CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. ? The first seven NASA astronauts were all white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. And all of the astronauts who flew on the pioneering Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions were white males.
It wasn't until the space shuttle era that minorities and women were encouraged to apply and qualified ones were interested. The first American woman and first black astronaut flew in 1983, and the first Asian-American in 1985. But no American Indians ? until now.
Maj. John Herrington, a Navy test pilot, is scheduled to fly on the STS-113 mission in September. His great-grand mother is a full-blooded Chickasaw and his father comes from a Choctaw heritage. But Herrington notes "I didn't grow up in the culture, so I can't tell you what life's like on a reservation. A lot of things I did in my life, the problems, paralleled a lot of things you see in the [American Indian] community. Just from what I've learned. I've always been proud of the fact that I'm Chickasaw.
"We were proud of the fact that we didn't grow up in that culture. In the 40s, 50s, 60s, you didn't talk about being Indian, certainly in Oklahoma. You didn't talk about it ? people wanted you to blend in. You didn't learn the language. My granny didn't talk to her son. My grandpa didn't talk to my mom in the language. My granny was fluent in it, but you didn't pass it down, it was something you didn't do. So I never learned the Chickasaw language."
Herrington was born in 1958 in Wetumka, Oklahoma. His family moved around many times because of his father's work in electronics manufacturing. So Herrington and his brother and sister grew up in Colorado, Wyoming and Texas.
He notes that in the 1970s his mother wanted him to know more about his cultural background. "She said 'You are a Chickasaw, let's get you enrolled in the tribe. That we have you identified ? what your heritage is,'" he said.
"But as I look back on it, I think 'What things would you have done different growing up.' I would have loved to have learned more, to stay in Oklahoma and learned more. I would have loved to have learned much more from my parents and grandparents than what I was taught. It's inherent to the kind of person you are. What you believe in and what you believe about other people.
"When I lived in Wyoming, I distinctly remember being in seventh grade on Main Street on Friday nights and watching cowboys and Indians get in fights. Alcoholism was rampant; there was a lot of racism. It was real prevalent. But I wasn't part of the community; I was just a little kid going to junior high. I was dark skin, dark complexion. People treated my mom with disrespect at the junior high where she worked because she was Indian. You see it, but it doesn't register. I do remember what I saw when I was there, it wasn't pretty.
"I know what my heritage is, that's who I am. If I go to New Mexico and I meet people who have grown up and lived all of their lives on reservations, I can meet my uncle. Identical, same type of person, same personality. We just didn't grow up in that environment. It's just a part of you.
"I identify with all of the people I meet, because we're all the same. Be they Hopi, or Eskimo, or Mohawk. You meet the people and you have this connection and say yeah that makes sense to me, and you realize there is a connection no matter where you're from."
In 1996 NASA selected Herrington as its first American Indian astronaut. But he is not the first Native involved with the space program, or even the first in his family. His father, James Herrington, owned a patent on an electronic device flown on the Apollo moon missions.
Only a small percentage of an astronaut's time is spent flying in space, or even in training for a specific mission. Most of an astronaut's career is spent in technical positions supporting other shuttle missions or representing the entire astronaut corps at technical meetings. Herrington had one of the most desirable positions for an astronaut, helping to strap fellow astronauts into the shuttle as they prepared to fly in space. He said, "I think the most enjoyable job I've had is working at the Cape. To be able to strap your office-mates into a vehicle and do that work and in very short order watch them fly in to space, the job satisfaction is incredible. I've had so much fun the past two years."
Last September Herrington got the important phone call he was waiting for. "Wow. There are three neat phone calls you get ? the first is when you come to get interviewed. The second is when you get selected. The third is you've been assigned to a flight. You remember that very well. You always wonder when it's going to happen. It takes your breath away. This is what I've worked for so long, and I get the opportunity to do it. I want to do a good job, I want to do very well."
Since then Herrington has been in training as a member of the STS-113 crew, currently scheduled for launch in September. The mission has two extremely important goals. First the mission will exchange long-duration space station crews. Herrington will be with the shuttle when it launches and lands. However the shuttle will launch with a fresh three-person space-station crew and return to Earth with a crew which is finishing its four-month stay in space.
In addition the shuttle will carry a 29,000-pound, 42-foot piece of the space station's truss. Five shuttle flights are required to assemble the football-field long truss. Two robot arms are needed to move the truss from the shuttle's cargo bay to the space station, one arm mounted on the shuttle and one on a mobile cart mounted on the space station. After the truss is in place Herrington and fellow astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria will make three spacewalks to make connections between the new truss and the space station.
Herrington noted "If I can be [the flight engineer] or walk in space that would be fantastic. I get to do both. Isn't that something? I couldn't ask for more."
Astronauts are permitted to carry a small number of personal items as souvenirs of their missions. Most choose symbolic items like school pendants or jewelry for their family. Herrington is thinking about several Native items. He said, "I've been presented with a couple of beautiful eagle feathers I'd like to fly. Some music. Maybe a little bit of tobacco and corn. Some really basic things which tie to the traditions. It would be a good way to carry into space the thoughts and good wishes of the people I've met."
While Herrington is the only American Indian astronaut there are many native Americans involved in the space program as engineers, scientists and in other roles.