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Franklin R. Chang-Díaz: 1950—: Astronaut, Physicist

Advice From Von Braun

Franklin R. Chang-Díaz was born on April 5, 1950, in San Josè, Costa Rica. His father, Ramòn Chang, was an oil worker whose own father had escaped China during the Boxer Rebellion. "I'm not only Hispanic, but I'm part Chinese," the astronaut explained to Boston Globe writer Peggy Hernandez. "To define me only as Hispanic is too narrow." One of six children, Chang-Díaz wanted to become an astronaut since he was seven. He told Hernandez that he used to sit outside the U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica listening to radio broadcasts between Houston mission control and the Mercury and Gemini space crews. "I knew the names of all the astronauts," he said, "[b]ut I thought, 'Who is this guy Roger? Boy, this guy is lucky. He gets to go on all the flights.'" With his cousins, Chang-Díaz would often play astronaut, using an empty cardboard box in the yard as a space ship. "I would count down. The spaceship would lift off and we would land on a planet," he told Hernandez. "Then, we would get out and we would explore the new world."

After the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik in 1957, Chang-Díaz wrote a letter in Spanish to scientist Werner von Braun, the leading rocket researcher of the time, who was then living in the United States after an earlier career developing the V-2 rocket for Nazi Germany. The boy asked for advice on how to become an astronaut, and von Braun recommended that he study math and science, but learn these subjects in English and in the United States. After completing high school in Costa Rica, Chang-Díaz—who had saved fifty dollars for the purpose—moved to Connecticut to further his education. He lived in Hartford with an uncle and cousins, but spoke no English and had insufficient academic credits to gain admission to an American university. So he enrolled in transitional classes at Hartford High School, graduating in 1969 and earning a scholarship to the University of Connecticut. There he obtained a B.S. in mechanical engineering in 1973. In 1977 he completed his doctorate in plasma physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

At a Glance . . .

Born April 5, 1950, in San Josè, Costa Rica; son of Ramòn A. Chang and Maria Eugenia Díaz; married Peggy Marguerite Doncaster; four children. Education: University of Connecticut, B.S. in mechanical engineering, 1973; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sc.D. in applied plasma physics, 1977.

Career: Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, researcher, 1977-83; MIT Plasma Fusion Center, visiting scientist, 1983-93; Advanced Space Propulsion Laboratory, Johnson Space Center, director, 1993–. Selected as astronaut by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), 1980, veteran of seven space missions, 1986, 1989, 1992, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2002; founded Astronaut Science Colloquium Program, 1987; cofounder and director, Astronaut Science Support Group, 1987-89. Adjunct professor of physics, Rice University and University of Houston.

Awards: Outstanding Alumni Award, University of Connecticut, 1980; NASA Space Flight Medals, 1986, 1989, 1992, 1994, 1996, 1998; NASA Distinguished Service Medals, 1995, 1997; NASA Exceptional Service Medals, 1988, 1990, 1993; Liberty Medal, awarded by President Ronald Reagan, 1986; Medal of Excellence, Congressional Hispanic Caucus, 1987; Cross of the Venezuelan Air Force, 1988; Flight Achievement Award, American Astronautical Society, 1989; honorary doctorates from Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica, University of Connecticut, Babson College, and Universidade de Santiago de Chile; honorary faculty, College of Engineering, University of Costa Rica; "Honorary Citizen", government of Costa Rica, 1995; Wyld Propulsion Award, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 2001; Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Awards Conference Hall of Fame, 2001.

While still an undergraduate, Chang-Díaz was part of a research team that developed experiments involving high energy atomic collisions. During his graduate studies at MIT, he worked on the U.S. controlled fusion program, with particular focus on the design and function of fusion reactors. After earning his Ph.D. in applied plasma physics, he joined the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, where he continued research on fusion reactor technology. His innovations there included a new concept for guiding and targeting fuel pellets inside a fusion reaction chamber.

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