First Mexican-born woman in space becomes a space activist
Katya Echazarreta, 27, pushes for a more potent Mexican Space Agency and encourages girls to embrace STEM study and careers.
At age 27, Katya Echazarreta already has appeared on the cover of Vogue Mexico, was a woman of the year for Glamour magazine’s Mexican edition, co-hosted the YouTube series “Netflix IRL” and has a Barbie doll in her likeness.
She has a number of distinctions — first Mexican-born woman in space, one of the youngest women in space and an exhibit showcasing her achievements in a planetarium in her hometown of Guadalajara.
Echazarreta’s image appears on murals in Guadalajara, Los Angeles, Mexico City and Tijuana. On April 15, she will be the 50th anniversary gala honoree of the Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park.
What generated much of this hoopla? Echazarreta flew into suborbital space as a citizen astronaut on June 4 aboard the fifth crewed rocket launched by Blue Origin, founded by Jeff Bezos.
But that is just one giant step in her ongoing space mission.
Echazarreta moved with her parents from her native Mexico to Chula Vista when she was 8. She is encouraging other young native Mexicans to shoot for the stars as she did, having studied electrical engineering in college, interned at NASA and worked on space mission ground support.
She also is determined to energize Mexico’s fledgling space program by fighting for a constitutional amendment in Mexico that would make space activities a priority for national development and empower the Mexican Space Agency (Agencia Espacial Mexicana).
To do this, the government needs to use its space budget to build its own aeronautical development rather than purchasing satellite communications and space-related services and technology from other countries, she says.
Echazarreta refers to herself as a “space activist.”
She also is dedicated to revolutionizing the machismo mindset. “I feel there are a lot of misconceptions about girls and women that start from birth,” she says. Boys play with science and engineering sets, Legos and toy cars while girls play with cooking sets and dolls.
A dark-haired, tan-skinned Barbie named Katya wearing a space suit is one way to start emphasizing a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) career path early for Mexican girls.
A graduate of Eastlake High School in Chula Vista, Echazarreta went on to study at San Diego City College, then transferred to UCLA to pursue her degree in electrical engineering. While there, she interned at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which led to later employment at JPL in Pasadena.
She formerly worked on the ground support equipment group for NASA missions, including the Perseverance Mars rover and the upcoming Europa Clipper exploration of Jupiter’s moon.
Four years ago, she applied to the nonprofit Space for Humanity’s Citizen Astronaut Program for its seat on a Blue Origin flight. Her application was one of more than 7,000 competing for a free ride on the rocket ship.
Echazarreta is convinced it was her passion for space travel and love for the work she does that made her stand out. Rocket fuel runs through her veins. “Space was something I always felt attracted to and loved,” she says.
When she was 8 or 9 years old, she recalls telling her mother that she wanted to fly into space. She never wavered from that vision.
When the time came, she says her mind froze during the brief ride (about 10 minutes long) while she took in the sights which she described as “overwhelming wonder” — the curvature of the Earth, clouds, blue glow of the planet, intense heat of the sun as the spacecraft rotated and chilling deep black of outer space.
“I was completely hypnotized. I was watching and taking it all in and going through a series of emotions you can’t understand,” she says.
The flight deepened her resolve to bring space down to earth.
“After the flight, everything changed. It created a new perspective and empowered me to become more bold and expand my dream to monumental levels.”
She took a Mexican flag with her, which she donated to the planetarium in Guadalajara.
The April 15 Fleet Science Center tribute is reserved for someone who has affected the center or science education in San Diego, says Steven Snyder, president and CEO of the Fleet.
“This is perfect because she has done both,” he says. “Along with having her own career and doing amazing things, she’s engaging San Diegans to get them more involved in STEM.”
Echazarreta gets out into the community and uses her social media feeds (including 1.8 million TikTok followers) to share her personal story, challenges and the hardships she’s overcome, and to show what’s possible through perseverance, Snyder says. “She’s a great advocate for why people love science and why scientists do what they do.”
As an elementary student, she took a field trip to the hands-on museum, where she took part in a mock space mission that fueled her space travel aspirations because it exposed her to the wide range of careers in the space industry.
While a student at San Diego City College, she returned to the center as a volunteer, putting in so many hours (more than 300) that she was named the Fleet’s “volunteer of the year.”
“It was important to me to give back to the museum that gave me so much,” she says.
What’s next for Echazarreta? In late May, she plans to announce the launch of a foundation bearing her name based in Mexico City. She also is in the formative stages of working with some entrepreneurial startups.
Whatever she does going forward, it surely will be in keeping with her motto: “The sky is NOT the limit.”
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