His first mission, on the shuttle Columbia, launched 30 years ago on Jan. 12, 1986
Growing up in Costa Rica, Franklin Chang Díaz and his friends would put chairs sideways inside a big cardboard box in his backyard and pretend it was a rocket ship. Sitting with their backs to the ground, they would go through the countdown, imitate the launch procedures they’d heard about and, in their minds, visit other planets in search of monsters to discover and adventures to pursue.
Astronaut Franklin R. Chang-Diaz. 1997. NASA
Years later, Chang Díaz found himself in a similar position. This time, however, he was seated inside NASA’s Space Shuttle Columbia instead of a cardboard box. And its launch 30 years ago Tuesday—on Jan. 12, 1986—made him the first Hispanic American to go to space.
“It wasn’t that different from what I was thinking as a little kid, that that was how it was going to feel,” Chang Díaz, now 65, recalls. “But that was before the actual liftoff. Before that, the countdown and the procedures seemed very familiar to me. I was mentally totally ready.”
Which makes sense, as he’d had lots of time to prepare. In fact, his childhood passion for space was why he moved to the United States. After graduating from high school in Costa Rica, Chang Díaz worked at a bank for a year to save money. In 1968, on a one-way ticket purchased by his father, he moved to Connecticut to live with relatives. It was the year of Frank Borman’s orbit of the moon. After enrolling in high school again for a year in order to learn English, he went on to the University of Connecticut, becoming a student by the time Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. At the height of moon-flight frenzy, space was still his goal. “It was a long shot, especially for a young kid from Latin America who didn’t speak English at the time,” he acknowledges.