03 June 2022

Mexican-born engineer pushing for more diversity in space

03 June 2022

A 26-year-old electrical and hardware engineer will become the first Mexican-born woman in space when she joins a diverse international crew for a 10-minute flight launched by Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin.

Growing up in Guadalajara, Mexico, Katya Echazarreta was encouraged to abandon her dreams of travelling to space.

“Everyone around me – family, friends, teachers – I just kept hearing the same thing: That’s not for you,” Ms Echazarreta told the Associated Press.

Ms Echazarreta will prove them wrong on Saturday when she boards the fifth passenger flight by Amazon founder Mr Bezos’s space travel venture.

It’s so important that everyone sees themselves represented. It’s hugely impactful

She and five others, including Victor Correa Hespanha, the second Brazilian to fly to space, will blast off from Texas atop a New Shepard rocket for a 10-minute flight.

The automated flight should reach an altitude of roughly 66 miles before parachuting into the desert.

Ms Echazarreta, whose flight is sponsored by the non-profit Space for Humanity, will be the first Mexican-born woman and one of the youngest women to fly to space.

She was chosen from more than 7,000 applicants in over 100 countries.

The flight comes as Blue Origin competes with Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic for space tourism dollars and efforts aimed to increase diversity in space travel, which has long been dominated by white men.

Of the more than 600 people who have been to space since Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering flight in 1961, fewer than 80 have been women and fewer than three dozen have been black, indigenous or Latino.

In April, Nasa astronaut Jessica Watkins arrived at the International Space Station, the first black woman assigned a long-duration mission there.

Earlier this year, Nasa administrator Bill Nelson announced the agency’s first-ever equity plan “to further identify and remove the barriers that limit opportunity in underserved and underrepresented communities”.

True diversity and access is sustained diversity and access

Tabbetha Dobbins, vice president for research and dean of the graduate school at Rowan University, is a member of the American Institute of Physics task force aimed at increasing the representation of black undergraduate students in physics and astronomy.

She told the Associated Press that access to space – no matter how brief the trip – matters.

“They’re going beyond the boundaries that most human beings have gone and that’s a major step,” Ms Dobbins said.

“It’s so important that everyone sees themselves represented. It’s hugely impactful.”

But Jordan Bimm, a space historian at the University of Chicago, said it remains to be seen whether the commercial “space for all” ethos becomes reality.

“True diversity and access is sustained diversity and access,” Mr Bimm told the Associated Press.

“If we want the population of people getting to go to space to actually reflect human diversity on Earth, we need to rethink why we are going and who holds the keys.”

Ms Echazarreta, who is pursuing a master’s degree in electrical engineering after a stint at Nasa, said people from other cultures or other parts of the world “feel like this isn’t for them, like just because of where they’re from or where they were born, that this is automatically not something that they can dream or have as a goal”.

Katya Echazarreta (Katya Echazarreta via AP)

“I hear that all the time, particularly from Latin America,” said Ms Echazarreta, who is excited for her family to see the launch, considering it their achievement as much as hers.

With this flight, Mexican parents can no longer tell their young daughters they cannot travel to space, she said.

Instead, Ms Echazarreta said, they will have to respond: “You can do it, too.”

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