Senator’s father will be inducted into Astronaut Hall of Fame

When she was a child, state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz had an advantage over her fellow students on Take Your Father to School Day: Franklin Chang-Diaz was an astronaut. Now in the private sector, he’ll be inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame on May 5.

Originally from Costa Rica, Franklin Chang-Diaz went from a research assistant in the physics department of the University of Connecticut to logging seven space flights as a NASA crew member.

He grew up during the space race, when the Soviets launched a satellite into the sky and the U.S. first sent seven astronauts into space in 1959.

“I was not that unusual back then,” Franklin said of his interest.

But while his friends grew out of their fascination with space, Franklin did not. Fascinated by rockets and their pilots, he put up their photos in his room and aimed to become a rocket scientist.

He came to the U.S. in 1968, and the moon landing in 1969 helped him keep “the dream alive,” he told the Reporter in a sit-down with the Reporter and Sen. Chang-Diaz at a coffee shop in the shadow of the Massachusetts State House.

Franklin Chang-Diaz said he quickly learned English, went to graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, had children and became a U.S. citizen.

In 1979, Franklin applied for the second time to be a shuttle astronaut. According to NASA’s website, his first flight was in January 12, 1986, on the Columbia. He helped deploy a satellite and orbited Earth 96 times over six days.

Sen. Chang-Diaz said she was too young at the time to know how dangerous the mission was.

It also occurred days before the Challenger tragedy, when the space shuttle broke up over the Atlantic Ocean. Chang-Diaz told the Reporter he was originally scheduled to be on the Challenger mission, but he was moved to a different flight several months before launch.

He recalls talking to Michael Smith, a Challenger astronaut, telling him about the wonders of spaceflight. “That was the last time I talked to him,” Chang-Diaz said.

“We lost our innocence,” he added.

His second spaceflight, in October 1989, was much more “subdued,” he said, at least to the astronauts. Outside of the launch, protestors demonstrated against the flight because it had a nuclear device on board, in order to power the Galileo spacecraft bound for Jupiter.

Franklin Chang-Diaz said they almost aborted the flight in orbit three times because of malfunctions, but ended up pressing on. The alternative was landing in a Senegal airport with the nuclear device, which could have sparked an “international incident,” he said.

That wasn’t the only hard part: He says he had a six-second window to properly deploy the Galileo probe, which would go on to send back observational data of comets and asteroids.

Franklin Chang-Diaz said he wasn’t surprised his daughter ended up in politics, saying she had a strong “interest in fairness” growing up. He noted she led a demonstration and a school walkout against the first Iraq war in the early 1990s.

Sen. Chang-Diaz won the Second Suffolk seat in 2008, besting the incumbent in the primary. In between the primary and the general election, the incumbent, Dianne Wilkerson, was hit with bribery charges and is currently serving a three and a half year prison sentence.

Her father retired from NASA in 2005. He is now working in the private sector, which is making inroads into spaceflight, as president of the Ad Astra Rocket Company. He likens it to civil aviation in the 1920s, when the government gave contracts to aviators to deliver mail.
“It should’ve started 20 years ago,” he said of the privatization of spaceflight.