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John Herrington, First Native American in Space - 2002-11-15

American Indians are paying special attention to the flight of the U.S. space shuttle Endeavour, which has begun a construction mission to the international space station. On board is one of their own the first Native American to become an astronaut. To honor his ethnic origin, he is making his first space flight with eagle feathers, arrowheads, and the blessings of his Chickasaw people.

American Indian drums beat recently at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the site where U.S. space shuttles take off. The drumming and the chants are a traditional call to the Indian people, and they began a ceremony of elders and other representatives of several U.S. Indian tribes who gathered to give John Herrington a unique send-off in the annals of U.S. space history, complete with an honor dance by members of his Chickasaw tribe from Oklahoma. I'm really proud and honored to have the opprotunity to serve my country in this capacity as an astronaout, so that's such as fabulous thing, " he said.

Lieutenant Commander Herrington, A U.S. Navy pilot, is taking three construction spacewalks during Endeavour's sojourn at the space station with Michael Lopez-Alegria, who was born in Spain.

Going to space has long been John's dream, finally being realized six years after the U.S. space agency accepted him into the astronaut corps. "When I was eight years old, I used to dream I was sitting in a cardboard box and being shot to the moon back in the '60s," he said. "But it was just that, it was a dream. I never thought it was something that I could actually achieve."

In fact, Mr. Herrington turned out to be an under-achiever in his youth. Because his family moved 14 times around the U.S. West by the time he finished high school, he never got to know his teachers well and struggled through his studies. He also failed college after one year.

But he loved rock climbing and moved to the Colorado mountains, which would lead to a career in aeronautical engineering and flying. How? A friend asked him to work on a team surveying roads being cut through the mountains. He climbed steep rock faces and held a prism, which measured angles with light.

Although John disliked mathematics in school, he enjoyed solving problems on the job. He returned to college and received an applied math degree from the University of Colorado. Soon, he joined the Navy, where he became a pilot and subsequently earned a masters degree in aeronautical engineering. "It really wasn't until I was a test pilot back in 1990 that I realized that the people that were there at one time, back in the '50s, were the people I admired in the '60s as astronauts," said John Herrington. "And so you start seeing folks that had been through the school, and you realize, hey, this is something I could do. And that dream starts to become a reality."

Although American Indians embrace him as a native son, John Herrington is just one eighth Indian. Only his maternal great-grandmother was Chickasaw. He did not grow up on an Indian reservation, but his mother, proud of her heritage, registered him with the Chickasaw tribe.

John is proud of that heritage, too, and has devoted countless hours speaking to Native American youth, encouraging them to pursue their education and follow their dreams. "If my heritage as an Chickasaw Indian and the fact that what I do here might motivate somebody, who might not otherwise think they can achieve their dreams, then that's a good thing," he said. Commander Herrington embarks on his first space mission carrying several American Indian artifacts into orbit, including a Chickasaw flag, two arrowheads, a blade of sweet grass, a rock from a sacred site in South Dakota, native American pottery, wooden flutes, and flute music, as if making an offering to the gods.