Commander John Herrington inspires learning for a universe of possibilities

As Commander John Herrington, the first-ever Aboriginal astronaut, shared his story with the Mount Royal community during the Iniskim Centre’s open house event, it became apparent that taking the scenic route isn’t always a bad thing.

At eight years old, he remembers sitting in his own cardboard box rocket watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon for the first time, dreaming of one day making his own visit. However, at the time when he began thinking about attending college, it was his love of the outdoors that influenced his decision to pursue a career as a forest ranger to avoid being “stuck behind a desk”.

The long walk to space

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Herrington addresses the crowd in his flight suit from his days at NASA.

As unlikely as it may seem, it was receiving a suspension letter for his lackluster 1.72 GPA, followed by a series of seemingly unrelated experiences, chance encounters and conversations that helped to steer him back on the path of education, leading him to a Bachelor of Science in Applied Mathematics from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

Herrington subsequently served for 20 years with the U.S. Navy before earning a Master of Science in Aeronautical Engineering from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in 1995, allowing him a foot in the door at NASA.

The “call” Herrington received in 2001 would be one to change Herrington’s life forever. It was his ticket on board STS 113, the Space Shuttle Endeavour’s 16th assembly mission to the International Space Station in 2003, logging over 330 hours in space, including three space walks.

During his introduction, Mount Royal President David Docherty put Herrington’s time in space into perspective.

“330 hours — think about that. For a Mount Royal student, that’s like spending eight of your courses in space.”

“Space flight was a small portion of my life, a huge portion of what I have done professionally, but personally a small part of the journey,” says Herrington.

Staying in touch

Despite travelling far from his homeland of the Chickasaw Nation in Idaho, Herrington never lost touch with his roots.

Herrington, now retired from NASA, continues in his pursuit of life-long learning at the University of Idaho where he is working on a PhD in Education, becoming an ambassador for his Chickasaw Nation and acts as Chair of the American Indian Institute for Innovation (AIII) to improve opportunities for Native American students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) with programs similar to Mount Royal’s Aboriginal Science and Technology Education Program (ASTEP).

Beakerhead connections

Herrington came to Mount Royal’s Iniskim Centre as part of the Beakerhead festival, an annual citywide interactive movement that brings together the arts and engineering sectors from across the city, province, country and world, founded by Mary Ann Moser and Jay Ingrim.

“Part of our motivation for creating Beakerhead is to expand the group of students who think about careers in science and engineering,” says Moser, president and co-founder of Beakerhead. “Beakerhead believes that reaching out to both the creative and rational sides of students is part of that process.”

With an interest in finding “the trigger” for youth in the Native community to engage in STEM, Herrington is always keen to share his experiences wherever he can with Aboriginal youth by writing stories of his travels or speaking publicly.

“I want to help students find what motivates and inspires them, so I tell them my story.”

A special honour

As a surprise complement to the event, Blackfoot Elder from the Piikunii Nation and Cultural Advisor to the Iniskim Centre, Elder Leonard Bastien, took the stage to celebrate the accomplishments of Herrington in a traditional Blackfoot gifting ceremony. During the ceremony, Elder Leonard Bastien honoured Herrington with a gift for his accomplishments by bestowing upon him a traditional Blackfoot name.

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Commander Herrington is hounoured with a traditional Blackfoot name.

“Commander Herrington is a highly esteemed person to represent Aboriginal people,” says Elder Leonard Bastien. “And, in our culture, our beliefs, our stories, and as well as for his ancestors the eagle is always the one that flew the highest – today he is the Golden Eagle Chief, Bee Daa Naah (Blackfoot Pronunciation), the one who will continue to fly higher and rise above.”

As a final thought, Herrington offered some words of advice to the audience.

“Find something challenging that you are inspired to do — something that will allow you to keep on keeping on.”

— Brendan Greenslade, Sept. 19, 2013