Tribal Astronaut Proposes New Names for Star and Planet in Chickasaw Language

Chickasaw John Herrington
Chickasaw astronaut John Herrington

ADA, OK – Astronaut John Herrington and the Chickasaw Nation Language Preservation Division have collaborated with the Cosmosphere International SciEd Center and Space Museum in Hutchinson, KS, to propose new names for a star and planet in the Chickasaw language.

The star called WD-0806-661 and its planet called WD-0806-661B were two of 20 stars and planets to be a part of the “NameExoWorlds” competition, in which contestants propose names for the stars and planets. Cmdr. John Herrington, a Chickasaw citizen, was particularly drawn to this star and its planet because the star is a part of a fish-shaped constellation called Volans, which happens to be an important constellation to him and his career.

Herrington was the first enrolled member of a First American tribe to travel into space. On Nov. 23, 2002, he flew on the Space Shuttle Endeavour, STS-113, to the International Space Station where he performed 20 hours of spacewalks over three days. His group of designated astronauts was the largest ever selected at the time, four people in one space craft. They were given the nickname “the Sardines” by veteran astronauts.

Herrington used the constellation of Volans as inspiration for the patch he designed for their group. Volans is shaped like a flying fish made up of seven stars, which was used to represent their class nickname. The design also served as a tribute to the Mercury and Challenger astronauts.

When star WD-0806-661 and its planet WD-0806-661B showed up on the International Astronomical Union’s (IAU) “NameExoWorlds” competition, Herrington worked with the Chickasaw Nation Language Preservation Division to create a name that would honor Chickasaw heritage and people by writing their language among the stars.

On Dec. 6, 2022, Herrington delivered a presentation about the process to more than 3,000 students through Cosmophere’s Launch Learning program. Here, he revealed that the names proposed are “Nani’ Wakaa’ Ifochik” for the star, meaning “flying fish star” and “Nani’ Wakaa,” for the planet, which means “flying fish.” Both names reference his group’s nickname, “the Sardines” as the constellation looks like a fish flying through space.

The Chickasaw language was the primary language of Chickasaw people for hundreds of years and is still spoken throughout the Chickasaw Nation. Chickasaw is a Muskogean language, and Chickasaw and Choctaw together form the Western branch of the Muskogean language family.

IAU will announce the results of the competition in March 2023.