Updated: Nov 10, 2021
Indigenous Americans are among the most underrepresented group in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. A 2012 study by the National Science Foundation found that American Indians and Alaska Natives represent less than 1 percent of all scientists and engineers working in the U.S. Here are four inspirational Native Americans who bucked the trend and reached for the stars, playing major roles in space exploration.
Mary Golda Ross (Cherokee) was the first Native American aerospace engineer. A skilled mathematician, Ross was hired by Lockheed Martin in 1942 to help design the P-38 fighter plane. Six years later, she was tapped to join the company’s top-secret think tank on interplanetary space travel. Ross calculated the orbital dynamics for the Agena military rocket, which later became a vital part of the Apollo mission program.
Jerry C. Elliott High Eagle (Osage-Cherokee) started his NASA career in 1966 as a flight mission operations engineer on Project Gemini, the agency's second human spacecraft program. He then held key positions in the Apollo program, serving on the mission control team during Apollo 11's moon landing and calculating the trajectory and successful recovery of the aborted Apollo 13 mission. In 1970, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his vital role in saving the three astronauts aboard the failed spacecraft.
Astronaut John Herrington is the first Native American to travel in space. A member of the Chickasaw Nation, Herrington served as a Naval aviator before being selected as an astronaut candidate in 1996. He flew to the International Space Station aboard STS-113 Endeavour on November 23, 2002, carrying with him the Chickasaw flag and a traditional Native flute.
Navajo engineer Aaron Yazzie works on the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory team that launched the InSight spacecraft in 2018, sent to retrieve samples from the planet Mars. Yazzie helped to create the spacecraft's auxiliary payload sensor subsystem, which monitors the temperature, atmosphere pressure, and wind speed on Mars.
The American Indian Science and Engineering Society is a national nonprofit organization focused on increasing the number of Indigenous Americans in STEM studies and careers. You can learn more about its work here.