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Latino All Stars

Franklin Chang-Díaz, PhD

  • Gender: Male
  • University: University of Connecticut
  • University: Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Undergraduate Degree: Mechanical Engineering
  • Post Graduate Degree: PhD in Applied Plasma Physics
  • Organization: Ad Astra Rocket
  • Position Title: Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Born in Costa-Rica, Franklin is one of six children. According to an article posted by the American Physical Society (APS), he was “captivated” as a child by the Sputnik satellite and decided that he wanted to be a space explorer. He recounted how he spent many childhood afternoons in cardboard “rocket ships,” pretending to blast off into space to explore distant planets.

Although neither of his parents completed college, and his family was not affluent, he explained that his parents valued education and ensured that their children attended good schools. However, he added that he knew he would have to take financial matters into his own hands, in order to go further. “I couldn’t expect to receive a college education on my father’s dime,” he stated to APS, “But I was expected to have a college education. I was expected to reach very high.”

According to NASA, after graduating from high school in Costa Rica, he moved to Connecticut with big dreams and just $50 in his pocket. Unable to speak English, he enrolled as a high school senior, and learned the language through total immersion. He excelled academically and earned a place at the University of Connecticut, where he took out loans and worked in the physics department to finance the majority of his undergraduate degree. After completing a BS in Mechanical Engineering, he enrolled at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and earned a PhD in Applied Plasma Physics.

In 1980, he received a call that changed his life. He had been selected by NASA for its astronaut program. Once there, he realized that scientists, like him, tended to design rockets, but not to fly them. Determined not to give up on his dream, he completed rigorous training in order to become an astronaut. His perseverance paid off, and his childhood dreams were realized. He flew mission STS-61-C on the space shuttle Columbia, the first of six space missions he would fly in his career, and became the first Hispanic astronaut. Later, he was promoted to Director of the Advanced Space Propulsion Laboratory at the Johnson Space Center, a role in which he served for 12 years.

After retiring from NASA, he launched the Ad Astra Rocket Company, of which he is now chairman and CEO. The company created the VASIMR rocket, which he told the publication Express, he believes has the potential to travel the distance from Earth to Mars in two months. In a Hispanic Executive interview, he termed the technology “disruptive,” explaining that “it changes the way things are done.” Ultimately, he said he hopes it will allow exploration of the entire solar system.

In March 2015, his company was one of twelve selected by NASA for its NextSTEP program, designed to advance human exploration to deep-space destinations. He told Hispanic Executive that his company is positioning itself “to be a major player in the efficient transportation industry near Earth.” He views diversity as a competitive advantage.

Franklin has received a number of awards and honors, including the Liberty Medal from President Reagan, the Medal of Excellence from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and the title of “Honorary Citizen” by the Legislative Assembly of Costa Rica. He also received the Buzz Aldrin Space Exploration Award from the Explorer’s Club, and has been inducted into the US Astronaut Hall of Fame.

In an interview with PBS, he said he believes anyone can attain their own version of success, and offered encouraging words for those who hope to follow in his footsteps. “I didn’t have advantages,” he said, “other than a wonderful set of parents and a wonderful infrastructure of people who helped. I didn’t come into the world as a rich person. I didn’t have special connections…. So, if I can do it, anybody can.”