American Indian astronaut speaks at UNCP conference


Dr. John B. Herrington

When asked by a Robeson County elementary school student when he would return to space, former astronaut Dr. John B. Herrington said: “The question is when are you going to outer space?” 

Dr. Herrington, a retired U.S. Navy pilot and former NASA astronaut, gave four talks on October 30-31 on the campus of The University of North Carolina at Pembroke. On Friday, he spoke to three groups from the Public Schools of Robeson County, and on Saturday, he spoke to 180 college students at the Annual Research Conference of the North Carolina Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (MS-LSAMP). 

A member of the Chickasaw Tribe, Dr. Herrington went to the International Space Station aboard the space shuttle Endeavor in 2002, making him the first American Indian in space. 

“We were very fortunate to be able to bring Dr. Herrington to Pembroke,” said Dr. Velinda Woriax, a UNCP biology professor and coordinator of the university’s MS-LSAMP program, a federal program funded by the National Science Foundation. “I met him at an AISES (American Indian Society of Engineering and Science) conference. For an astronaut, he is very down to earth and connects with the kids.” 

North Carolina public universities represented at the conference included UNCP, NC State, N.C. Central, Fayetteville State, Winston-Salem State, North Carolina Central and UNC-Charlotte. Dr. Zoe Locklear, UNCP’s provost and vice chancellor of Academic Affairs, welcomed the students to Pembroke. 

“This is outstanding; it’s amazing to see so many students here,” Dr. Locklear said. “If you are not going to become science teachers, I encourage you to consider giving back to the public schools through science programs. There is a great need for science education in the public schools.” 

Now a retired from the Navy with the rank of commander, Dr. Herrington spent the first stage of his life achieving great things, and now he is giving back by speaking to young people. 

“My tribe is located in Oklahoma, but my family moved 14 times,” Dr. Herrington said. “My father taught me to fly. I have wanted to be an aviator since I was eight.” 

“Neither of my parents went to college, but they understood the importance of education and encouraged me,” he said. “I was more interested in rock climbing.” 

An uninterested college student, Dr. Herrington did not survive his first try. Following the advice of one of his employers who notice he had potential in the engineering field, he returned to school and found mathematics. 

“I spent all my time rock climbing; I didn’t study,” he said of his freshman year. “Another mentor convinced me to join the Navy. I wanted to be an aviator, but to do that you need an advanced degree.” 

Dr. Herrington earned a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering and made good on his dream to be an aviator. Dr. Herrington joined the astronaut program in 1996. He logged 330 hours in space with three spacewalks to install hardware outside of the space station. 

As the shuttle program was discontinued, a medical issue prevented Dr. Herrington’s return to space. After retiring from the Navy, he continued flying as a test pilot for a private space development company. 

In 2014, Dr. Herrington earned a Ph.D. in education from the University of Idaho. He also biked across the U.S. from Washington State to Cape Canaveral, Fla. 

The students were riveted on Dr. Herrington’s descriptions of space flight. The former astronaut had a message for the young people. 

“Everything I’ve done would not have been possible if other people had not given me good advice,” he said. “In the second half of my life, I want to give back to other people.” 

The conference continued with worshops and research presentations. UNCP presenters included Dr. Deborah Hamner, a biology professor, and Entrepreneur-in-Residence James Freeman. UNCP student research was presented by Elizabeth Gerdes, Carlisha Hall, Casey Haywood, Mena Issa, Walter Patterson and Kameron Richardson.