10 Hispanic Scientists You Should Know


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Franklin Chang-Díaz (1950-) and Ellen Ochoa (1958-)
June 2002: Astronaut Franklin R. Chang-Diaz works with a grapple fixture during extravehicular activity to perform work on the International Space Station. Image courtesy NASA

Our final entry jointly honors two pioneers of space: American physicist Franklin Chang-Díaz, the first Hispanic astronaut, and American engineer Ellen Ochoa, the first Hispanic female astronaut (see her picture on the first page).

Chang-Díaz was born in San José, Costa Rica, and earned his doctorate in Applied Plasma Physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Much of his early work concerned controlled fusion and fusion reactor design. Later, he led fusion propulsion teams at MIT and Johnson Space Center (JSC) on projects with potential Mars mission applications. He became an astronaut in 1981, served as in-orbit capsule communicator (CAPCOM) during the first Spacelab flight, and flew seven space shuttle missions. After all that excitement, he retired from NASA in 2005 [sources: NASA].

Ellen Ochoa was born in Los Angeles, Calif., and earned her master's degree and doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford University. Ochoa researched information processing at Sandia National Laboratories and NASA Ames Research Center and listed as co-inventor on three patents in optics, object recognition and image processing. She became an astronaut in 1991 and flew four shuttle missions. In 2012, she was named JSC director -- the first Hispanic person and second woman to do so [sources: NASA; NASA].

Author's Note: 10 Hispanic Scientists You Should Know

The thing that struck me most while compiling this list was the devastating effect that political forces can have on science. Sure, politicized scientific issues like global climate change might instigate rancorous debate, but this smoke, though toxic in its own way, is nothing compared to the fire under which teachers, intellectuals and scientists have lived during many authoritarian regimes. For as long as there have been empires, juntas and dictators, there have been ideas that are easier to suppress, mock or beat down than to face in open debate.

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