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The nation's first Hispanic astonaut, Franklin Chang Dias, inspires a crowd of young Latinos in Lawrence, Mass.

Photo by Angie Beaulieu/Eagle-Tribune, North Andover, Mass.
CNHI News Service

While in high school in Costa Rica in the 1960s, Franklin Chang Diaz wrote a letter to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration saying he "wanted to come to the United States and be an astronaut."

He got back a form reply saying, "Careers with NASA are generally limited to U.S. citizens."

Chang Diaz wasn't put off; he was immediately encouraged and felt NASA was saying to him, "Hurry up and come here."

So Chang Diaz convinced his parents to let him come to America and his father bought him a one-way ticket. In 1968, when he got to the U.S., Chang Diaz had $50 in his pocket and could not speak a word of English.

But 13 years later, in 1981, Chang Diaz became the first Hispanic and first naturalized citizen to become a NASA astronaut. He eventually logged a record seven Space Shuttle missions that included three space walks, fulfilling his boyhood ambition.

Chang Diaz, 62, shared his American dream with more than 100 youngsters and others who gathered in this predominantly Latino community Sunday. He talked about coming to a new country, enrolling at Hartford, Conn., High School to learn English, earning an engineering degree at the University of Connecticut and a doctorate in applied plasma physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and embarking on a space science career.

"When opportunities appear, take them. Don't vacillate," he advised. "Sometimes a route is not straight, you have to take turns."

Chang Diaz, who retired from NASA in 2005, is the founder and current chief executive officer of Ad Astra Rocket Co., a U.S. firm developing advanced plasma rocket technology. His company has operations in Houston and his native Costa Rica.

His daughter is Massachusetts State Sen. Sonia Chang Diaz, a Boston Democrat. She and her husband were in the crowd "to keep me honest," quipped Chang Diaz.

Chang Diaz used a series of slides to amplify his presentation. The first showed him in a space suit, hanging outside of the international space station. He spoke of being on board the station, circling the earth in a matter of minutes and noting in space "when it gets dark, it gets really dark."

He said by age 15 he knew definitively he wanted to be an astronaut and have a career in rocket science. He made home-grown rockets, which his relatives were not always so happy about. He showed a picture of one of the first rockets he and fellow classmates built for school. The rocket made it 200 meters into the sky with a mouse on board.

"We got a 100 on the test," said Chang Diaz.

By 1980, Chang Diaz was a U.S. Citizen, in top physical shape and possessing the necessary requirements to be an American astronaut. He was accepted into the program without hesitation.

When asked what country felt more like his home, Costa Rica or the United States, Chang Diaz said he is a "citizen of planet earth." As an astronaut, "you begin to see we are really in this all together."

Planet earth, he added, "is the only home we get."

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Jill Harmacinski is a reporter for The Eagle-Tribune, North Andover, Mass. Contact her at jharmacinski@eagletribune.com.

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