First American Indian Astronaut Speaks at MCC
Commander John Herrington and MCC President Dr. Shouan Pan
By Sam Stevens, MCC Advisor
Photos by Sally Mesarosh (Media Relations & Communications)
Mesa, AZ - As a particularly windy day died down and the sun disappeared for the night, the drumbeats and chanting of a Kiowa honor song emanated from MCC’s North Lawn on the campus at Southern and Dobson Thursday night, September 26, 2013. Performed by Melvin Deer, the song is considered a "Chief's" song, historically performed to honor leaders. The honored individual for the evening was Commander John Herrington, former Navy pilot, NASA mission specialist, and the first American Indian to have flown into and walked in outer space. The day’s culmination showcased a great collaborative effort between the Maricopa District’s Office of American Indian Outreach Program and MCC’s American Indian Center. It also served to kick-off the formation of MCC’s student chapter of AISES (the American Indian Science and Engineering Society), the first within the Maricopa Community College District. With months of detailed planning behind them, the committee that brought John Herrington to MCC quietly acknowledged to one another that the day’s events were well worth the effort. In front of an audience numbering well over 250 individuals, Commander Herrington spoke about how his life and educational experiences prepared him to serve as a mission specialist aboard the space shuttle Endeavor in 2002.
Beginning with a luncheon in the spruced up courtyard east of the Kirk Center, MCC students, faculty, and staff gathered to share a meal and listen to Commander Herrington speak about the importance of finding motivation in the face of challenges and trials. His speech was focused toward an audience comprised mostly of MCC’s American Indian student body as well as other invited guests. He reflected on childhood memories where he often played ‘astronaut’ and pretended he was landing on the moon or piloting spacecraft through the skies. He also shared how his love of the outdoors and his skills as a rock climber eventually led to a job scaling cliffs as a surveyor’s assistant on highway building projects. Having left college several years prior he was content with the job as it allowed time outdoors and also the opportunity to work near a ski resort where he was able to escape every weekend. However, on the advice and recognition of his boss who pointed out Herrington’s mathematical aptitude and grasp of scientific reasoning, he returned to college at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs to study and complete undergraduate work in Applied Mathematics in 1983. After graduation he decided he would join the Navy and attended Officer Candidate School in Pensacola, FL in 1984 where he was taught to discipline himself both mentally and physically which led to a long and distinguished career as a naval aviator.
After the luncheon Commander Herrington was escorted to the MCC Planetarium by astronomy faculty member, Kevin Healy. There he spoke with a mixture of students from Healy's astronomy classes and American Indian students who came from the luncheon. As Prof. Healy showed a presentation of the universe on the amazing 20' high Planetarium dome, Commander Herrington offered first-hand insight about the constellations, the universe, and his experience in the outer layers of the atmosphere. Much to the delight of the small group gathered there, Herrington personalized it in a way that was both engaging and inspiring to those in attendance. Many students were very impressed with his knowledge about deep space and his experiences aboard the space shuttle.
Herrington continued the stories at dinner as he spoke to local high school students participating in the Maricopa District’s Hoop of Learning program. Also in attendance were students who had attended Summer Bridge programs, members of the Phoenix Union School District, and the Salt River Jr. Ace program. After sharing a catered Italian dinner in the Southwest Reading Room of the Library, Herrington addressed an audience of over 80 American Indian high school students, many of whom were accompanied by their parents. He directed much of his dinner speech toward the challenges he faced as a young person, trying to figure out what he wanted to do as he grew older, including dealing with the setback of leaving college for a few years and finally returning to complete an undergraduate degree on the advice of people close to him. He then spoke on how he was guided by a positive and optimistic approach through his education leading to the pursuit of graduate studies in Aeronautical Engineering and completing a Master’s degree from the US Naval Postgraduate School in 1995. He encouraged students again to engage their interests and find ways to remain motivated in their educational endeavors while navigating through life's challenges.
The final portion of the evening was presented on the North Lawn at MCC, where under a partly cloudy sky and a light breeze, Herrington once again regaled an audience of over 250 people with stories, anecdotes, and experiences highlighting his storied career as a Navy test pilot and NASA mission specialist. He discussed preparations he made for mission STS-113 which took the space shuttle Endeavor to the International Space Station and how his engineering and mathematical backgrounds played an enormous part in his ability to carry out the mission’s plans. He also explained that because of his motivation to learn, he was able to study and memorize thousands of pages of detailed information related to the shuttle’s operation. Herrington credited his crew members’ commitment to teamwork that led to the ultimate success of the mission which delivered supplies but also brought home a crew of other astronauts who had completed a 6 month stay aboard the International Space Station. He also discussed his work with American Indian students as a role model and advocate of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) fields which have a low representation of American Indian students. He encouraged students to become involved in AISES and work together to substantiate their educational experiences to improve their personal well-being while helping others around them. After a brief Q&A session, Herrington signed autographs and spoke with many audience members one-on-one well into the night, leaving MCC around 9:30 pm. His willingness to remain that late for so many people certainly belies his commitment to being a positive role model as he took the time for hundreds of people to engage them briefly in a more personal setting.
Committee organizers Pam Yabeny, Gerard Begay, Britney Harper, Yvonne Honeyestewa, and Sam Stevens, who were on-hand to participate in this day-long event with Commander Herrington, were very pleased with how the event was received by everyone and they are hopeful that this contributes to more students becoming involved in STEM fields, as well as participation in AISES. They also wish to acknowledge all who assisted them in making this event possible, including Dr. Pan whose support, time, and willingness to introduce Commander Herrington was very much appreciated. To the Phoenix AISES chapter who contributed the water and ice for the evening event, we are very grateful. All the student volunteers who did so much behind the scenes including setting up tables, chairs, food, and with the clean-up, thank you! Lora Lassiter and her team in Institutional Advancement helped beyond measure over the past several weeks, including assisting with a change of venue just two days before the John Herrington luncheon with students. Along with valuable assistance from Silvia Lideen and a small army of employees from Maintenance and Operations as well as Custodial Services and the MCC Grounds crew, their contributions cannot be overlooked and the American Indian Center and Maricopa Office of American Indian Outreach give the highest acknowledgement to their assistance, for without it this event would not have been as special as it was for our students and community members.