
Education: Plano Senior High School, Plano, Texas, 1976; University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, 1983, B.S. in applied mathematics; Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California, M.S. in aeronautical engineering, 1995