Nothing was going to stop Franklin Chang Díaz from realizing his dream. Not language barriers. Not financial barriers. And certainly not the hard work necessary to become an astronaut.
Chang Díaz, however, also says he was also fortunate to have a loving and supportive family and some well-timed help along the way.
“No one gets anywhere without someone else’s help,” Chang Díaz said as the featured speaker at a diversity forum Oct. 20 called “Breaking Barriers” sponsored by the Southern Indiana Local Diversity Council at Cummins. “I was fortunate to have plenty of help along the way.”
Over his 25-year career at NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), Chang Díaz went into space seven times on the Space Shuttle and performed three space walks as part of the construction of the International Space Station.
A native of Costa Rica who is also a U.S. citizen, Chang Díaz is today Chairman and CEO of the Ad Astra Rocket Company based in Houston, Texas, which is working on a new space propulsion system. Chang Díaz is also a member of the Cummins Board of Directors, serving in that capacity since 2009.
And Chang Diaz is an author. His most recent book, “Dream’s Journey,” is the second in a trilogy he is writing about his life and the achievement of his dream to fly in space, which he hopes will inspire others.
That dream started at an early age. Chang Díaz was one of six surviving children of Ramón Ángel Chang Morales and María Eugenia Díaz Romero. His paternal grandfather was from China, having moved to Costa Rica around the turn of the century.
When he was seven, Chang Díaz remembers vividly his mother telling him about the Soviet Union launching Sputnik, the first satellite to orbit the earth on Oct. 4, 1957. He looked intently for a moving star in the night sky. “I never saw it,” he said, “but I saw it in my mind.”
It wasn’t long before he began building his own multi-stage model rockets and telling family and friends of his dream to someday become an astronaut.
The first person to help Chang Díaz beside his parents would be noted rocket scientist Dr. Wernher von Braun, albeit in a most unusual way. Chang Díaz decided to write von Braun, who was leading NASA then. To his surprise, someone in the space agency wrote back. While the letter was generally positive, it cautioned Chang Díaz that he needed to be an American citizen to become an astronaut at NASA.
Even though he didn’t speak English and had to have the letter translated, Chang Díaz interpreted it to be an invitation to come to the United States. In 1968, he packed his bags and with a one-way airplane ticket and $50 in his pocket, he flew to the United States to join relatives living in Hartford, Connecticut.
Chang Díaz nearly flunked out of the public high school he attended until he started to master English. By then his teachers recognized he was an especially strong student in math and science.
School counselors tried to guide him to a community college, but a friendly teacher told him a four-year school was where he needed to go to realize his dreams. He eventually won a scholarship to the University of Connecticut, but even that involved breaking through barriers.
School officials initially thought he was from the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico – not Costa Rica. Upon discovering their mistake, they told him the scholarship was only for U.S. citizens. Enter the Connecticut legislature, which extended the next helping hand by passing special legislation exempting him from the citizenship requirement for one year.
With his foot in the door, Chang Díaz won other scholarships to pay for the rest of his undergraduate studies. He eventually entered graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where he earned a Doctorate in Applied Plasma Physics. He also obtained his U.S. citizenship. But he was not done breaking barriers.
The first time he applied to NASA’s astronaut selection program, he was turned down. He didn’t give up. Chang Díaz applied again, one of more than 3,000 applicants for 19 positions. This time, Chang Díaz made it and began training in 1980. Six years later, his dream came true. On Jan. 12, 1986, he was part of the mission aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia.
The combination of a supportive family and some help at key times along the way played a critical role. But Chang Díaz’s incredible personal determination was also critical in turning a boy’s dream into a young man’s reality.
For more information on Franklin Chang-Diaz, check out this NASA profile video.
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