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NASA engineers, scientists and more shine bright this Native American Heritage Month

NASA JPL educator Edward Gonzales (second from the right) alongside students he's mentored. NASA shared Gonzales' story as part of Native American Heritage month.
NASA JPL educator Edward Gonzales (second from the right) alongside students he's mentored. NASA shared Gonzales' story as part of Native American Heritage month. (Image credit: courtesy of Eddie Gonzales/NASA)

This November is Native American Heritage Month, and NASA is taking the opportunity to highlight its indigenous scientists, engineers and more.

NASA's first indigenous trailblazers include Mary G. Ross, a "hidden figure" mathematician and engineer and member of the Cherokee Nation whose cutting edge work including work on NASA's Planetary Flight Handbook and work on early designs for flights to Mars and Venus, and John Bennet Herrington, a NASA astronaut and member of the Chickasaw Nation who, in 2002, became the first member of a Native American tribe to fly to space. 

Today, the agency's Native American employees are reaching for the stars and expanding our understanding of the universe around us through groundbreaking science and innovation. 

Related: NASA and Navajo Nation Partner in Understanding the Universe

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Earlier this November, 31 years since the first Native American Heritage Month was celebrated in 1990, NASA shared a page that includes many of the stories of the agency's current indigenous employees; what they do and how their heritage has influenced their work and lives.

"Native American culture and NASA have both defined my life.  My dream was to work for NASA from a very early age.  This drove me to learn as much as I could about science and nature and gave me the curiosity to extend that drive beyond our planet," Kenneth Attocknie, a member of both the Caddo and Comanche Tribes who has worked at NASA as a flight controller, astronaut instructor and who now works on the International Space Station's human life support system, said in a NASA statement.

"Living and growing up within my native community perfectly enabled that desire.  I developed an appreciation for the world around me that enhanced what I discovered off the planet.  Everything is spiritually connected and I've learned that even more so working for NASA," Attocknie added.

Carol "Bird Song" Harrison, a member of the Cheroenhaka Nottoway Indian Tribe, has also served in multiple roles at NASA, graduating from the NASA Apprentice Program in 1992, working as wind tunnel technician and now working as a quality assurance specialist. Her work supports NASA's ongoing efforts to return humans to the moon as part of the Artemis program. 

The agency also highlighted the work of Steve Lighthill, an enrolled descendent of the Karuk tribe who works as visual communications manager and public outreach manager at the agency's Armstrong Flight Research Center in California. 

"I am proud of my heritage and brought as much of it into my work environment as possible. The fact that I have Native American ancestry has helped guide my choices in my life and career in an effort to return to as close to my roots as possible," Lighthill said in a NASA statement.

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Aaron Yazzie, a Navajo (or Diné in the Navajo language) nation member who works as an engineer for NASA's Mars 2020 mission at the agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, spoke to Space.com about his work on the mission in February when the mission's Perseverance rover touched down on Mars.

"It feels unreal and it is unreal to be part of such a historic [mission]," Yazzie told Space.com at the time. "It feels like we're contributing knowledge to the whole world on behalf of humanity. The possibility that we might find ancient microbial life on Mars, [it] would be a huge discovery and I'm so excited that I even have a small part in that discovery."

Harrison, Lighthill and Attocknie are just a few employees who NASA has highlighted this month. They are joined by Marcellus Proctor, Orson John, Lauren Denson, Joseph Connolly, Raquel Redhouse, George Gorospe, Powtawche Valerino and more. 

You can learn more at NASA's Native American Heritage Month page here

NASA's relationship with Native American communities

Aside from its workforce which is slowly becoming more diverse, NASA has a growing relationship with Native American communities. 

In February 2021, the agency landed its Perseverance rover on the surface of Mars. As part of this mission, the Perseverance mission team continues to work with the Navajo Nation Office of the President and Vice President to name different Martian landmarks using Navajo words

"The partnership that the Nez-Lizer Administration has built with NASA will help to revitalize our Navajo language," President Nez said in a NASA statement. "We hope that having our language used in the Perseverance mission will inspire more of our young Navajo people to understand the importance and the significance of learning our language. Our words were used to help win World War II, and now we are helping to navigate and learn more about the planet Mars."

"The partnership that the Nez-Lizer Administration has built with NASA will help to revitalize our Navajo language," Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said in a NASA statement. "We hope that having our language used in the Perseverance mission will inspire more of our young Navajo people to understand the importance and the significance of learning our language. Our words were used to help win World War II, and now we are helping to navigate and learn more about the planet Mars."

In 2019, NASA additionally named the celestial body 2014 MU69, an object discovered by NASA's New Horizons mission and the Hubble Space Telescope, "Arrokoth," a word that means "sky" in the Algonquian language, which is spoken by the Powhatan tribes in the region of Maryland where the discovery was made. This name was chosen after controversy arose from a previously chosen name "Ultima Thule."

Email Chelsea Gohd at cgohd@space.com or follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Chelsea Gohd

Chelsea Gohd joined Space.com as an intern in the summer of 2018 and returned as a Staff Writer in 2019. After receiving a B.S. in Public Health, she worked as a science communicator at the American Museum of Natural History and even wrote an installation for the museum's permanent Hall of Meteorites. Chelsea has written for publications including Scientific American, Discover Magazine Blog, Astronomy Magazine, Live Science, All That is Interesting, AMNH Microbe Mondays blog, The Daily Targum and Roaring Earth. When not writing, reading or following the latest space and science discoveries, Chelsea is writing music and performing as her alter ego Foxanne (@foxannemusic). You can follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd.