A Native Space Odyssey
The sky’s the limit!
The popular saying – largely attributed to the early 1900s after the invention of flight – hasn’t aged particularly well. After all, there was the legendary space race of the ’60s that culminated in NASA sending Apollo 11 to the Moon on July 16, 1969. Four days later, hundreds of millions of Earthlings sat glued to their television sets in pure amazement as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin hopped around the Moon’s near zero- gravity surface.
That singular moment changed the course of human imagination. In a manner of speaking “the sky’s the limit” was forced into early retirement that day.
Young Earthlings no longer capped their imagination to the sky held within our planet’s atmosphere. Instead, they now thought of space as the new frontier.
Such was the case for Chickasaw Nation tribal member John Herrington. He imagined himself as a crew member on voyages of the starship Enterprise, exploring strange new worlds, seeking out new life and new civilizations…to boldly go where no Native American has gone before.
Like a true navigator, Herrington plotted his course and set out to make history. After logging over 3,800 flight hours in over 30 different types of aircraft, Herrington made history as the first ever Native American to accomplish space flight on November 23, 2002. He served as a mission specialist aboard space shuttle Endeavour on its 14-day mission to the International Space Station where Herrington was integral in completing station upgrades, equipment transfers, and the universally cool spacewalk.
“These young women, maybe Native, maybe people from different backgrounds, they realize that they have these opportunities. And so hopefully that will inspire that younger generation.”
“I got to do everything I would ever do as an astronaut on my one mission,” he told Indian Country Today. “I was very fortunate. I flew some Sage. I flew some sweet grass. I flew regalia for a friend of mine. Being able to take the flute and the feather out and actually float those in the International Space Station really meant a lot to my family.”
Aboard space shuttle Endeavor, Herrington carried a flute made by Cherokee tribal member Jim Gilliland, a decorated eagle feather beaded by a Yankton Sioux citizen Philip Lane, and a Chickasaw Nation flag. Both flute and eagle feather remained in his possession as he transferred from his crew’s shuttle into the space station. Soon after entering the International Space Station, he placed both items within the airlock where they floated together in the zero-gravity environment. This once-in-a-lifetime moment is memorialized at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. within an exhibit holding the same flute and feather suspended in midair, like they are still in space.
Herrington performed three spacewalks totaling 19 hours and 55 minutes.
The Chickasaw legend’s historic achievement is commemorated on the reverse of the 2019 Sacagawea dollar coin. In 2017, he was also inducted into the International Air & Space Hall of Fame. Herrington continues to speak across the country on the topics of STEM, space aviation and the Chickasaw Nation.
It’s been 20 years since the first Native American soared above our planet’s stratosphere and space-walked 254 miles above Earth’s surface. In late 2022, another history making cosmic event occurred for Native culture. This time for the matriarchs.
On October 5, NASA astronaut Nicole Mann, an enrolled member in Wailacki of the Round Valley Indian Tribes of northern California, earned the mantle of first Native American woman to soar in space. She served as spacecraft commander aboard the next generation shuttle Dragon Endurance as it launched from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center to the International Space Station.
Like Herrington before her, Nicole was an exemplary student who took her education seriously. In fact, she earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the U.S. Naval Academy and a master’s degree in mechanical engineering with a specialty in fluid mechanics from Stanford University.
“It’s very exciting,” she told Indian Country Today, referring to being the first Native woman in space.
“I think it’s important that we communicate this to our community, so that other Native kids, if they thought maybe that this was not a possibility or to realize that some of those barriers that used to be there are really starting to get broken down.”
Emblematic of her fulfilling a lifelong dream, Nicole carried a cultural item that is very special to her on board her space mission. “I have this dream catcher that my mother gave me when I was very young. It’s kind of always stayed with me throughout my time,” she explained.
While the history books continue to be updated in real-time with Nicole’s tremendous story, such as her spacewalk conducted on January 20, the Native astronaut will continue to serve as real-life icon for Native youth everywhere.
“It’s so fun, I think, in our lifetime when you have firsts,” she shared with NPR.
“And I think it’s really great to celebrate those and to communicate that, especially to the younger generation, right? These young women, maybe Native, maybe people from different backgrounds, they realize that they have these opportunities. And so hopefully that will inspire that younger generation.”
As iconic culture bearers, the tremendous achievements of both astronauts have surely inspired Native youth across the nation who have a scientific mind and eyes set not on the ground beneath them, but the dazzling stars and galaxies above us all.