People of color, including the black female mathematicians who worked as “human computers” and were depicted in the Oscar-winning “Hidden Figures,” were a part of NASA’s space program from its inception.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, and to highlight another hidden figure, About Us spoke with Franklin Chang Díaz, who is NASA’s first Latino astronaut. Chang Díaz, now 69, flew his first space mission in 1986. He would go on to fly in six additional missions in his 25-year career with NASA, which ended with his induction into the agency’s Hall of Fame.
While Chang Díaz was born and spent much of his childhood in his native Costa Rica, his aspirations started with the American Dream: He immigrated to the United States in 1969 with $50 in his pocket.
This transcript of our interview with Chang Díaz has been edited for length and clarity.
About US: Do you remember the first time that you wanted to go to space?
Chang Díaz: Yes, I remember that very vividly. It was 1957 [at age 7], and it was triggered by Sputnik. The Sputnik was something that lit up the imaginations of many, many children, not just in the United States but all over the world. And I was one of those latter children. I was growing up in Costa Rica, and all of a sudden space became a place people could really go to. The idea of going to space, which had been something in the science fiction books, all of a sudden became real, and flesh-and-bone astronauts had been selected in 1959 by NASA. Those were the pioneers that we all looked up to.
Did you ever pretend to be an astronaut?
Absolutely. In 1957, I built a spaceship, which was a cardboard box from an old refrigerator or some other packaging. And inside that box, I put a couple of chairs and we were sort of laying on our backs. And I would get in there with my cousins and friends and we would go through a countdown to liftoff. We would lift off into space and land on some distant planet and explore and then come back to Earth.
In 1986, I was on my first flight on the space shuttle and I was sitting there thinking to myself, “I've done this before,” and it was a recollection of those early-childhood memories of being inside that box with my friend and those chairs pretending to go to space.
You are of Chinese and Costa Rican descent. How do you think that helped shape your identity?
I think of myself as a mixture of many cultures. I don’t think of myself as, you know, half this or a quarter this or anything like that. I’ve lived in the United States now most of my life, so I feel very much American, even though my Costa Rican roots are still strong and most of my family is still in Costa Rica. My children were all born in the United States and their families are all-American families. So it’s just a typical immigrant situation, where you end up getting absorbed and melting into the society.
The United States is a multicultural society, which in itself forms its own unique culture. So that’s kind of the way I see myself. And I don’t think of myself as a citizen of a country anymore. Actually, I think of myself as a citizen of the world, of the planet, and many astronauts will tell you that. They come back realizing that they really are citizens of the planet and not citizens of a country.
Did you feel welcome as a Latino after coming to the United States in the 1960s?
I felt very much welcome in the U.S., with a few exceptions. When I came to the U.S. in ’69, there were a lot of racial turmoil and change going on in the U.S. society. But for the most part, I felt very much welcome, and I still do. And of course, things have changed a lot in the U.S., but I still feel that the fundamental fabric of this nation is one of welcoming the immigrant.
How do you feel about the attitude toward immigrants now, and do you think that this has changed at all since when you first immigrated here?
The attitude towards immigrants throughout the whole world has changed because the world has a lot more people now. We have 7 billion people on this planet and there is only so much room. So people are naturally going to be trying to migrate to where the opportunities lie, and that is a force that is not possible to change. And as a result there’s a natural tendency to build barriers to prevent that and to build walls and impediments for that migration to occur. That is a natural reaction. It’s not a good reaction, but it is a natural reaction. So I think ultimately this all will be temporary, and some societies and countries will realign themselves and rearrange themselves to face the new reality of the smallness of our planet. And the fact is that the only choice ultimately will be for humans to migrate into space. And that is exactly what we’re doing now. We’re seeing the beginnings of a major migration that will be not from one country to another but from the Earth out into space. I tell people that someday the Earth will be essentially humanity’s National Park.
What was the process like to become selected as an astronaut?
In March or April of 1980, I was called for an interview and then a week of evaluation and testing at Johnson Space Center. When that happened, I knew that I had at least made the initial cut. There had been over 3,000 applicants that had pursued that job, and they had selected 120 and I was in that group. I went to Houston and went through the testing evaluation and all of the medical tests here for a week and went back to back to Boston to work. A couple months later in May, I got the call from NASA that I had been selected, and it was the happiest moment of my life. Of course, my life changed entirely from that moment on. So at that moment, I became the first U.S. naturalized citizen to become an astronaut and the first Latino astronaut. It completely changed my life; it was a wonderful moment. I thought I was going to fly maybe once or twice, and I ended up flying seven times, more than anybody else.
I just am extremely grateful to this nation that opened the doors for me. This is definitely, in my mind, the land of opportunity because for me it was exactly that. It worked out exactly the way it was advertised. So here I am, trying to give back a little bit to this country and help on the next phase.
Was space as you imagined it would be?
Yeah, it was as I imagined. But the tones and the brilliance were much more vivid. For some reason, the eyeballs are able to take in a lot more detail than I guess you could capture in film. It was about the sharpest possible picture that you could ever imagine. And if you stared at something long enough, you could even see features that you couldn’t see right at the beginning. You can see things like ships, for example, or contrails from airplanes. You could see bridges and you could see a lot of things that you wouldn’t see right away because your mind integrates information and then gradually gives you more detail because you know what’s there. It’s an amazing sight.
What was your most memorable experience in space?
I did three spacewalks, but my first spacewalk was very memorable, because you’re walking out of the spacecraft into the open, a wide open space. The only thing separating you from the vacuum of space is just the thickness of the visor of your helmet or the thickness of the space suit. It is extremely impactful. I spent quite a bit of time on the end of the arm, so people would move me around from inside the space station. At the end of the arm, there were times when I could not see anything except my feet standing on something. We went into the dark nighttime, and the Earth kind of disappeared. All I could see around me were stars, nothing but stars. And it just got a little spooky, a little strange to think that maybe everybody left me out there. Interesting thoughts come to your head in those kinds of moments. It makes you think about what humans are going to feel like going to Mars when the Earth will be a point of light and Mars will be a point of light and there will be stars everywhere, nothing to have reference to. It would be very, very difficult, you know, psychologically speaking, a very tough moment for humans to be there for that.
Would you describe it as frightening?
It was a moment of loneliness. I think that was probably one of the strongest feelings. It’s one of isolation and loneliness. You’ve got a feeling that you’re all by yourself in the midst of the whole of space, the vacuum of space and the immensity of the universe. It is just you. But as an astronaut you don’t really want to dwell on any of these thoughts. You want to quickly focus on your tasks and the things that you have to do. Dwelling on thoughts is probably not a good idea in that context.
What was your typical day like?
The typical day is very structured. Every hour is scheduled for you to be doing something. The meals are scheduled, the sleep time is scheduled, even leisure time is scheduled. I took a lot of my leisure time out of my hours of sleep. I didn’t sleep very much, because I wanted to live the moment. I don’t usually sleep very much anyway, and I figured I wasn’t going into space to sleep. So I took a lot of time from my sleep time to listen to classical music and just kind of park myself in front of the window and just watch the world go by. And I’m glad I did that. I have very vivid memories of the beauty of the Earth as it passes by in different forms. Colors, light effects, particularly when you go near the North Pole or the South Pole you see the Northern Lights. And these are very, very beautiful sights that we get to see and photograph. We took a lot of pictures.
What classical music did you listen to?
I have a sequence of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, and I was able to time it properly with the Earth’s orbit. If you triggered the start of the symphony at a certain moment, all four movements of the symphony somehow fit with what you’re looking at out the window. There’s a period in the symphony with a lightning storm and the darkness and the wind and the storm. For some reason, we happened to be flying over the African continent at night at that moment, and there was a lightning storm. There was a whole chain of lightning storms that were firing lightning bolts all throughout the African continent at night. It was almost perfectly matching to the music, and then at the last moment, which is when the sun comes and the calm after the storm — we had just happened to be coming out of the South Pacific and the sun came over the horizon, and it was just the perfect timing for the beginning of the fourth movement. I tell you, it was almost like Beethoven, he must have been there. He would have written much more beautiful music than he already did if he had the chance to fly in space.
More from About US: