Native American astronaut lands at Northwest Indian College

As an astronaut, John Herrington has been to some of the most advanced space centers on, and off, Earth.

Yet Herrington, the first enrolled Native American ever to fly in space, visited Friday, June 19, what is likely one of the more humble space programs he’s been to: the Northwest Indian College Space Center.

Herrington was the keynote speaker at the NWIC commencement ceremony Friday. Before the celebration, he shared stories about his own journey as a Native American astronaut with roughly a dozen students in the college’s rocket club.

“I have the opportunity to share my experience with people in school that may have a dream they may want to accomplish, but they don’t think it’s a realistic dream,” Herrington said. “I had a dream as a kid, and it wasn’t until I was much older that I realized that dream could become a reality.”

The rocket club, named the Northwest Indian College Space Center somewhat tongue-in-cheek, is no joke to any of the students involved, or to the rocket teams from the best colleges in the country it competes against. Several students involved have earned NASA internships, and NASA provided $5,000 per year to the program to help it get off the ground.

Gary Brandt, the teacher who launched the space center with his students about six years ago, valued the chance to talk to an astronaut.

“It gives an opportunity for my students to see that what they’re doing is very, very important,” Brandt said.

Herrington is a member of the Chickasaw tribe in Oklahoma, and he went to college at the University of Colorado. He said he was kicked out of college before somebody convinced him to return, and he eventually earned a degree in applied mathematics. He then earned a Master of Science in aeronautical engineering from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in 1995, according to his biography on NASA’s website.

Not long afterward, in 2002, he was part of the 16th shuttle mission to visit the International Space Station. He now lives in Lewiston, Idaho, where he recently earned his Ph.D in education while focusing his research on motivating Native people in science and math. He said the experiential, collaborative learning environment at the NWIC Space Center is a model for teachers at Native colleges.

The NWIC Space Center is a small classroom with computers for students and drones hanging from the walls. Most of the rockets used in competitions are stored in a previously unused science classroom on campus.

The limited resources the space center has do not hinder the students’ ingenuity; in fact, Herrington said it can actually promote it. Having a good teacher helps, too.

“You can see the enthusiasm of the students based on the enthusiasm of (Brandt),” he said.

Herrington said Native students need to understand that math and science are not just Western ideas. He said Native American ancestors were “capable of doing remarkable engineering and science through observation and practice,” because they had to in order to survive.

“If students can realize that their ancestors were capable of doing something of that nature,” Herrington said, “why can’t they?”

Reach Wilson Criscione at 360-756-2803 or wilson.criscione@bellinghamherald.com.