Dean Acosta/Renee Juhans
June 26, 2003
First Hispanic-American Astronaut Lives Childhood Dream
Few NASA astronauts have chalked up more than a decade in space, but Franklin Chang-Diaz says he's been touring the cosmos for nearly half a century. His first spacecraft? An oversized cardboard box, fueled by the vivid imagination of a small boy who already knew what he wanted to do with his life and would meet every challenge to make it happen.
Chang-Diaz is an engineer, scientist and member of NASA's Astronaut Corps at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston. No more cardboard boxes for him. He has flown on seven Space Shuttle missions, completed three spacewalks and serves as director of the Advanced Space Propulsion Laboratory at JSC.
A self-described "normal kid" growing up in Costa Rica in the 1950s, Chang-Diaz had an early interest in science and physics, building and launching his own rockets through the rain gutters of his grandparent's house. His parents fostered his enthusiasm, but offered some wise counsel as well. "You can't just be an explorer who goes along and looks for things," his mother told him. "You have to study and be a scientist, so you can tell what you're really finding." Inspiration also came from Chang-Diaz's father who always told him to believe in himself. "My dad was my hero," he said. "He instilled in me a very strong sense of self-assurance."
When a NASA official visited Costa Rica to talk to high school students about space exploration, Chang-Diaz made a decision that would alter his life. "I sat in the front row, listening to this guy talk about rockets and rocket propulsion," he recalls. "He had copies of a booklet, 'So You Want To Be a Rocket Scientist,' by Wernher von Braun, it told you how to become a rocket scientist and work for NASA. That's what I wanted to do," he said.
He immediately wrote to von Braun. NASA's reply commended him on his interest, but stressed careers in NASA were reserved for U.S. citizens. "That's when I formulated my plan to come to the United States," he said.
Chang-Diaz graduated from a Costa Rica high school in 1967. He worked as a bank teller for nine months and saved $50. His father got him a one-way ticket to Hartford, Conn., where he would live with relatives.
"The first thing I had to do was learn English, so I enrolled myself in public high school," he said. "Then I planned to find a way to get a scholarship to go to a university." He got that scholarship, and earned a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Connecticut in 1973. In 1977, he earned a doctorate in applied physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.
He may have traveled millions of miles in space and received scores of awards and honors for his scientific research, but Chang-Diaz still hasn't lost the wonder of that little boy whose first "space missions" were conducted in cardboard rockets. "Space is just wonderful," he said. "It's a place I long to be now. When I get there, it's like being home every time. I have the sensation of more familiarity."
And he still hasn't forgotten his parents' lessons in self-reliance and hard work. "My dad used to make me fix things, sort out problems and find solutions on my own," he recalls fondly. "During a spacewalk on the Shuttle mission in June 2002, we had a couple of pesky connectors that just didn't want to work. I thought, if my dad were here he'd say, 'Solve this problem, boy, don't expect anyone else to solve it for you'."
Chang-Diaz flashes a dazzling smile, remembering his father (now deceased), who lived to see his ambitious son become the first Hispanic-American astronaut. "I could feel my dad right there with me, telling me to believe in myself," he said. "We got the connectors to work and went back to business."
One imagines the boy in the cardboard rocket ship would have done the same, already confident the cosmos was out there, just waiting for him.
Media organizations interested in interviewing Chang-Diaz should contact John Ira Petty at: 281/483-5111.
For a comprehensive biography of Chang-Diaz, visit:
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