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Katya Echazarreta: ‘I want to return to space, but I want to go there with Mexico’

The engineer became the country’s first woman to go beyond the Earth’s frontier. She has quit her job at NASA to focus on promoting the Mexican space industry

Beatriz Guillén
Katya Echazarreta
The astronaut Katya Echazarreta in Mexico City.Gladys Serrano

She walks out of the Senate in a designer suit and heels, escorted by her team, which includes her mother and brother. She is asked to take a photo or a video for a fan and she smiles; her Saturn earrings sparkle in the sun as she poses for pictures as if she has been doing this her entire life. There’s a new star walking down Mexico City’s Paseo de la Reforma, but she’s not an actress or a singer; she’s an astronaut.

Katya Echazarreta, a 27-year-old native of Guadalajara, Mexico, first stepped into the spotlight just a few months ago when she became the first Mexican national to go into space, as well as the youngest woman to do so. Out of 7,000 candidates, this NASA engineer was chosen by the Space for Humanity organization to participate in a 10-minute flight beyond the Earth’s frontier. While that accomplishment could have been the endpoint, Katya has loftier goals. Now, she has left her job at the US space agency to work for Mexico’s. What does her future hold? “I definitely want to go back into space, I want to go to the Moon, but I want to go there with Mexico,” she says; Katya speaks so confidently that it seems possible.

Echazarreta’s story is an improbable one. At the age of seven, she moved with her family from Guadalajara to San Diego. Her sister had suffered from a bout of meningitis, which left her paralyzed, and the family could not find a suitable school for her in Guadalajara, so they crossed the border. Echazarreta remembers the difficulty of her early years in the United States: “Of course the children make fun of you. They don’t let you into their cliques, especially because you can’t communicate; you don’t speak the language.”

In 2012, she decided to study electrical engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles. She mentions the exact year because it coincided with the moment when NASA stopped the shuttle program that took crew members into space. “When they shut it down, no one knew what the agency’s future would be; we didn’t know if we were going to continue going to the Moon. At the time, the dreams that we currently have for the space industry didn’t seem possible,” she says. “That’s when I decided that was what I wanted to do; that if NASA was only going to hire five people, I was going to be one of those five.”

Her dream became a reality a few years later when she joined the US agency as a fellow, and then she was hired for a permanent position. During that time, she participated in five missions, including the Perseverance robot, which pioneered explorations of Mars. Katya’s strengths as an engineer are her willingness to take on new challenges and her perseverance: “I was offered a project [to do] something I had never done before, and I said, ‘let me do it.’ [Doing] that helped me reach important positions in my first year as an engineer.”

A male-dominated space

The space race has always been a male-dominated environment. In 1960, sexism led NASA to cancel its female astronaut program; women outperformed the men on tests but were excluded all the same. It was not until 2013 that NASA promoted parity. In Europe, there is currently only one active female cosmonaut. Even now, 50 years after Apollo 17 landed on the Moon, the world is still waiting for a woman to step on that celestial body for the first time. This was the context in which Katya Echazarreta, then 26 years old, went into space.

In June, Katya flew with five other crew members on a Blue Origin rocket, the company owned by Amazon magnate Jeff Bezos, in an experiment that aims to enable citizens to reach space and change their perspective. She successfully completed a grueling training program and was chosen ahead of 7,000 others. She was fulfilling the promise she made to herself at the age of seven, when she was already obsessed with space. But then she was told that she was taking the spot away from a man “who deserved it.” She replied calmly: “You can’t take something away from another person if it’s theirs, and going to space was always mine.”

After that, she graced magazine covers and received messages from dozens of girls who wanted to be like her. “I’ve always believed that you can’t be what you can’t see,” she says about the importance of representation. She did all of this without changing who she was. “I’m not changing my femininity to attain such a position. I’m putting out a version of a woman who is indeed an engineer, who is interested in science, and who doesn’t conform to the stereotypes of what an engineer should look like,” she says, and, indeed, it is easy to see how her glittery eyeshadow is applied perfectly on her eyelids. “I think I’ve spent my life breaking stereotypes. Ever since I was a child, I’ve always been a very strong person. My mom always encouraged me and told me: ‘You can do whatever you want to do,’” she notes. Without hesitating, she confidently goes on to say: “I’ve achieved everything I’ve wanted, and I’ve put in the time.”

With that indefatigable determination, Katya is now navigating the corridors of the Mexican Senate and Congress, where she is trying to convince legislators to change Articles 28 and 73 of the Constitution to give the Mexican space industry additional resources. In a daring move, Echazarreta walked away from a promising future at NASA to help take her country to space. “I could have moved up [in the ranks], grown as an engineer, [and] eventually applied for an American astronaut program. Of course, it would have been a lot easier that way, but it wasn’t enough for me because I understand that my country lacks those opportunities. I want to create those opportunities in Mexico,” she says.

The Mexican space industry is weak and dependent on its giant neighbor to the north. For example, for 2020, NASA received around $22.6 billion; China’s space agency had a budget of about $11 billion; the European Space Agency has almost $8 billion to spend; and the Mexican space agency, which was created only 10 years ago, received $3 billion. There is no way to compete, which is why the idea of a Latin American space agency was considered a couple of years ago. In addition, Echazarreta points out that Mexico is awarding space projects to foreign companies rather than its own, because the former already have the infrastructure. “They see it as much easier [that way], but what they don’t realize is that they are spending a lot more to pay another country that doesn’t even consider us to be a priority [and] gives us the information we are buying as their last option; [instead,] we could invest in our own industry, in our own companies, in Mexican people developing space technology, and in the long term it will be easier, cheaper, and it will be ours,” she explains.

The young woman wants to take advantage of her current visibility to keep her eyes on the prize: Mexico’s opportunity is now; otherwise, there will be no way to join the space race. “I want to help Mexico become an international player in the space industry,” she explains. The mission to take people back to the Moon is planned for 2025. Half a century after the first Moon landing, six world powers have all set the same goal for themselves: to display their technological might, explore the Moon’s enormous mineral reserves and set up a base there as an intermediate station en route to the ultimate destination, Mars.

“Space is no longer something in the future; it’s already here. In the next 10 years, we will be able to be in space. We will need people with different types of specialized knowledge, not just scientists or engineers,” warning that “if Mexico does not start to promote space issues now, it will be left behind.” To help the country become a player in space exploration, the astronaut is setting up a foundation to financially support Mexican students and companies that want to train, create technology or research topics related to space development. She plans to get the funds for this venture from larger companies that are interested in seeing Mexico develop these capabilities. The Mexican Space Agency has already announced that it will collaborate with Echazarreta. “I would love to see a mission to space by Mexicans, [with people] selected and trained in Mexico…[so] that we no longer have to ask others for information or wait for them to give us something…and I want to be the person who promotes that,” she says. “I see my future as the future of space in Mexico.”

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