From McDonald's to Nasa: First Mexican woman in space on helping others reach the stars

First Mexican woman in space launches foundation to help create opportunities for young people to follow in her footsteps

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The first Mexican woman to fly to space on a Blue Origin flight is hoping to give low-income citizens access to space education opportunities so they can pursue careers in the field.

Katya Echazarreta, 27, launched the Fundacion Espacial, or Space Foundation in English, for the cause after flying to suborbital space on a New Shepard rocket in June 2022.

In an exclusive interview, Ms Echazarreta told The National that her goal is creating opportunities in the space sector, initially for people in Latin America, but with the aim of expanding its scope to other parts of the world in future.

“Most of Latin America does not really have access to any space education and only a few countries that have access to such education enter into this industry,” she said.

“This industry is going to reach a trillion dollars and so I think it’s up to the people who have the experience to democratise it and start providing access.”

Among the foundation’s activities is organising an aerospace camp for young people, which provides training in different fields related to space.

At the first camp, held in the Mexican state of Jalisco last year, 100 pupils received training in robotics, astrophysics, biology, programming and carried out simulation missions to Mars.

Their trip to the camp, including flights, accommodation and food was covered by the foundation.

Four camps were held between July and August last year, with each one lasting about five days. This summer, the camp will take place in Mexico City.

“We're currently in Latin America – Mexico and South America,” she said.

“But in future, as we start to grow, we hope to be able to spread into other countries.”

Transition from McDonald’s to Nasa

Ms Echazarreta’s flight on Blue Origin was sponsored by Space for Humanity, an organisation offering opportunities to leading specialists in their fields to fly to space.

An electrical engineer by profession, Ms Echazarreta was selected to help increase representation of women and minorities in Stem, or science, tech, engineering and maths, fields.

Her background, including her rise through the ranks, also helped to inspire young boys and girls.

“During the summers, while studying at UCLA [University of California Los Angeles] engineering with full scholarships, I would go back home and work at McDonald's,” she said.

“And at night I would teach myself circuit design – that's how I understood that I had to do things. It was going to be harder, but I was going to get it done.

“So, when I was hired by Nasa as a student, that's when I kind of was able to finally make that transition.”

After graduating from UCLA, she was hired by Nasa as a full-time engineer on five missions, including the Perseverance mission to Mars and Europa Clipper.

Barbie 'full-circle moment'

Last year, after becoming a source of inspiration for young people in Latin America and around the world, Ms Echazarreta was contacted by Mattel and told a Barbie doll was to be designed in her image.

“They really admired the positive effect it [the Blue Origin flight] had on young girls, particularly the young girls that are part of their audience,” said Ms Echazarreta.

“They wanted me to become immortalised in a Barbie doll as part of their role models campaign, because they truly believed I exemplified that slogan of ‘you can be anything’.”

She said she used to play with Barbie dolls as a child but would dress them in “boy clothes”, such as spacesuits and military uniforms.

After travelling to space, having a Barbie doll designed after her was, Ms Echazarreta said, the “coolest full-circle moment”.

Remembering Hamish Harding

Ms Echazarreta flew to space with five other passengers, including British adventurer Hamish Harding, who was killed on board the Titan submersible incident last year.

Mr Harding was a Dubai resident for many years and owned an aviation company in the Emirates.

“I was able to have the honour of getting to know him more personally and what I can tell you is that he had such a lively spirit,” she said.

“He was such a happy person, so adventurous and so excited.

“I have a fond memory of him, which is right before we launched, we could hear the countdown and we all started counting down together and his voice was the loudest.

“He started getting louder and louder until we got to ‘one’ and, in the end, I remember that him and all of us started laughing, and that’s how we launched – with laughter.”

Updated: April 11, 2024, 12:15 PM