When John Herrington was eight-years-old he used to use a cardboard box as a makeshift space shuttle and dreamed he was blasting off to the moon.
Like many young boys Herrington dreamed of becoming an astronaut, and more than 30 years later he saw that dream become a reality.
In 2002, Herrington didn’t quite make it to the moon but he arrived at the International Space Station as part of the 16th space shuttle mission to the station.
He’s the first enrolled member of a Native American tribe to fly in space.
Herrington shared his story with dozens of youth during the DisruptED conference on the future of work and technology at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg Thursday.
“This is not what I set out to do but when I came to NASA and they said you’re the first Indigenous astronaut I felt I had an opportunity to fulfill a role,” Herrington told reporters.
“I have a chance to go out and share my story with kids who never had a role model in this position.”
Herrington began his career with the U.S. Navy in 1984 as a pilot. In 1995, following his work with the Navy, he attained a master of science degree in aeronautical engineering from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School.
A career switch came in 1996 when NASA selected Harrington to train at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Centre.
In 2002, Herrington became the first enrolled member of a Native American tribe to fly in space.
He spent a total of 13 days in space in 2002 where he took the flag of his tribe, the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma, as well as a feather gifted to him by an Elder.
Herrington credits his parents, as well as a few friends, for his career in aviation.
He said growing up he didn’t see any other Indigenous people in the industry, which makes it hard for Indigenous youth to pursue careers in aviation.
“The issue…is are there role models in the field of what [youth] want to do?” Herrington said.
“You start looking in the Indigenous community [and] there are a lot of very successful engineers, scientists, mathematicians and lawyers…do [youth] have the opportunity to meet those people?”
Leilani Henderson is attended the conference with a handful of her classmates.
While the 14-year-old dreams of a career in the arts over one in the sciences, she said it’s inspiring to meet other Indigenous people who are successful in their careers.
“It’s really cool to see someone part of my culture. Someone I can look up to or my siblings can look up to so that they know they can also do things as well,” Henderson said.
Herrington left NASA in 2005. In 2007, he rocketed into a new career as a motivational speaker where he shares his story with youth across the continent.
Part of that includes nurturing the dreams of young people.
“If they walk away with a sense of accomplishment that’s a good thing.”
Part of Thursday’s events included a virtual talk with students from 15 northern schools in Nunavut, Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta, Northwest Territories and Yukon.