On a whim three years ago, electrical engineer Katya Echazarreta applied for a spaceflight seat. In 2019, it was unclear when the commercial space industry would be ready to fly private citizens to space. Now she will become the first Mexican-born woman in space after being awarded a spaceflight with Blue Origin.
"You're not even sure if it's going to be possible in the next few years," the science show host recalled. "I wanted to know that I at least gave it a shot. I never want to ever look at an opportunity later on and think, ‘I should have tried. I should have applied for that.’ So for me, that's why I applied. And I mean, years later, we're here."
Blue Origin announced this week it has six more people lined up to launch in the company's New Shepard rocket on a sub-orbital spaceflight from West Texas. The launch is planned for May 20 at 8:30 a.m.
This will mark New Shepard's 21st flight overall and fifth human spaceflight. Evan Dick, a previous Blue Origin space tourist, is returning for round two, launching again with Echarzarreta.
At 26, Echazarreta will become the youngest American woman in space. Currently earning her master's degree at Johns Hopkins University, Echazarreta is an electrical engineer who has worked at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California on robotic missions to Mars and Jupiter's moon Europa.
Unlike some Blue Origin space flyers who purchased seats on New Shepard for an undisclosed large sum of money, Echazarreta's seat was bought by nonprofit Space For Humanity.
Founded by investor and philanthropist Dylan Taylor in 2017, Space For Humanity's goal is to increase access to space for a diverse group of people who can share the experience with the world. Taylor flew on New Shepard's third human spaceflight in December.
"You're not going out for a joyride. You're going up ready to have a transformative experience so that you can come back and create change for the world."
"We're just kind of like waiting patiently for this technology to be ready," Space For Humanity Executive Director Rachel Lyons said.
When applications for Space for Humanity's first citizen astronaut opened in 2019, the nonprofit had no idea which spacecraft or with which company they would be flying. Now the industry is booming with SpaceX, and soon, Boeing, flying people to orbit or making sub-orbital space tourism flights like Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic.
"We're vehicle agnostic," Lyons said. "I knew just as well as any random person in the world who we'd be flying with for these first seats and for our first mission."
According to Lyons, Blue Origin and other spaceflight providers have supported the Space For Humanity mission and want the same thing: "we all want this experience to become accessible to more and more people."
Ahead of her spaceflight, Echazarreta will receive training from Space For Humanity that is not part of a government astronaut's curriculum. She will learn how to take her experience seeing Earth from space, known as the "overview effect," and use that perspective to benefit others. The nonprofit is working with Johns Hopkins University researchers who have studied the overview effect and the psychological impacts of the experience.
"You're not going out for a joyride," the future space flyer said. "You're going up ready to have a transformative experience so that you can come back and create change for the world."
Echazarreta uses her social media channels "Katvoltage" and YouTube series "Netflix IRL" to share unexpected parts of the space industry and encourage others to pursue careers in STEM.
"I want the space industry to look like the demographics of this world. Currently, it doesn't," Echazarreta said. "And I think that I can't really help change that just by allowing people into this experience with me."
Echazarreta knows she represents a community of people from Mexico and the U.S. who dream of doing what she is about to do.
"I want to allow them to live through this experience with me in a way that doesn't intimidate them, but rather makes them feel like they could be the next one in that prepares them to be able to decide for themselves to apply, to go out there and get these opportunities if they were maybe afraid in the past to go after them," she said.
When Echazarreta returns from her spaceflight, she plans to continue showing people what is possible.