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. It’s always been my experience that school was a place where I felt comfortable and happy.
I would spend hours in class in America, and yet I could not understand a word of what was being said. As I fell behind in school, my classmates made me laugh. 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. To learn more about science and space, which are subjects I have always been interested in and am passionate about, I had to be able to speak the language. From the articles and books I read to the movies and TV shows I watch, everything in my life had to be in English. My mom was still learning English and I spoke only Spanish to her.
I was in fourth grade when I learned to speak basic English. This was about a year after. 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 instance, I kept a journal on Mars and added any new information I found about the planet’s composition, its temperature or its day length.
After this, my education and interest in space became 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 studied electrical engineering at UCLA and landed a dream job as an intern in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory before being hired on 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 submitted my application almost instantly.
I did not hear from them until 3 years after I applied. During that time I had completed an intensive space training program, where I trained in microgravity and G-force as well as wearing pressurized suits.
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. When I was relaxed, I would visualize myself inside the capsule to help me associate calmness with the image. 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 knew that no Mexican woman had ever traveled to space because I was obsessed with the topic. I knew about Jose Hernandez, 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.
When I received this award, I knew that I wasn’t just being selected to do something important for myself, but for the 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 Fundacion 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.