Who is Katya Echazarreta? The first Mexican-born American woman to fly to space
The 27-year-old engineer made history last summer when she was part of the six-person crew of Blue Origin’s NS-21 mission.
Dr. Katya Echazarreta made history last summer when she became the first Mexican-born woman to travel to space and the youngest American woman to have achieved the feat. Echazarreta was just a few days away from her 27th birthday when she was part of the New Shepard crew taking part in the NS-21 sub-orbital mission - and just a few weeks younger than Yuri Gagarin was when he became the first man in space as part of the Vostok program in April 1961.
Katya, an electrical engineer, made it through a rigorous selection process, beating over 7,000 fellow applicants from over 100 countries to fly on New Shepard on its fifth crewed flight and 21st mission from Launch Site One in West Texas. She was part of a team dubbed the “Crew of Natural Selection” which included: Evan Dick, Hamish Harding, Victor Correa Hespanha, Jaison Robinson, and Victor Vescovo. All of the crew members carried a postcard on their journey to space and Echazarreta carried the flag of her Mexico homeland with her as a symbolic gesture.
The NS-21 mission
NS-21 took off on Saturday 4 June 2022 at 9 a.m. EDT reaching a top speed of 2,000 mph and hitting Zero-G approximately 2:40 minutes into the flight. Just seconds later, the solid rocket booster broke away to leave the capsule in free flight above the Kármán line, reaching a maximum altitude of 351,183 feet (107,041 kilometers above sea level) before beginning its descent. The SRB safely touched down right onto the pad seven and a half minutes later, followed by the capsule and its crew with the drogue parachutes deployed at 6,000 ft, moments after re-entry and main chutes at 2,500 ft. The capsule touched down at T+10:05, the NS-21 mission a success and history made. In August 2022, Katya was handed the keys to Mexico City from mayor Claudia Sheinbaum and earlier this year a planetarium was renamed in her honour in the city.
It must have been an overwhelming moment for Echazarreta, realizing that she was now the first Mexican-born woman, and the youngest American woman to travel to space. Especially considering the obstacles she had to overcome when she first arrived in the States.
Katya was born in Guadalajara, Mexico on 15 June 1995 and her family moved to the United States, settling in San Diego, California when she was just seven years old. Moving to a new country, with a new culture and different language was not a straightforward process, as she explained. “Some of the kids would make fun of you, they wouldn’t let you in their social circles, especially when you can’t communicate with them because you don’t speak the language,” she recalled.
A bright student, she excelled at San Diego City College, majoring in Electrical and Electronics Engineering and went on to UCLA, where she gained a Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering in 2019. She is currently finishing her Masters degree in Electrical Engineering at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore but has put her career at NASA on hold for now to promote the Mexican aerospace industry.
Mexico’s space agency (Agencia Espacial Mexicana, AEM) is relatively young and receives far less financial support than its competitors - for example, NASA’s budget for 2020 was $22.629 billion (0.48% of all Federal spending) compared to the $3 million with AEM received.
Echazarreta is petitioning for Articles 28 and 73 of the political constitution of the Mexican states to be amended so that Mexico’s space agency can receive federal grants and a waiver from the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) to conduct space operations.
“Mexico lacks the legal base to have an aerospace industry,” she explained. “Mexico doesn’t have the necessary laws and constitution to launch a rocket into space from their territory. This is the most basic and essential issue, because not only does it halt progress from the government’s side, the Mexican space agency but also from private investors that could set up projects like SpaceX, Blue Origin or Axion. They can’t do that at the moment, even if they wanted to”.
She also hopes that her experiences will serve to help and inspire others in her field. “For me it was sad to talk to engineers who had studied and graduated with the same degree as me but who are mending mobile phones, fixing broken washing machines - or dropped engineering completely and are now working as paramedics or as Uber cab drivers. I understand that reality,” she said.
“As a female and Mexican engineer working in the space industry, I know first-hand how little of us there are. I have always believed that it is not enough to reach your goals if you do not help bring others up with you. I started working diligently towards helping not only students in the United States who have big aspirations such as I did, but also students and women in Mexico who hear the same words I used to hear all too often: ‘It’s not for you’”.
As for the medium term, she is hoping that the NS-21 mission won’t be her last. “I definitely want to go back to space; I want to go to the Moon, but I want to do it with Mexico,” she said in a recent interview.