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US Navy Aviator and former NASA Astronaut, John Herrington.

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



Deep Space


John Herrington was the first enrolled member of a Native American tribe to fly in space. He is a member of the Chickasaw Nation, a retired US Navy Aviator and former NASA Astronaut. Herrington was selected as a mission specialist for STS-113. Today marks 21 years since his spaceflight 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 "Deep Space," from N2K Networks. Hi. I'm Maria Varmazis, host of the T-Minus space daily podcast, and "Deep Space" includes extended interviews and bonus content for a deeper look into some of the topics that we cover on our daily program.

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So today is Thanksgiving here in the United States. And if you're celebrating, we hope you're taking the time to spend the day with those that you love. And we're taking the day off, so in lieu of our normal program, we're sharing with you my chat with John Herrington in full. John is a member of the Chickasaw Nation, a retired U.S. Navy aviator, and a former NASA astronaut. He was selected as a mission specialist for STS-113, and today happens to mark 21 years since his spaceflight to the International Space Station on November 23rd, 2002. Happy spaceflight anniversary, John.

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>> John Herrington: 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.

>> Maria Varmazis: Thank you so much, John, for joining me. You have a really fascinating story, and we're just going to start at the beginning. I'm someone who struggled a lot with college, so when I was reading your bio, I related very strongly, and I would love if, I'm sure you've told the story a zillion times, but could you indulge me a bit about how, like, rock climbing got you out of school and then back into it, as such.

>> John Herrington: Oh, sure, yeah. Well, we don't all start school with this notion of being something in life, right? And I liked being outdoors. 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 in 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 went to class, but I didn't really study. I didn't have the motivation to do it. Ended up having a walloping 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 right away. They don't put you on probation, they don't say hey, think about it. They just suspend you. And so I found myself out of school, second semester freshman.

>> Maria Varmazis: [Laughter], that's a good start, right?

>> John Herrington: Yeah, well, I don't know. Good - good is how you look at it. But the fact that I was a rock climber and I worked with a guy in a restaurant who was also a rock climber, roundabout kind of way my restaurant sent me to Texas. I worked in Fort Worth, Texas for a few months in the summer, and I hated it. Not Fort Worth, I just hated, you know, the job was terrible. And I called my friend, and he said I've got a job for you. And I said, doing what? And he said, rock climbing. And I, oh really, you know? So I, you know, learned 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. You know, you've got a good job, don't quit. Well, that was on a Thursday. I think I quit on Friday, but 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.

>> Maria Varmazis: And then so, yeah, yeah. So, and then that ignited the passion - I was reading this in your bio, so I'm giving this sort of very summarized version, but that sort of reignited a passion in - in STEM on your own, and sort of brought you back into college in its own way?

>> John Herrington: 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 the - on the crew.

>> Maria Varmazis: Smart, smart. So basically what - my - my next - my obvious question is, what happened next after that?

>> John Herrington: Well, I - I went back. Well, actually he encouraged me to go back to school, 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 the motivation to - to study, something I thought I - 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 - 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. I mean, it's still hard. You still have to do the calculus, you had to do the physics, and all that, but considering I didn't do well my first semester, not taking these type of classes, I did much better, brought my grade point up to a 3.2. And by the time I was a senior, I worked for the mathematics department. I was a tutor and grader for an instructor named Nancy Baggs. Nancy was a calculus instructor. And bless her heart, I was her grader, and she would give me a stack of papers to grade, and then sometimes when she couldn't do a class, I would get to tutor the class and be a proctor. That was kind of cool. But I was given a - I was given a student to tutor who was a retired Navy Captain, who flew Dauntless dive bombers in World War 2. He became my Navy tutor. I was his calculus tutor. And so he encouraged me to join the Navy. I did that in 1983.

>> Maria Varmazis: Oh, that's excellent. And you have a very distinguished naval career. Really quite a remarkable number of achievements there, and then that also then springboarded you later into a NASA career, which is phenomenal. I - I was listening to an interview you did a few years ago, and something you said, I thought was very striking about your experience in space and also flying as an astronaut changed your perspective on working with people in other countries. I thought that was a really, yeah. I would - could you expand on that a little bit, please? I thought it was fantastic.

>> John Herrington: Well, you know, I'm a naval aviator, right? My job was to hunt Russian submarines. That was my job. I did that for four years, you know, in the western and northern Pacific, and I hunted Russians, you know? Hey, they were our 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 at Star City. Two of my crewmates I was going to fly in the space station with were cosmonauts, Russian - Russian military officers. One guy was. That guy was a flight doc. But you know, it's - I'm - 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. You know? 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 - to work together, to do a mission, and to do it safely. I took a - I took a Russian to space on the space shuttle, and we brought two Russians home. So very, very strange, and a wonderful experience from what I was trained to do early on.

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>> Maria Varmazis: We'll be right back.

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That's fantastic. There's so much to learn from that as well, and even in these challenging times, it's a - it's a really wonderful thing to be reminded of. I - there - I have so many questions. I'm going to - I'm going to be jumping around a little bit.

>> John Herrington: [Laughter], that's fine.

>> Maria Varmazis: I know you have been very busy since you retired from the Navy and from NASA. You've been - I'm a cyclist, so I saw - I heard about your trip across the country, and I was like, that's - that's amazing. I did my first century last year, and I said, wow, I - but what you did is absolutely phenomenal, so kudos to you on that, [laughter], which sounds weird saying that to an astronaut. But seriously, kudos, [laughter]. I would love to hear about what you've been doing in terms of mentorship with - with young people, especially with people, encouraging, like, young indigenous students into STEM careers. I imagine that's a lot of what you're doing now. I'd love to hear a little bit about maybe what you share with the students and - and what you're hearing back from them.

>> John Herrington: Well, one of the very first speaking engagements I had as an astronaut, you know, we all get these requests to speak and everything. And given the fact that my heritage is, you know, Native American, you know, I - I found myself in a role that I didn't expect to be in. I was 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 at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, Texas. 3000 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 - 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? You know, who helped me a long the way? And now I had this opportunity to kind of - to be in that place where I could work with others, and hopefully if - if they could see what I did, they could see it themselves. Not necessarily to be an astronaut, but to be successful. You know, to overcome some really difficult subject matter and - and then to, you know, find a career that you're passionate about. And so I was on the board for AISES twice. By the time I retired, I worked in the commercial space world for a couple of years, and unfortunately I hitched my horse to the wrong wagon. And, you know, hopping on a bicycle and doing what? Talk, you know, talking to native kids across the country, different reservations and NASA schools, about my career as an astronaut, and hopefully I would inspire them. And every - every day I wrote a - I wrote a blog, and every blog had a math or science problem in it. And the idea was to, I want students, you know, it had to be something as simple as, you know, for, you know, for say, first graders. John's going from, you know, this town to this town. How far is it? Well, look at a map, you know? Well, if you did it in five hours, and it's 30 miles, how fast did he pedal? So you start getting the math in it, and then circumference of a wheel, blah, blah, blah. The idea was that I wanted kids to be engaged that math could be fine, math could be interesting, as long as you have a - if you have a purpose behind it, that type of thing. And you can see it, visualize it. So I was able to talk to kids, and - and matter of fact I - I gave a talk once in Durango, Colorado, at Fort Lewis College, to a group of native Navajo kids. They were in a - a NASA, or in a summer program. And you know, years later I'm on an elevator in Phoenix, and this young lady walks up to me, and she says, you know, you're John Herrington. And I'm like, nobody does that, right? Yeah, am I? I think I am. But yeah, it doesn't happen to me. I'm not, you know, it's not - 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 said, I want to thank you, and I'm now a civil engineer with the City of San Francisco, I believe. And I want to thank you for doing that. She got a big hug, took a selfie, you know? And I - you don't realize that you can have an impact on somebody's lives without any knowledge. You know, you're just doing what you do, and I find that's a very gratifying thing. I - 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. That's great, John. Good to hear, good for you. You know? But you know, I think it's, be - be thankful for the people that encourage you to do things, and be thankful that you listened. Very important.

>> Maria Varmazis: Absolutely. And I've often said to, in conversations with friends about how you can see the world best on a bike. You've got the most unique perspective. You've done it on - you've done a lot of the world on a bike, but then you went to space. You saw it from space.

>> John Herrington: Well, you know, I - I lived - I worked in space. I was in space for two weeks. I lived underwater for 10 days in the Florida Keys in a thing called NEEMO, NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations. And then I road a bike across the country. You know, the first one's space, second one's underwater, third one's 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 - in the porthole, and fish going, [sucking noise]. You know, big grouper, you know, go outside to dive, and this big group, this big manta ray coming at you. Yeah, 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 - I met people that just sitting on a porch in - in Arkansas. You know, just wanted to - to shoot the breeze. You know, pedaling through 100-degree temperatures and - and hearing the sprinkler system, [ch sound], 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 - I'll never - I will appreciate very one of those for the rest of my life.

>> Maria Varmazis: That's - that's so beautiful. I - I was so curious what you thought about that, and you answered it before I could ask.

>> John Herrington: [Laughter].

>> Maria Varmazis: I - I just was - I cannot imagine a more unique perspective than that. Especially I know that you've done a lot of work. I was looking at "Into Nature's Wild," the trailer for that. I know you've done a lot of work on - on sharing the beauty of our planet with the next generation. It's so important. I - I know we're coming up on the end of our time, so I just wanted to ask what advice you would give to our listeners, many of whom are working in commercial space, but many of whom are also trying to mentor the next generation, as this is something you do a lot of. Like, I'm very curious what - what you would share with them in terms of how to encourage the next?

>> John Herrington: Yeah, I just think, you know, what you do, you're passionate about. I mean, I'm - I loved my job at NASA. I thought it was - it was the greatest experience I ever had. You know, being able to, you know, both work on a vehicle, you know, launch people into space, recover them when they come home. Being - doing the spacewalk and being - hanging on by a thumb and a forefinger at the end of the space station, and you know, they're all fabulous things, but - I mean, what's most important. And one of the astronauts told us this. Early on he said, in the history of the world we've been - 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 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've always told people, if there's something you want to do, go meet somebody doing it and talk to them. You know, don't just assume you think you know what it's going to be. I assumed I'd be a forest ranger. I'd never talked to a forest ranger. You know, I - I joined the Navy because I - I tutored and met a gentleman who encouraged me to do something exciting, who had done it for his - his career. And when you can make that connection with somebody, that hopefully they'll go down a path that they'll - 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. Do something - get paid to do something you love to do. Every - 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, 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 it's - and I just got remarried again this summer to a remarkable woman. I'm right now a - thank you very much. You know, life has really - there's a lot of challenges, and just because you do something that's fascinating and fun, and you - there's a day that's going to come to an end, you know, and how else do you surround that? What do you is fun. So I'm very fortunate. I've had some challenges like everybody, all of us do. How do you overcome those challenges, and move on, and - and make the most of your life?

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>> Maria Varmazis: Very wise words. Thank you so much for sharing that with me and telling me your story. I really appreciate your time. Thank you so much for joining me today, John.

>> John Herrington: My - my pleasure. Thank you so much.

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>> Maria Varmazis: That's it for T-Minus "Deep Space" for this Thanksgiving, November 23rd, 2023. We'd love to know what you think of this podcast. After you've recovered from your food coma, you can email us at space@n2k.com, or between bites of pie, submit the survey in the 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 Carruth, mixing by Elliott Peltzman and Tre Hester, with original music and sound design by Elliott Peltzman. Our executive producer is Brandon Karpf. And I'm Maria Varmazis. Thank you so much for listening. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

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