Photo Credit: NASA
“I don’t think anyone in my family really believed that this was a possibility for me, and I really wasn’t expecting anybody to believe in my dream. The chances of becoming an astronaut were very low. But it was never impossible.“ –Franklin Chang-Diaz
In honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month, we recognize the scientific, economic, cultural, political, and social contributions of influential immigrants and refugees who’ve helped shape the vibrant tapestry of America. Today, we spotlight Hispanic American NASA astronaut and trailblazer, Franklin Chang-Díaz.
Franklin Ramón Chang-Díaz was born on April 5, 1950, in San José, Costa Rica. His father was an oil worker whose own father fled China during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. Neither of Chang-Diaz’s parents finished college, but he found inspiration as a child growing up in the Cold War era, enchanted by the Soviet Union’s Sputnik satellite and the genesis of burgeoning space exploration. Though he knew he wanted to be an astronaut early in life, he recognized the need to travel to the U.S. to take advantage of the requisite educational opportunities. In the late 1960s, speaking no English, he left for America, settling in Hartford, Connecticut, where he immersed himself in American culture and high school to study and learn English. His hard work earned him a full scholarship to the University of Connecticut, where he earned a degree in engineering. He went on to complete his PhD in Plasma Physics from MIT.
Chang-Díaz fulfilled his childhood dream in 1977 when he landed a job at NASA. He also became a naturalized American citizen that year. In 1986, he reached the stars for the first time aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia.
Over the next two decades, he participated in six more space shuttle missions, becoming one of the first scientists without a military background to fly aboard regularly. His subsequent adventures into space included the 1989 space shuttle Atlantis mission that successfully launched the spacecraft Galileo to explore Jupiter and the final shuttle visit to the Russian Mir space station. He also directed the NASA Advanced Space Propulsion Laboratory at the Johnson Space Center from 1994 until his retirement in 2005.
In retirement, Chang-Díaz launched his Ad Astra Rocket Company to use plasma physics to advance rocket technology to achieve more extended missions deeper into space. He also advocates for the environment while encouraging students in Costa Rica and the U.S. to protect the earth for future generations. In 2012, Franklin Chang-Díaz was inducted into the NASA Astronaut Hall of Fame.