National Native American Heritage Month – Jerry C. Elliott, Aerospace Engineer

Jerry C. Elliott, a Cherokee-Osage Native American, began his career at NASA in 1966. He started out as a flight mission operations engineer and, in the years since, has risen through the ranks at NASA in progressively more responsible technical and managerial positions in such areas as spacecraft systems, hardware, software, scientific experiments, and astronaut crew equipment.

Elliott, who was born in Oklahoma City, aspired to a space exploration career at a very young age – never mind that there weren’t really any such programs or professions in existence at the time. While some in his Native American community encouraged his career ambitions, others did quite the opposite. His own grandfather once told him, “You’re never going to land a man of the moon while you’re on a horse.”

Nonetheless, Elliott held fast to his dreams as a child and his curiosity about what existed way above earth only grew stronger. “I wondered what made rainbows, and why sunsets were always red,” Elliott recalled in a 2017 interview published by open-source hardware company Adafruit Industries. “I made airplanes and flew them to see if they could touch the clouds . . . There were no astronauts then. But I knew someday, people would fly in rockets and go to the stars.” Elliott carried his early-in-life goals into adulthood. After becoming one of the first Native Americans to earn a degree in physics at the University of Oklahoma at Norman, Elliott started his decades-long career at NASA.

During his time at that agency to date, Elliott has worked extensively on the Gemini, Apollo, and Space Shuttle spaceflight programs. One of his highest-risk and best-known contributions to NASA efforts took place in 1970 during the flight of Apollo 13 to the Moon for a landing there.

After the explosion of an oxygen tank on board Apollo 13 had severely damaged its service module, Elliott worked feverishly with his NASA colleagues back on earth to rescue that spacecraft mission’s crew from a life-threatening situation. As the lead retrofire officer at the NASA Mission Control Center at the time, Elliott played an instrumental role in computing the spacecraft trajectory that allowed those endangered astronauts – James A. Lovell, John L. “Jack” Swigert, and Fred W. Haise – to return safely to earth.

Elliott received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. civilian honor, for his part in the lifesaving efforts on behalf of the Apollo 13 crew. Another noteworthy honor for Elliott has come from the elders of his Native American community. They named him “High Eagle” in tribute to his contributions to space exploration.

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