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Career Notes with former NASA Astronaut John Herrington.

John Herrington is a retired US Naval Aviator and former NASA Astronaut. He was the first enrolled member of a Native American tribe to fly in space.





It’s Indigenous People’s Day in the US and what better way to celebrate than to speak to the first enrolled member of a Native American tribe to fly in space. John Herrington is a member of the Chickasaw Nation, a retired US Naval Aviator and former NASA Astronaut. Herrington was selected as a mission specialist for STS-113, which launched to the International Space Station on November 23, 2002.

You can connect with John on LinkedIn.

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>> Maria Varmazis: Welcome to T-Minus, "Career Notes." I'm Maria Varmazis, host of the T-Minus Space Daily Podcast. Today is October 9th, 2023. It's Indigenous Peoples Day in the United States, so we're taking the day off here at N2K studios. In lieu of our regular daily show, we have something special for you. "Career Notes" explores the pathways of some of the most influential leaders in aerospace. Our guest for today is the first enrolled member of a Native American tribe to fly in space. John Herrington was selected as a Mission Specialist for STS-113, which launched to the International Space Station on November 23rd, 2002. Here's his story in his own words.

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>> Hi, my name's John Herrington. I'm a retired NASA Astronaut, former Naval Aviator and Test Pilot, and I'm a proud citizen of the Chickasaw Nation in Central Oklahoma.

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Well, we don't all start school with this notion of being something in life, right? And I like being outdoors, so I lived in Colorado at the time. And so, I decided I wanted to be a forest ranger. I wanted to work outside. I did not want to work behind a desk. And I spent most of my time outside during my first year of college. I worked in a restaurant. I actually was working full time at a restaurant in Colorado Springs. And I was out at a place called Garden of the Gods one day with my textbooks. I was going to study, right? Ended up meeting two guys who were climbing, and they asked me if I wanted to learn how. And I said I would love to. And so, I did. I started doing that, and I found more interest in rock climbing than I did in sitting in class. I didn't have the motivation to do it. Ended up having a whopping 1.72 grade point by the end of my second semester. And since I was working full time and going to school part time, I actually got suspended. And so, I found myself out of school, second semester freshman.

I called my friend and he said, "I've got a job for you." And I said, "Doing what?" And he said, "Rock climbing." "Oh, really?" You know? So, I, you know, learned a little more about it and I called my dad and I said, "Hey, I've got this great opportunity to get a job rock climbing in Colorado." He said, "Good, don't quit."

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Well, that was on a Thursday. I think I quit on Friday. By Monday morning, I was in Glenwood Springs, Colorado with my Volkswagen Karmann Ghia, starting to work on a survey crew on Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon. Well, it was the first time in my life where I saw math in practice. You know, math was not in a textbook. Math was on a highway, hanging off of a cliff, working with guys who used these really unique instruments that would measure distances using a beam of light. And so, I started asking questions, and I was lucky the guy I worked for convinced me if I wanted to make something of myself, I'd better go back to school and become an engineer and not accept being the lowest person on a crew.

So, I reapplied to the university, and bless their heart, they let me back in. My grades hadn't changed, you know? I think I'd personally changed. Went back in now with a motivation to study something I thought I saw a purpose in, and I was very lucky that I had a great circle of friends I made in the engineering department. We, you know, really worked well together. I learned this idea of collaborative learning. It wasn't just me. It was working with other people, and being able to solve problems, not on your own, but working with others. So, you have this interest, and you have motivation, and you have a circle of friends. And that made it much easier.

And by the time I was a senior, I worked for the mathematics department. I was a tutor and grader for a instructor named Nancy Baggs [phonetic]. Nancy was a calculus instructor. But I was given a student to tutor who was a retired Navy captain, who flew Dauntless Dive Bombers in World War II. He became my Navy tutor. I was his calculus tutor. And so, he encouraged me to join the Navy. I did that in 1983.

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My job was to hunt Russian submarines. That was my job. I did that for four years, you know, in the western Northern Pacific, and I hunted Russians, you know? Hey, they were an enemy, right? Cold War. And by the time I became an astronaut, I was working with Russians. I was living in Russia. I lived in Moscow. I lived in Star City. Two of my crewmates I was going to fly in the Space Station with, were cosmonauts. But, you know, I'm working with the people that my entire professional career as an aviator, I was told to fear. I was told they were the enemy. And the reality is, they're not. Now, the political system's different. We know it's going on full force right now, but in terms of the cosmonauts and the astronauts, that wasn't our job. Our job was to work together to do a mission, and to do it safely. Given the fact that my heritage is, you know, Native American, you know, I found myself in a role that I didn't expect to be in, as a role model to kids that never had one before.

And so, my very first speaking engagement was to the American Indian Science and Engineering Society in the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, Texas, 3,000 of my closest friends, right? I was scared to death. You know, to walk into this huge audience of Native people and to tell my story. And my story resonated. I mean, I was talking to my brothers, my sisters, my aunties, my uncles, you know? It was an incredible experience where I got really deeply involved now in this notion of, you know, promoting STEM education and the idea that what -- you know, what was my background? How did I overcome some challenges? And you know, who helped me along the way?

And now, I had this opportunity to be in that place where I could work with others. And hopefully, if they could see what I did, they can see it in themselves. Not necessarily to be an astronaut, but to be successful. You know? To overcome some really difficult subject matter and then to, you know, find a career that you're passionate about.

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I gave a talk once in Durango, Colorado, at Fort Lewis College to a group of Navajo kids. And you know, years later, I'm on an elevator in Phoenix, and this young lady walks up to me, and she said, you know, "You're John Herrington." Nobody does that, right? Yes. [Inaudible] I think I am. But you know, it doesn't happen to me. I'm not Brad Pitt, right? So, this young lady said, "I met you when I was 11 years old at a summer camp in Fort Lewis College, and I didn't realize I could be an engineer until I met you." And she says, "I want to thank you. And I'm now a civil engineer with the city of San Francisco," I believe. You know? And you know realize that you could have an impact on somebody's life without any knowledge. You know, you're just doing what you do. And I find that a very gratifying thing. I did that to the people that encouraged me to go back to school.

I called the guy that actually encouraged me to go back to school, that owned the company. I called him and I thanked him, you know, for his encouragement. He was probably in his late 80s or 90s when I did that.

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I worked in space. I was in space for two weeks. I lived underwater for ten days in the Florida Keys in a thing called NEEMO, NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations. And then I rode a bike across the country. You know, the first was space, second was under water, third was a bike. And I saw the world from three different beautiful perspectives. You know, the macro perspective of seeing it in this grandiose, beautiful, moving out of the atmosphere overview. They call it the Overview Effect, how it fundamentally changes you. I lived underwater. I saw little krill shrimp in the porthole and [inaudible]. You know, a big grouper, you go outside to dive and there's a big grouper, there's a big manta ray coming at you. I mean, it's incredible.

And then I got to ride across the country, and I met people. I met a Korean veteran. I met people that just -- sitting on a porch in Arkansas. You know, and just wanted to shoot the breeze. You know, peddling through 100-degree temperatures and hearing the sprinkler system, and how cool it was. I mean, just it was a -- we're very fortunate to live on this beautiful planet. I've seen it from three different perspectives, and I'll appreciate every one of those for the rest of my life.

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Everybody has challenges in their life, right? You know, I got kicked out of school early on. Figured it out and got back in. I got married. Worked a really hard job. Got divorced, unfortunately as -- when I was at NASA. You know, it's a tough job. Found another woman that I married -- got married to on my bike ride who unfortunately passed away from cancer, you know? And I just got remarried again this summer to a remarkable woman. But life has really what -- there's a lot of challenges, and just because you do something that's fascinating and fun, and there's a day that's going to come to an end. You know, and how else do you surround that? Look what you do as the fun.

So, I'm very fortunate. I've had some challenges like -- but all of us do. How do you overcome those challenges and move on and make the most of your life?

I love my job at NASA. I thought it was the greatest experience I ever had. Now, being able to, you know, both work on the vehicle, you know, launch people into space, recovery when they come home, doing the space walk, and hanging on by a thumb and a forefinger at the end of the Space Station, and you know, they're all fabulous things, but what's most important and one of the astronauts told us this. Early on, he said, "In the history of the world, 108 billion people have lived on this planet, okay? As of today, I think it's like, I don't know, 600-something or so have had the privilege of flying in space." And he said, "Don't forget how fortunate you are to do something so very few people have ever done. And it behooves you to share that in the story with others."

So, I think anything, that if you love something, and you love it with a passion, you love the job you do, share that passion with kids that may not you know, understand what you do. You know, I always tell people, 'If there's something you want to do, go meet somebody doing it and talk to them." Now, don't just assume you think you know what it's going to be. I assumed I'd be a forest ranger. I had never talked to a forest ranger. You know, I joined the Navy because I tutored and met a gentleman who encouraged me to do something exciting, who had done it for his career. And when you can make that connection with somebody, then hopefully they'll go down a path that they'll get paid to do something they love to do. I think, gosh, that's what we all aspire to, right? No matter, flying to space or being an engineer, you know, being an author, those type of things. Get paid to do something you love to do.

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>> Maria Varmazis: That's it for T-Minus for October 9th, 2023. We'd love to know what you think of this podcast. You can email us at space@n2k.com or submit the survey in our Show Notes. Your feedback ensures that we deliver the information that keeps you a step ahead in the rapidly changing space industry. This episode was produced by Alice Caruth, mixing by Elliott Peltzman, and Trey Hester, with original music and sound design, by Elliott Peltzman. And Executive Producer is Brandon Karpf. Our Chief Intelligence Officer is Eric Tillman, and I'm Maria Varmazis. Thanks for listening.

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