Katya Echazarreta, the first Mexican-born woman to go to space, reflects on her out-of-this-world impact
Katya Echazarreta may not be a household name yet, but just give her time.
As a successful electrical engineer, Echazarreta has already shot to the top of a male-dominated field. But at just 27, she’s also managed to shatter another glass ceiling: She recently became the first Mexican-born woman to travel into space for NASA, fulfilling a lifelong dream that she’s had since she was a child.
The significance of all of this is certainly not lost on Echazarreta.
“I understood at the very beginning that there were not many Latinos that have taken this path,” she told In The Know by Yahoo. “I understood from a very young age and very early on in my career that if I wanted to achieve something like this, something nobody else like me had ever done, then there was a very high possibility that I would have to be that person to start opening up those paths.”
So far, she certainly has been — but it hasn’t been an easy road.
According to Echazarreta, she had a childhood that forced her to mature at an early age.
“I have an older sister with mental and physical disabilities,” she explained. “And I am the second after her. And so technically, after everything that happened to her, I kind of had to take on that role as the older sibling to my younger siblings. I have two more siblings after that.”
In addition to undisclosed mental health issues, her sister also has epilepsy, which caused paralysis in half of her body. This, Echazarreta said, made her understand from a very young age that the family had to take care of her and that she and her siblings would need to step up.
“I think that it really taught me a lot of responsibility, even as a very small child,” Echazarreta shared. “I mean, even when we were all — when we were toddlers — my younger siblings and I, we were already working with some of the different responsibilities of making sure she was gonna be OK.”
Her sister’s health is what primarily drove her parents to emigrate the family to the United States about 20 years ago. At that time, the medical attention and educational resources her sister needed just weren’t available where they lived in Guadalajara, Mexico. But in America, Echazarreta’s parents hoped it would be different.
The adjustment period was rough, as it often can be for immigrant children.
“You don’t understand the language, you don’t understand the culture, you don’t understand anything,” Echazarreta shared, adding that she and her siblings endured bullying because they were “different.”
Still, even at that age, she was able to see the benefits of moving to the U.S. Not only did it improve her sister’s quality of life, but the move to San Diego, Calif., also gave Echazarreta and her siblings new opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t have had.
It was right around this time that the NASA engineer became fascinated by space, technology and science, which she says just kept getting stronger with time.
“I was probably 8 years old when I made the choice of eventually going out to space,” she told In the Know. “It was a very intentional choice. It was a choice that I made in a very direct way, even as a child.”
Once she could, Echazarreta started taking classes outside of school on space-related topics, and her passion for all of it began to snowball until she eventually decided to make it her career.
After years of extensive schooling, Echazarreta wound up interning at NASA, where she was later able to transition into a full-time role. From there, she applied for a space mission through an organization called Space for Humanity and was overjoyed when she was chosen.
That said, the process took time.
Echazarreta first applied to the program in 2019, but it wasn’t for another three years — after she’d completed intense training on the realities of entering space — that she actually entered space in August of 2022.
Since then, she’s been on five separate missions with NASA and continues to share her experience with others. Throughout it all, she hasn’t forgotten her roots.
“I was able to bring a Mexican flag with me during my flight,” Echazarreta shared. “And then I also wrote the words ‘Viva Mexico’ on my hand. So that was a really fun thing to be able to just flash the cameras.”
She’s also made it her mission to encourage young Latinx children who may not think about space travel as a possibility.
“I really think that this is a gift that I’m able to give to so many different Latinas in the world, but especially to all of the different women in my family and my family line,” Echazarreta continued. “The women in my family have always been very independent, have always been very brave and courageous, and have always had big dreams. But unfortunately, they have to conform to a society that already had written out roles for them.”
Finally breaking those cycles and opening up doors for others has left her with a tremendous sense of pride.
“I didn’t have the finances necessary. I didn’t have the support necessary to follow this dream and follow this goal. But I wasn’t going to let any of that stop me,” she told In the Know.
Now, she hopes that by sharing her story, she’ll reach other young Latinx kids who may have the same interests but lack support or encouragement. One way she’s doing that is by promoting her very own Barbie doll, which was recently launched by Mattel to inspire other young kids who dream of becoming astronauts.
Echazarreta is also trying to solve some of the issues she’s faced at their roots.
“I’m currently working very hard with Mexico and the Mexican government,” she shared. “We’re working on a constitutional reform that, if passed, it’s going to create, as a national priority for the development of the country, space activities within Mexico.”
Clearly, Echazarreta is aiming big when it comes to the impact she wants to leave on the world — and she doesn’t seem to be taking her foot off the gas anytime soon.
As for where she’s headed next? The moon.
While she may not have a mission planned quite yet, she’s confident that she’ll get there soon enough.
“And really, the way that I am is I just decide things are going to happen,” Echazarreta confessed. “So it’s going to happen.”
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