Native American Representation in Space Exploration

In honor of National Space Day on May 5, PWNA celebrates the remarkable strides in the field of Space Exploration, Aeronautics and Aerospace made by those in the Native American community. Today, we’re highlighting three people who have contributed immensely to the field. They helped set a foundation for more Native people to excel in these professions, but it is important to note that several others continue to pave the way for future generations too.

As she rocketed into orbit on October 5, 2022, Nicole Mann (Wailaki) became the first Native American woman in space – a dream she thought was “not in the realm of possibilities.” Prior to joining NASA in 2013, Mann flew combat missions in support of Operations IRAQI FREEDOM and ENDURING FREEDOM with the U.S. Marine Corps. During her five-month journey in space as commander of SpaceX Crew-5, Mann credited her positive outlook to her mother, who engrained in her the importance of positive energy – something Mann especially focused on for launch day. Staying true to her Native roots during an interview from the cabin of the SpaceX ship, Mann showed off a Dream Catcher – a traditional webbed hoop adorned with feathers used for protection – that her mother had given her as a gift when she was a child and that she still holds near and dear to her heart. Nicole and the SpaceX Crew-5 returned safely home on March 11 after 157 days in orbit.

Another astronaut representing the Native community in the field of Space Exploration is now-retired John Herrington (Chickasaw). Herrington landed at the International Space Station aboard Space Shuttle Endeavor’s STS-113 for a 13-day mission in 2002, when he became the very first Native American in space. Born to the Chickasaw Nation in Wetumka, Oklahoma, Herrington wanted to emphasize the importance of his Native roots during this voyage and thus brought along with him the Chickasaw flag and a traditional flute. Earlier in his career, he received his commission from Aviation Office Candidate School in March of 1984 before being designated a Naval Aviator just one year later. In 1996, Herrington was selected as an astronaut candidate. Not only was he the first Native to enter space. He also served as a commander of the NEEMO 6 mission in 2004, a field test in locations that resemble extreme space environments, including living underwater for 10 days. Herrington retired from the US Navy and NASA in July 2005.

Mary Golda Ross (Cherokee) is the first Native American aerospace engineer and one of NASA’s now famed “hidden figures” – a small group of individuals whose contributions to America’s space age remained unknown until recent years. Ross, born in 1908 in Park Hill, Oklahoma near the capital of Cherokee Nation, is considered an iconic Native figure in history today. After earning a degree in mathematics in 1928 at Northeastern State Teacher’s College, she built a strong career as a teacher and continued her education, earning a master’s degree in math by 1938. To make a breakthrough as a Native woman in a field dominated by white men, Ross had to work eons harder than most. Eventually in 1942, the U.S. needed highly skilled mathematicians to assist with intelligence in World War II (WWII) – her moment to shine! In 1942 she joined Lockheed Aircraft Corporation as an integral part of the team that improved the design of the P-38 Lightning fighter plane. By 1949, Ross had become a professional engineer through UCLA and once the Cold War hit, she was part of a top-secret project that developed missiles, including those that launched from submarines. Though we may never fully understand the entirety of her contributions, her legacy lives on today through her work with NASA, most notably for the Interplanetary Flight Handbook, Volume 3, that provides a detailed flight path between Mars and Venus. Ross is also commemorated in art including the painting titled Ad Astra per Astra by America Meredith (Cherokee), which lives in the National Museum of the American Indian.

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  1. software payroll

    great update, nice to see space exploration still a priority

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