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Special Session with Dr. Franklin Chang Díaz, Former NASA Astronaut

Dr. Franklin Chang Díaz
Hispanic Heritage Month (HHM) 2020

Hispanic Heritage Month Special Session with Dr. Franklin Chang Díaz, Former NASA Astronaut

The Asian American and Pacific Islander Advisory Group, known as the AAPIAG, and the Hispanic Advisory Committee for Employees, known as HACE, hosted a special session with Dr. Franklin Chang Díaz, former NASA Astronaut, on October 6th in recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month. Ames’ Center Director, Dr. Eugene Tu, welcomed participants and introduced the special guest speaker, highlighting Dr. Chang Díaz’ exceptional career as an astronaut, CEO, author and inventor and adding Dr. Chang Díaz’ occupation as a bank teller as noted in the subtitle of Chang Díaz’ book, Dream’s Journey.

During the session, Dr. Chang Díaz’ highlighted his humble beginnings of coming to the United States from Costa Rica with $50 in his pockets. He spoke about his education, concerns about financing college, and interest in plasma physics. Persistence and preparation were key themes observed by participants when listening to Chang Díaz speak about his experiences and application process for the astronaut core; Chang Díaz not being selected the first time applying. Once accepted to the astronaut core, Chang Díaz’ hard work paid off and he took his first trip to space aboard the shuttle Columbia and went on to tie the world record for missions flown – seven shuttle missions and over 1600 hours in all. Throughout the entire session, participants were inspired by the very personable Dr. Chang Díaz and grasped many key takeaways, including Chang Díaz’ wisdom to view diversity and differences as strengths.

The session can be viewed here:

About Dr. Franklin Chang Díaz:
Dr. Franklin Chang Díaz was born in San José, Costa Rica. At the age of 18, having completed his secondary education at Colegio de La Salle in Costa Rica, he left his family for the United States to pursue his dream of becoming a rocket scientist and an astronaut. Arriving in Hartford, Connecticut in the fall of 1968 with $50 dollars in his pocket and speaking no English, he stayed with relatives, and enrolled at Hartford Public High School, where he learned English and graduated again in the spring of 1969. He went on to attend the University of Connecticut, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. He then attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology , or MIT, where he earned a Ph.D. in applied plasma physics in 1977 and in that same year, he became a US citizen. After MIT, he joined the technical staff of the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he continued his research in fusion.

In May of 1980, Chang Díaz was selected as one of 19 astronaut candidates by NASA from a pool of more than 3,000 applicants and the first naturalized citizen from Latin America to be so chosen. He achieved his dream of space flight on January 12, 1986 on board the Space Shuttle Columbia on mission STS 61-C. He flew a world record six more space missions, which contributed to major US space accomplishments, including the successful deployment of the Galileo spacecraft to Jupiter, the operation of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, a major international particle physics experiment, the first and last missions of the US-Russian Shuttle-MIR Program and, on three separate space walks, totaling more than 19 hours outside the spacecraft. Chang Díaz led the installation of major components of the International Space Station, or ISS, and conducted critical repairs on the Canadian ISS robotic arm. In his seven space missions, he logged more than 1,600 hours in space.

Alongside with his astronaut duties, Chang Díaz continued his research in applied plasma physics, investigating applications to rocket propulsion. His 1979 concept of a plasma rocket became the VASIMR® plasma engine, embodied in three NASA patents to his name. In 1994, he founded and directed the Advanced Space Propulsion Laboratory, or ASPL, at the Johnson Space Center, or JSC, where he managed a multi-center research team to develop this propulsion technology.

On July 8, 2005, after 25 years of government service, Chang Díaz retired from NASA to continue his work on the VASIMR® through the private sector. He is founder and current chairman and CEO of Ad Astra Rocket Company,, a US private firm based in Houston, Texas where the VASIMR® engine is being brought to space flight readiness in partnership with NASA. The company also is developing clean energy applications and hydrogen technology at its subsidiary in Guanacaste, Costa Rica.

Chang Díaz serves on the board of directors of Cummins, Inc. (NYSE-CMI ), a global power leader headquartered in Columbus, Indiana, and EARTH University, an international sustainable development educational institution in Costa Rica. He also leads the “Strategy for the XXI Century”, a master plan aimed to transform Costa Rica into a fully developed nation by the year 2050.

Chang Díaz’s published autobiographies and publications include “Los Primeros Años (ISBN 978-9968-47-133-6, first edition, ISBN 9789930519974, second edition), “Dream’s Journey (ISBN 978-0-692-33042-5), and “To Mars and Beyond, Fast! .

In 1986, Chang Díaz received The Liberty Medal from President Ronald Reagan at the Statue of Liberty Centennial Celebration in New York City. He is a four-time recipient of NASA’s Distinguished Service Medal, the agency’s highest honor and was inducted in the US Astronaut Hall of Fame on May 4, 2012. He holds many honorary doctorates from universities in the United States and Latin America and has continued to serve in academia as an adjunct professor of physics at Rice University and the University of Houston.