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January 18, 2016 12:10 PM

An Astronaut's Connection To SD GEAR UP

John Herrington was the first Native American in space. He was aboard the Endeavor Space Shuttle in 2002.  So he was a natural fit to get involved in South Dakota's GEAR UP program which focused on math and science.

This high-profile name lent credibility to South Dakota's program. But since the troubled audits of GEAR UP and the tragedy in Platte and firing of Stacy Phelps who led the summer program, it appears that Herrington has distanced himself from the whole mess.

Our KELOLAND Investigation shows you how Scott and Nicole Westerhuis had a relationship with Herrington since at least 2008 and uncovers Herrington's major role in the American Indian Institute of Innovation started by Phelps and Westerhuis.

"My name is John Herrington, I'm a former NASA Astronaut and I flew aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor." Harrington said in a 2013 YouTube video on GEAR UP.

Herrington, a member of Oklahoma's Chickasaw Nation, hosted this promotional video on the GEAR UP summer program at the School of Mines & Technology in Rapid City.

"This is all about the kids. This is about giving them the opportunity to do something remarkable with their lives," Herrington said in a 2013 YouTube video on GEAR UP.

KELOLAND News can trace Herrington's involvement in GEAR UP back as far as April 2008. That's when Stacy Phelps and Scott Westerhuis formed the American Indian Institute for Innovation with John Herrington as chairman of the organization.

In May, Mid Central approved Scott Westerhuis to travel to Florida for the launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery with the GEAR UP program.  Scott and Nicole posted pictures on Facebook of them and their children with Herrington at that launch.

Herrington has spent quite a bit of time in the state promoting GEAR UP.  He's seen here at a 2008 July GEAR UP graduation for 13 students with Stacy Phelps and Governor Mike Rounds.  AIII and GEAR UP South Dakota helped sponsor Herrington's 4,000 mile coast-to-coast bike ride in August of that same year to inspire and encourage kids' interest in STEM. But even though it used funds from South Dakota GEAR UP, Herrington's ride did not go through South Dakota.

Phelps boasts of the GEAR UP's success in Herrington's 2013 video, saying it was serving 5,000 students in 38 schools across the state.

"We've stumbled upon a model that we've been able to refine, research and to collect statistic on and really have been able to back up what we say that we do," Phelps said in a 2013 YouTube GEAR UP video.

But we know from the GEAR UP evaluations that there's absolutely no data to show that any Native American students actually went to college because of GEAR UP, let alone graduated with a degree.   In the video hosted by Herrington, he also interviews the then-School of Mines President Robert Wharton.

"Do you see this as a pipeline for student enrollment in the university? I do, I do," Wharton said in a 2013 YouTube video on GEAR UP.

But Native American population on campus dropped from 3 percent at the School of Mines in 2010 to less than 2 percent in 2014, which is the latest figure available.

And only a third of those students are still there four years later.  

While Herrington is chairman of AIII, he seems to be distancing himself from the organization. His NASA picture appears on AIII's website last May, but after the Westerhuises' deaths, his pictures is gone from the site.

We traced Herrington to this address in Lewiston, Idaho, where he has registered an airplane he owns.  This property, valued at $145,000, is owned by John and Margo Herrington, but phone numbers we found for the Herrington’s have been disconnected.

Angela tried several channels to reach John Herrington, even emailing an arts organization his wife is involved with and they promised to forward the email to her.

KELOLAND News did not receive a response.  But we will keep trying to track down Herrington and we'll let you know if we get his response.

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