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From Space to Indigenous Ancestral Engineering: Commander John Herrington Charts New Territory

Astronaut John Herrington, Chickasaw, talks STEM education and space with ICTMN.

When NASA sent Commander John Herrington (Chickasaw Nation) to the International Space Station (ISS) on board the Endeavour in 2002, space not only got the first enrolled Native American, but also its first Native American flute payload.

Chickasaw astronaut John Herrington brought an eagle feather and a Native flute to space. Photo courtesy John Herrington

“I played ‘Amazing Grace’ on board the ISS while my crewmate, Don Pettit, used a vacuum cleaner hose to simulate an aboriginal didgeridoo, which he actually brought onboard; he just had not unpacked it yet,” Herrington told Indian Country Today Media Network in a recent interview. “The Native American flute I flew on my mission, a black-lacquered river cane flute, was made by a Cherokee friend, Jim Gilliland.”

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Herrington still remembers the thrill of creating those sounds while they were all aboard the ISS as they orbited the Earth over and over again.

“I was honored to have the opportunity to fly in space, but I realize there were thousands of people who made it possible; technicians, engineers, scientists, medical personnel, and administrators,” he said. “Our ability to fly in space and explore is due to the collective efforts of a multitude of talented people, many of them trained in the STEM fields.”

Herrington retired from NASA in 2005. He enjoys seeking new challenges, and last year earned his PhD in education from the University of Idaho.

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“I like the opportunity to learn new things and to work with interesting people,” he said. “I find tremendous satisfaction in successfully accomplishing difficult tasks. Working hard and working well with others is very gratifying.”

His ideal job?

“When I had a chance to fly, and then being able to come back and really focus on education and work with the students,” he said.

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His dissertation research focused on the motivation and engagement of Native students in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields who had attended a NASA summer program. Native American and Alaskan Natives earned just 0.6 percent of master’s degrees in science and engineering in 2009, according to the National Science Foundation—a dismal statistic that highlights the importance of his research and of his motivation to study different approaches to engage Native students in STEM education.

“I wanted to look at the results of tests they took before and after that summer program,” he said. “I did a case study three years later where I actually interviewed those students to really find out the factors that motivated and engaged them in NASA math and science based on that summer program. I analyzed the pre- and post-tests they took, and I had the students tell me the stories of their experience.

“It was interesting because it supports the literature that I've read, but there's not a lot out there on the factors that motivate Native youth in the STEM subjects,” Herrington continued. “The results of my research indicated that Native students become engaged and motivated through hands-on experiential, non-competitive, collaborative learning. They like to work in groups, they like to build stuff, they like to personalize their work and see the practicality in what they're learning related to the theory.”

In the case of math, Herrington said, it was about being able to visualize math in his job. He worked on a surveying crew and saw the surveyors using math in the work they did, which helped him relate to math’s practical nature.

“I was hanging off a cliff in Colorado, and these guys would shoot a beam of infrared light to a prism I held in my hand,” he said. “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. They used surveying machines that could calculate these things. For the first time in my life I actually saw the practicality of mathematics in work, and it was fun!”

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Over the next few years, Herrington said, he would like to extend his research, investigating the factors that motivate and engage Native American students in STEM and taking that to the collegiate and professional levels.

“There is a wonderful story to be told about how successful Native American STEM students and professionals have been able to accomplish the difficult work that a STEM profession entails,” Herrington said. “The next generation of students needs to be aware of the factors that made their predecessors successful in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math.”

Herrington added that elementary and high school level students benefit from using a hands-on experiential approach to learning that incorporates understandable concepts they can relate to.

“This applies to non-Native communities, too. Summer camps and science museums seem to accomplish this, and I wonder how we can incorporate these same learning and teaching techniques in the schools. It’s going to take everyone working together to make an impact. The thing is, it will be fun and enjoyable. STEM is exciting, and I hope to pass along that enthusiasm.”

Part of that entails highlighting the accomplishments of traditional knowledge in this regard, which long pre-date the STEM disciplines, Herrington noted.

“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,” he told ICTMN.

“I believe it is important to understand the methods our ancestors used and provide examples to Native American students today,” he said. “An important element in being successful in STEM is having confidence in your own ability and knowing your ancestors demonstrated competence many years earlier.”

We asked Herrington to create a Twitter hashtag for this concept.

“#NativeKnowledge captures the essence of our ancestors’ legacy in science and engineering,” he said. “If they could, we can.”

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Returning to space, how did he smudge on board? Well, where there’s Native spirit, there’s a way. Before climbing on board the Endeavour, Herrington asked Louise Kleba, then an engineer at the Kennedy Space Center, to smudge him with sweetgrass and sage outside of the astronaut crew quarters, not far from the launch pad. He also flew an eagle feather on board with him.

When Herrington retired from NASA he’d logged more than 330 hours in space.

Photo: Courtesy John Herrington

Walking in space gave Commander John Herrington, Chickasaw, new perspective on being simultaneously solitary, and one with the universe.

“One very distinct moment that will be forever etched in my memory was being on the end of the space station, during a spacewalk, and looking out across the Earth’s horizon,” he recalled. “There I was, 220 miles above the Earth and looking past it into the vastness of the universe. I realized there was absolutely nothing between me and whatever else might exist out in the cosmos. The dual sensation of being alone—I was in my spacesuit tethered to a handrail on the ISS—yet not solitary, was extraordinary. It was a moment I will never forget, and it has fundamentally changed my belief that we can’t possibly be alone in the universe.

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“There are billions of galaxies in the universe, with each galaxy containing hundreds of billions of stars, and we have observed planets orbiting some of our closest stars,” the Chickasaw astronaut said. “So the odds are incredibly high that there are planets just the right distance from a star, and have a chemical composition in their atmosphere, that could possibly sustain some form of life.”