- — LAWRENCE, Mass. - While in high school in Costa Rica in the 1960s, Franklin Chang Diaz wrote a letter to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration saying he "wanted to come to the United States and be an astronaut."
He got back a form reply saying, "Careers with NASA are generally limited to U.S. citizens."
Chang Diaz wasn't put off; he was immediately encouraged and felt NASA was saying to him, "Hurry up and come here."
So Chang Diaz convinced his parents to let him come to America and his father bought him a one-way ticket. In 1968, when he got to the U.S., Chang Diaz had $50 in his pocket and could not speak a word of English.
But 13 years later, in 1981, Chang Diaz became the first Hispanic and first naturalized citizen to become a NASA astronaut. He eventually logged a record seven Space Shuttle missions that included three space walks, fulfilling his boyhood ambition.
Chang Diaz, 62, shared his American dream with more than 100 youngsters and others who gathered in this predominantly Latino community Sunday. He talked about coming to a new country, enrolling at Hartford, Conn., High School to learn English, earning an engineering degree at the University of Connecticut and a doctorate in applied plasma physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and embarking on a space science career.
"When opportunities appear, take them. Don't vacillate," he advised. "Sometimes a route is not straight, you have to take turns."
Chang Diaz, who retired from NASA in 2005, is the founder and current chief executive officer of Ad Astra Rocket Co., a U.S. firm developing advanced plasma rocket technology. His company has operations in Houston and his native Costa Rica.
His daughter is Massachusetts State Sen. Sonia Chang Diaz, a Boston Democrat. She and her husband were in the crowd "to keep me honest," quipped Chang Diaz.