How to become a living legend
On January 12, 1986, Franklin Chang-Diaz became the first Latin American to go into space. That flight would earn him the Liberty Medal, presented to him from President Ronald Reagan, as well as the Medal of Excellence from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Flight Achievement Award from the American Astronautical Society. To date he has participated in seven shuttle flights, and has logged over 1,600 hours in space. Now one of the most experienced active astronauts in NASA, he has also become director of the Advanced Space Propulsion Laboratory at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center.
Look, up to the heavens...
Born in San Jose, Costa Rica on April 5, 1950, Chang-Diaz lived for some years as a child in Venezuela. It was there, in 1957, that he was told about the launch of Sputnik. His response to this news sent him climbing into a tree and spending hours looking into the sky for any sign of the Soviet spacecraft. What might have been childlike excitement experienced by millions of children worldwide would turn into a long and illustrious career.
What is this dude doing in my high school?
Chang-Diaz would graduate from Colegio De La Salle in San Jose, Costa Rica in 1967 and then travel to the United States. There he would end up attending high school again, enrolling as a senior at Hartford High School in Hartford, Connecticut in order to improve his English language skills. From there he would receive a scholarship to the University of Connecticut, promoted by teachers who saw one of the most brilliant scientific minds ever to walk through their halls. A misunderstanding would cause his scholarship to at first be revoked. An error in paperwork had caused Chang-Diaz to be listed as Puerto Rican, meaning he was a United States citizen. Once it was learned he was not a citizen, the scholarship would be cancelled, but would later be reinstated after much pleading by his teachers at Hartford High School.
After getting a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Connecticut, Chang-Diaz would head to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). There he would complete a doctorate in applied plasma physics in four years. He would go on to specialize in fusion technology and plasma propulsion, which would later put him in a key role in the design of a propulsion system capable of taking spacecraft to Mars.
Can I be of some assistance?
Based on his achievements at MIT, NASA selected Chang-Diaz in May of 1980 to become part of the space program. Before his first shuttle flight, he would be involved in Space Station design studies and support crew for the first Spacelab mission. He would later form and direct the Astronaut Science Support Group, which aimed to close the gap between astronauts and scientists. His primary focus now is development of plasma rockets. He also serves as Adjunct Professor of Physics at Rice University and the University of Houston.
Chang-Diaz was part of the flight crew on shuttle missions STS 61-C (1986), STS-34 (1989), STS-46 (1992), STS-60 (1994), STS-75 (1996), STS-91 (1998) and STS-111 (2002).
Home. Sweet home.
In Costa Rica, Chang-Diaz has become a larger than life living legend. He argued for dual citizenship, having become an American citizen and wanting to retain his Costa Rican citizenship. The United States government turned him down, but in 1995, Costa Rica granted him honorary citizenship, the first time such an honor was bestowed upon a person born in Costa Rica. He technically maintains dual citizenship, but this is not recognized by the United States.
Due to the nature of the mission and his recent space flight in June of 2002, Chang-Diaz was not selected for STS-107, which was lost over Texas on February 1, 2003. The astronauts aboard that shuttle were, however, truly members of his family.
Facts and figures from
MrsDeadGuy (who went to college with Chang-Diaz's sister)
It is somehow important for me to note that work began on this writeup on January 31, 2003, before the shuttle disaster of February 1, 2003. I find this symmetry to be most strange.