As an eight-year-old growing up in Oklahoma, John Herrington had a dream.

“I would spend time playing with a cardboard box and dreaming of going to the moon,” said Herrington.

A member of the Chickasaw tribe, Herrington grew up in the 1960s and got the chance to do what many kids only dream about – he actually went into space.

Herrington, who is a retired NASA astronaut, visited the Redwood Area School District as part of Native American Heritage Month, and he spoke to all of the students in the district sharing his story, talking about space and encouraging students to follow their dreams.

Of course, he told the students, dreams don’t just happen, and sometimes the journey to that dream takes a few different turns. Herrington said at times achieving a dream seems impossible.

In fact, he admitted the numbers were stacked against him.

After all, of the billions people who have lived on this planet, there have only been 558 people who have ever had the privilege of going into space, and of that number, just 143 people have actually walked in space. Herrington can count himself as one of them. 

Herrington can also count himself as the first Native American to do those things.

As he shared his story with the students Herrington was honest, adding he was kicked out of college his first time because of poor grades, having found himself much more interested in rock climbing than studying and going to class.

However, his experience as a rock climber led to a job on a survey crew in the Colorado mountains where he discovered a practical application for math. That was the passion he was looking for, and that led him back to college where he earned a degree in engineering.

Along the way, Herrington also met a retired Navy captain who encouraged him to enlist, which led to a 22-year career in the United States Navy as a naval aviator, test pilot and astronaut.

“My dad was a pilot,” said Herrington, adding he got his first flying lesson at the age of 10.

That love for flying stayed with him, and that led to his opportunity to serve as a test pilot, which then opened the door to becoming an astronaut and making a historic trip in 1996 to the International Space Station.

As he looked out into space, Herrington admitted it was hard to wrap his mind around what he was seeing all around him. The lack of gravity provided for unique experiences, said Herrington, adding everything from eating, getting dressed and even going to the bathroom can pose challenges in space. Then there is the adjustment after landing back on Earth.

“I never felt so heavy,” said Herrington.

After retiring from the Navy, Herrington continued to push himself in various ways – making a 4,300 mile bicycle ride across the United States and earning a doctorate in education.

He now spends much of his time traveling and speaking to students in an effort to inspire them and to let them know if someone like him can achieve a dream they can, too. Herrington also encouraged students to keep learning.

“Research to find out the truth,” Herrington said. “Learn to think critically, and find things out for yourself.”

That, he said, is where it all begins.