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The life of Dr. Franklin Chang-Diaz, NASA’s first Hispanic American astronaut

Hispanic Heritage Month

HOUSTON, Texas (WTNH) — If you are a fan of science fiction, you might recall the Buck Rogers series, a 1920s comic strip turned sci-fi TV show where the main character battles villains to keep the universe safe.

It’s not your quintessential hero, but a fan favorite. At least to a 5-year-old boy from Costa Rica.

In the years to come, the Soviet Union would eventually launch Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite.

NASA would put up a fight in the space race and create America’s first manned space program — the Mercury 7.

All while a young Franklin Chang-Diaz pretended he was an astronaut.

“The American astronauts became our heroes, certainly my heroes,” Chang-Diaz said.

Out of high school, Chang-Diaz worked for a bank and saved $50. He also pocketed some sage advice from his mother, who knew he wanted to be an astronaut.

“She said, ‘You know you better study science and math because you know you’re not gonna make it if you keep slacking off like you’re doing.'”

His father bought him a one-way ticket out of Costa Rica.

“I just packed my little bag, and I was 18-years-old, and I just went off to the United States.”

Chang-Diaz touched down in Hartford in 1968.

Despite having already graduated from high school, he enrolled in an English orientation program and worked part-time at the public library.

Trouble was, everyone around him spoke Spanish, making it near impossible to learn English.

He said, “I told them to get me out of there and put me in the regular senior class.”

With the help of a teacher, he became fluent in English within six months. He even graduated at the top of his class.

“When I finished high school, of course, I didn’t have any money. All I could do was feed myself with the money from the part-time job, and I lost a lot of weight and all that.”

In the summer of 1969, Chang-Diaz was offered a full ride to UConn.

But that excitement was short-lived when he was told scholarship officials had made a mistake.

They had confused Costa Rica with Puerto Rico. 

“They said well you really can’t have a scholarship because you’re not really a citizen of the U.S like Puerto Ricans are.”

He pleaded with the school board for a chance to pursue his education, so they made an exception. 

For the next four years he worked as a research assistant in the physics department.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from UConn.

In 1977, he earned his Ph.D. in plasma physics and fusion technology at MIT.

He was working at Draper Laboratory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when NASA announced it was looking for the next set of astronauts.

He said it was like a lightbulb had gone off.

“I had all the requirements. I had a Ph.D., I was young, I was in really good shape, I had no health problems at all.”

He applied and interviewed but was turned down. He’d come all this way and wasn’t about to give up.

Then, in 1980, he applied for a second time. A few months later, he got the call. His passion was about to take him beyond planet Earth…literally.

At the time, he was presenting a rocket concept to a well-known professor at MIT.

The phone rang in his office and he handed it over to Chang-Diaz.

“I said, ‘Who is going to be calling me at your office?’ I pick up the phone and there was this voice at the other end of the phone which is Mr. George Abby, who was the director of flight crew operations and he said: ‘We are happy to announce that you have been selected to the next class of astronauts.'”

“I remember I almost got run over by a taxi cab crossing the street crossing because I was completely in a daze when this happened and my life changed totally from that day, and it’s never been the same.”

Six years later, he was selected for his first mission, the Space Shuttle Challenger.

“By luck coincidence or something our crew was moved to the earlier flight to the Colombia flight and we were spared.”

The Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight killing all seven crew members on board.

He lost friends. Despite his fears, he decided to welcome every opportunity he could to go to space.

“I thought that I was just gonna fly once, maybe twice if I was lucky. I ended up flying seven times. I flew more missions than anyone on the planet. It was everything and more. It was absolutely extraordinary chapter in my life.”

Nowadays, he runs his own rocket company in Houston called Ad Astra.

He’s working on a propulsion system to get you to space faster.

“It’s more like what you see on ‘Star Trek’ or the science fiction movies”

From science fiction to real life.

He got married to his wife, Peggy, and had four daughters, and he’s extremely proud of them all.

“I’ve got one daughter who is a politician. Heaven forbid, I didn’t know what I did wrong,’ he laughed “We’re so extremely proud of her. The other three daughters, they’re just extraordinary individuals, and they’ve all fulfilled their goals”

 He said he thanks his dad who didn’t make going home by purchasing that one-way ticket. 

“I had never seen snow before, and I had no idea how cold it could be, and it was very depressing. There were moments that if I had that ticket, I would’ve gone back.”

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