Many of the people who have had the opportunity to see Earth from space insist that it changed their lives. It’s the so-called “overview effect.”
When we see our planet so small, so fragile, so beautiful and without borders, there’s a tendency to see ourselves as part of humanity, as part one single group, and to wish that we could dedicate the rest of our lives to peace and save the world.
Katya Echazarreta wanted to experience that.
She is the first Mexican woman in space. A couple of days back, she climbed aboard a Blue Origin spacecraft in Texas and in less than 10 minutes made history — and opened the way for other Latin American women. “Space is beautiful, and Planet Earth is the best view of all,” she Tweeted after landing
There’s a photo of Katya in the spacecraft — in one of those weightless moments about 60 miles up – when her smile says, “I am the happiest person in the world. Better put, above the world.” But to get there was not easy.
Some people have “the American dream.” Well, Katya had a space dream that passed through the United States. She was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, and at the age of seven emigrated with her family to San Diego because her older sisters had a disability.
“I spoke no English, nothing, nothing, nothing,” Katya confessed to me in an interview before her launch. “It was a little hard at first. The kids make fun of you. You don’t understand anything at school. I didn’t have the money to go to (university) but thanks to my work and my efforts I received two scholarships. That’s how I managed to go to UCLA and John Hopkins University. She started work at NASA soon after.
To go into space was another battle. When billionaire Jeff Bezos created the Blue Origin space company in 2000, Katya was barely four years old and still living in Mexico. The Bezos project — criticized at the time as self-promotion by someone who knew no limits — and the possibility that a little girl from Jalisco could become an astronaut seemed like madness, “When I was a girl, I had those dreams,” she told me. “Unfortunately, many people told me I could not never do it, that people like us could never be in places like that.”
Katya didn’t listen to them.
She searched hard for the opportunity to go into space during a process that lasted three years. And she plus the five others on her flight were eventually picked from among more than 7,000 candidates. “I was really stressed, doing my interviews. I gave everything I had … and they decided to pick me for this mission.
To fly in an airplane — what I am doing as I write this column — is one thing. To get into a private space craft (not NASA’s), shoot through the atmosphere, defy the laws of gravity and return safe and sound is something entirely different.
Even though there’s an airline that tells me I’ve flown more than 3 million miles with it — the equivalent of going around the planet several times — I am still scared in flight. I am surprised that a metal rod that weighs several tons and carries more than 100 or 200 passengers can stay aloft. It is one of the great inventions of mankind. It is almost magical, to board a machine and turn up three or four hours later in a totally different place.
But I seldom feel as vulnerable as when the plane hits turbulence and shakes like a feather in the air. I instinctively grab my seat, as if that’s going to save me. Three or four major scares — between storms and forced landings — have only reinforced my fears even though flying is safer than driving a car.
That’s why I had to ask the question.
“Were you scared?”
“No,” she answered, with total conviction. “I think that’s because as an engineer I understnad all the tests and all the work that went into this kind of mission. So thanks to that, I am in a position where I can see this mission from that perspective.”
This 26-year-old native of the Tapatio region has been using social networks to “change the setting for women in engineering and science.” And I wanted to tell her story becuse I am certain that at this very moment, as you read Katya’s story, there are many girls in Latin America who want to be like her. There’s nothing like feeling represented. Nothing like knowing there are others who are like us doing things that seemed impossible. But first you have to imagine it. Like Katya did.
“I loved space since I was a little girl,” she told me. “In fact, even when I see movies and they show the Earth I feel like crying.” But Katya does not appear crying on Tweeter. To the contrary. Moments after landing she was photographed with the Blue Origin spacecraft in the background and an immense smile, the size of space.
Katya went into the heavens, and took us all with her.