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At age 12, I signed myself up for online astronomy classes under my mom's name. 14 years later I became the first Mexican-born woman to go to space.

Yoonji Han   

At age 12, I signed myself up for online astronomy classes under my mom's name. 14 years later I became the first Mexican-born woman to go to space.
  • Katya Echazarreta became the first Mexican-born woman to go to space in June 2022.
  • Echazarreta struggled to fit in when her family immigrated to California when she was 7 years old.

This is an as-told-to essay based on a conversation with Katya Echazarreta, a 28-year-old Mexican electrical engineer and citizen astronaut. She became the first Mexican-born woman to go to space in 2022. The essay has been edited for length and clarity.

I was born in Guadalajara, Mexico. My childhood there was a bit difficult, not necessarily because we were in Mexico, but rather because of my sister's situation. My older sister has mental and physical disabilities, and she got meningitis when she was very small, leaving her with epilepsy, paralysis down half her body, and the mental state of about an 8-year-old child.

This happened in the '90s, and the medical care necessary to take care of somebody like my sister wasn't available in Mexico. So my parents made the decision to immigrate to California when I was 7 years old.

The transition was difficult for me, mostly because I didn't speak English. I've always been the kind of kid that found comfort and a happy place in school.

But in the classroom in the US, I would sit for hours and hours, but everything was nonsense to me because I didn't understand English. I started to fall behind, and was also made fun of. Knowing you're bullied but not knowing what it's about because you don't understand what they're saying — it just feeds into it more.

Learning English became my number-one priority. If I was going to learn about space and science — which I'd always been curious and passionate about — I knew I needed to master the language. Everything in my life needed to be in English, from the books and articles I read, to the TV shows and movies I watched. I only spoke Spanish to my mom, who still hadn't learned English at that point.

I learned how to communicate basic language by the time I was in the fourth grade, which was a year later. By the fifth grade, I was already reading, writing, and speaking at a fifth-grader's level. And then, by the time I made it to the sixth grade, I was reading, writing, and speaking at an eighth-grade level.

From handmade space journals to NASA

I had a binder in early elementary school, where I had a section for the different planets in our solar system. We hooked up my first computer I'd gotten for Christmas to the family printer, and, anytime I learned anything new about the planets, I'd print it out and add it to my binder.

For example, I had a section on Mars, and if I learned anything new about its composition, temperature, or how long its days are, I'd add those little bits of information, so I had my own little scientific journal of everything I was learning.

After that, my interest and education in space became more formalized. I signed myself up for online astronomy classes when I was in elementary school using my mom's name. I did my homework and took the tests — nobody probably knew it was a 12-year-old child.

I went to UCLA for college and majored in electrical engineering, and I landed my dream job at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory as an intern before I was hired full time.

Working at NASA was surreal. The Jet Propulsion Lab is in charge of all the robotics-led missions, like Curiosity, Galileo, and Juno — these missions that have taught us so much about our solar system.

I have these moments where I snap back into the reality of my job and realize that my normal workday and paperwork is what's helping the Mars Rover take its first test drive.

Angling for space

In 2019, I heard about Space for Humanity, a non-profit program that sent citizen astronauts into space. I applied almost immediately.

I didn't hear back until three years later, but during that time, I completed a space training program where I did training with microgravity, G-force, and pressurized spacesuits.

When I heard I was selected out of 7,000 applicants from over 120 countries, I had to jump on psychological training, because my mission was to analyze the effects on a human being when you're able to look at the planet from the outside.

That training proved to be crucial for when I finally went up to space on the Blue Origin NS-21 mission in June 2022. I wanted to be excited, of course, but not to the point where I was stressed or anxious. I learned how to visualize myself in the capsule whenever I felt relaxed to associate myself being in the capsule with being calm. And it worked.

The first Mexican-born woman in space

It's such an incredible thing to understand as you're going up to space that not only is it you doing this and seeing the sights, but you're also considered the first, and one of the very few people that have done it. And that even fewer of those are women. When you consider how fewer than 800 people have ever been able to see what you're seeing right now — it's a mix of so many different thoughts, feelings, and also a massive understanding of the privilege you have in the moment.

I'd always known that a Mexican-born woman hadn't traveled into space before because I'd been obsessed with this topic for so long. I knew about José Hernández, I knew about Ellen Ochoa, I knew about Rodolfo Neri Vela, the first Mexican-born individual to travel to space nearly 40 years ago. And I knew that all of this had happened a very long time ago.

So when I was selected for this, I understood that it wasn't something that just meant a lot to me, but rather that this was going to be something that is very major for an entire community. I understood I had a big load to carry, and that I had to manage the newfound attention with respect.

I've since started Fundación Espacial, a foundation that provides opportunities for people in our communities to explore the space industry.

It's become part of my job to not only continue to help others feel inspired, but also to open up more doors so that they can potentially achieve something like this, so that it doesn't take another 40 years.

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