Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Science: A Spiritual Journey of Discovery

Science is not foreign to Native American cultures; in fact, it has been part of American Indians' ways of life for thousands of years. In recognizing this, Jerry Elliott, an Osage-Cherokee, has stayed true to his culture throughout his 39 years as a physicist at NASA. He considers his work a spiritual quest to understand the world in which we live. In doing so, he has made great strides not only in science (including his role in bringing back the Apollo 13 astronauts), but in the Osage-Cherokee community as well. Indeed, when he turned 41, Elliott's tribal elders named him "High Eagle" because his work brought him close to his traditions, or as he says, "close to God."

Space Dreams

Since he was 5 years old, Elliott has known what he wanted to do in life. Whenever his elders asked him what he wanted to do when he grew up, he answered, "I'm going to land a man on the moon."

Many of his tribal elders encouraged Elliott to keep this dream, but because space programs didn't exist at the time, others laughed at his notions. "You're never going to land a man on the moon while you're on a horse," his grandfather once said. Yet, Elliott's interest only strengthened.

While growing up in an urban community in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Elliott loved watching Flash Gordon and wondered about various aspects of nature and life. "I was curious why the sunset was red and why the sky was blue. ... I began to see life all around me [as] a mystery," says Elliott.

In time, he knew he would find answers to such mysteries. To those who were skeptical about his ultimate dream, he replied, "I'm going to work hard, study, and learn how to do it." Thus, after being inspired by his mother, who briefly attended college, Elliott went on to study physics at the University of Oklahoma, Norman.

Facing Discrimination

However, being one of the few Native Americans on campus, Elliott [pictured left] withdrew from his new environment. Although he didn't grow up on a reservation, his early education at public schools (which had a mix of Native and non-Native students) wasn't enough to prepare him for the culture shock in college.

When he was young, "we didn't really note a lot of differences other than we were different somehow," Elliott explained. But in college, he saw a clearer distinction between cultures, particularly when it came to respect.

For his tribe, respect for people, life, and nature is "a valued tradition." Whenever he saw someone being dishonest, drinking, or doing drugs, he questioned their integrity and stood up for his beliefs. It didn't help that his peers saw him as Hollywood's mold of a typical Indian; that is, according to Elliott, Indians falling off of horses, getting shot by cowboys, always being warlike, and not having feelings. Many people also wondered why he was studying difficult subjects such as math and science.

It was clear to Elliott that his peers were naïve about Native Americans and their abilities. For him, science became second nature.

A Natural Training Ground for Scientists

Increasingly, Elliott realized that being Native American made him well-equipped to be a scientist. "I went to school and learned what my grandfather already knew even though he didn't go to school," he says. "We knew from thousands of years of experience living in the Mother Earth in the natural way ... about all kinds of healing and scientific things, but we never called it science." From how they've healed one another using local herbs to how they've built dams and irrigation channels, "we have been the first original scientists of this country in our own way," Elliott proudly says.

Did You Know?

Jerry Elliott adds these interesting tidbits of information about the science that occurred in everyday American Indian cultures. Some American Indians built homes in the cliffs because they knew that at night, the rocks would give warmth to heat their homes, but they never described it as solar energy. To make arrows aerodynamic, they placed feathers at the arrow's tip. In addition, the traditional home of Plains Indians, the teepee, had an aerodynamic shape so that wind from any direction couldn't topple it over.

In Elliott's case, it was just a matter of time before people (and Elliott himself) realized his destiny. Thanks in part to the support of other American Indians at the university, Elliott stayed strong and determined. He wasn't one to earn top grades, but as always, he challenged himself to think. "All the facts that I learned in school didn't prepare me for everything. It was the process of thinking that prepared me for life, for my profession," he says.

Making Dreams a Reality

In 1966, Elliott was among the first Native Americans to receive a physics degree at the University of Oklahoma, and NASA hired him as a flight mission operations engineer.

NASA Successes

For about 4 decades now, Elliott has utilized his technical and managerial skills under numerous important titles at NASA. Among his accomplishments:

  • As a flight dynamics retrofire officer, he calculated the flight paths of all the Apollo flights. He helped land a man on the moon for the first time on 20 July 1969 during the Apollo 11 space mission. He also helped ensure the safe return of Apollo 13 after an onboard explosion, which earned him a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States.

  • He won the coveted position of program staff engineer in the mid-1970s for the first Russian-American space mission.

  • He provided ground support equipment for the first U.S. space station and all of the space hardware for the first U.S. manned orbiting space station.

  • In 1978, Elliott proposed and arranged for NASA's telecommunications satellite to connect all American Indian tribes in the north and south, the White House, the U.S. Senate, and several federal agencies for a 3-day teleconference about health, education, and other issues affecting the Native American community.

In November 2004, Elliott, alongside singer/entertainer Wayne Newton, will receive the Cherokee Medal of Honor, a top honor for Cherokees from the Cherokee Honor Society ( CHS), for his contributions and for being "an all-around, genuine guy," says CHS co-founder Murv Jacob. To learn more about High Eagle, visit his Web site.

Through perseverance, Elliott achieved many of his goals, but his views in life also made it possible. For instance, diversity at NASA is similar to that in college, he says, but eventually he learned to appreciate the differences between people. Of his time at NASA, Elliott remarks', "We all came together as a team to accomplish a purpose, and it showed me that diversity is a strong factor in the success of anything."

Continuing the Tradition

Today, Elliott uses physics to upgrade security within NASA. He views physics as a way of life, calling it "the greatest spiritual profession" because he studies "all these things the creator has made and given us to enjoy." He's doing what his ancestors did but in a different way.

'Elliott gladly shares the many lessons he's learned in life with Native Americans and other minorities. In 1977, he co-founded the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, which encourages Native Americans to pursue science careers. Elliott has also been a motivational speaker nearly as long as he's been at NASA and has inspired many young minds at all levels of education.

To dreamers of the impossible, he likes to say, "Diversity in the workforce is important, but the biggest challenge is to challenge oneself."

Edna Francisco is a contributing writer for MiSciNet and may be reached at