First Native American astronaut in space. A 13-day Space Shuttle mission to the International Space Station, a trip including three spacewalks for Herrington totaling nearly 20 hours.

Fifteen years after that life-changing journey, Herrington decided to write a children's book, Mission to Space, rather than an autobiography, in hopes of showing children — especially Native American kids (he's an enrolled member of the Chickasaw Nation) — that dreams can come true, no matter where you start in life.

"I played astronaut as a kid. I used to sit in a cardboard box and dream I was going to the moon," Herrington recalls. That dream is what kids connect to, he says, and why he wrote a book full of colorful images of him on the shuttle, in space and training for the journey, as well as of Chickasaws celebrating the feat.

"This is not a stereotypical Plains Indian on horseback with a war bonnet," he says. "This is a Native person who's proud of where he comes from, who's gone through a collegiate career and professional career, but still honors where he came from."

A children's book is a natural step for the astronaut, who has spent much of the past decade working on children's and tribal issues. In 2008, he rode a bike cross-country, visiting reservations and NASA Explorer schools, and telling his story of self-motivation and supportive mentors pushing him to places he could never have imagined as a kid.

On the ride, he fell in love with a woman from Lewiston, Idaho, and he moved there in 2009. His passion for working with kids drove him to get a Ph.D. in education at the University of Idaho in 2014, and he's currently working with Rosetta Stone to preserve the Chickasaw language. In fact, the last two pages of Mission to Space — which he'll sign and discuss at Auntie's on Saturday — are dedicated to translations of Chickasaw terms for English words like "astronaut," "gravity" and "spacewalk."

Herrington's excitement about his space travels comes through in the book, and even more so in conversation. Asked how he describes walking in space to us Earth-bound folks, he describes how "your mind will play tricks on you in space."

"It will flip you upside down instantaneously in your brain, because gravity is not telling you which way is down anymore," Herrington says. "Your body doesn't have that sensation of being pulled down. So if you're looking at something, your mind will say, 'That's right-side up.' But you know full well you're upside down. The first time it happens, you go, 'Whaaaaa?' It's weird."

Herrington's space career was cut short when Columbia, the Space Shuttle mission after his trip, exploded and killed seven of his friends — including Spokane's Michael Anderson — a year later in 2003, putting the program on hold. Then he was diagnosed with osteoporosis, putting him at risk of breaking his back on the trip. A short dalliance with commercial space travel took him out of NASA, and its failure ultimately led to that cross-country bike trip. But the memory of space remains as fresh now as when he exited the shuttle for his first spacewalk.

"There are times during a spacewalk when you kind of stop and go, 'Wow, you are here. Hey, there are the Bahamas, right beneath me,'" Herrington says. "And then you go, 'Well, that was cool' and you get back to work because you're not there to sightsee."

His memories of his space travels are hair-raising and enthralling, and they may still make it into an autobiography for adults. Just not yet.

"My story is not really done, and I don't want it to be just a 'space book,' because then you end up on the 'space' shelf," Herrington says. "I want it to be a story about this journey that includes this segment of my life that changed my life, but also the things that came before and after, that made me who I am. And hopefully it's a story that resonates, not just on the 'space' shelf."

Responses to "First Native American Astronaut John Herrington is honored"

  1. Scott Seiler (Wahkiakum Chinook) says:

    Kudos It take a real person to be able to speak to children and adults in the same breadth. Someone who has experienced the reservation life and taken it to higher heights to achieve the greatest ability in life which is life itself.

  2. Unknown says:

    It's incredible story that i didn't know it! It's important to promote for first nations kids who have a dreams ! I can say every thing is possible! Thank you for sharing this wonderful story !

  3. Starchild says:

    Wachiye. In Cree our word for astronaut is "Chakapesh" and it's a legend about a boy who was no taller than our thumb. In a nutshell, he ended up on the moon after being pulled by the moon because of his incessant taunts and teasing after his sister warned him not to do that. You can see him on the moon with his buckets of water. The idea that there may have been water on the moon is part of the legend due to Chakapesh's pails of water.

    I think it's terrific John Harrington was an astronaut. I was not as lucky as he was to have people encourage me to pursue my dream. Instead they killed it. The closest I got to NASA was writing to them to inquire what one needed to become an astronaut at age 14.

  4. Unknown says:

    John Herrington first Native American astronaut sure has a good ring and you make us Indigenous Cree indians proud.

  5. Unknown says:

    Eagle up...

  6. Unknown says:

    Right on. .your so blessed

  7. Mehddhin says:

    This is a great story to be shared. I'm gonna look for this book and will be waiting for his autobiography in the future.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Really appreciated his talk at Intel a week or so ago!

  9. Unknown says:

    This is an awesome event I never new about.

  10. Unknown says:

    Such an amazing accomplishment! For someone of any background but being Native makes it even more special. We need heroes in our Native communities. Aho!

  11. This is so cool. I love all things space. My son and I have gone to most movies we know about space. I think John had an experience that would thrill some of us if we could go through all the training, etc. My hat is off to you, John, Thank you for sharing your awesome journey. I know the book will thrill the children.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Read this!

  13. Someone please write a book about him so I can get it into the hands of my 5th graders during our biographies unit!

  14. My Dad and I are also voting members of the Chickasaw Nation (Trail of Tears Descendants), and while my Dad 85 now, graduated from a government ran Americanization School with a 6th grade education, many descendants have worked very hard to educate themselves and become leaders in their communities John being one of those people, congratulations John well deserved!

  15. Unknown says:

    It is soo important to share stories like yours for Indigenous folks like us. Sadly, we are often overlooked as people of the past, but we are here participating in all walks of life, capable of anything. Children need to know this !!

  16. Unknown says:

    Thank You,very good to hear of a Native man to reach the highest Plateau possible!Dreams do come true!

  17. Unknown says:

    I'm Steve Herrington, and I wish I could say I am related to John Herrington. I admire him greatly!

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