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San Diego City College alumni will be the first Mexican-born woman in space

Who gets to go to space? That’s an answer that’s beginning to become more inclusive and diverse as more institutions and organizations look to who will have access to the final frontier. KPBS Race and Equity reporter Cristina Kim spoke with the first Mexican-born woman to ever go to space as a citizen science astronaut.

Ever since she was a little girl Katya Echazarreta always looked up at the stars and dreamed of going to space.

“Even my middle name is Celeste, which means of the sky,” she said. ”It's just been a part of me for my entire life.”

On May 20, her dream of going to space will finally be realized.

Echazarreta will be traveling to space on Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin Rocket ship as a citizen-science astronaut after being selected out of 7,000 applicants by Space For Humanity — an organization focused on making space more inclusive.

Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, Echazarreta is the first Mexican-born woman to ever travel to space. It’s an honor she doesn’t take lightly because for years people told her space wasn’t for her.

“Being able to do this is changing that narrative to the point where a little girl from Mexico who comes from maybe the same city where I was born, is telling their parents or their teacher that they want to go to space and they're not going to hear those words anymore,” she said.

She moved to the US at 7 years old and never forgot her dream. She first focused on electrical engineering at San Diego City College before transferring to UCLA. She is now getting her masters in engineering at John Hopkins University in Baltimore.

At every turn Echazarreta has sought out opportunities to get closer to space travel. After graduating from UCLA she turned an internship at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) into a full-time job as a NASA engineer.

I've been able to work on five NASA missions within one year of being at JPL as a full-time engineer,” she said.

Echazarreta, who among other things is also a TikTok star and host of a Netflix science program, likes to use her platform to push back against stereotypes of women in STEM.

For years teachers and colleagues told her that she had to “look the part” and dress professionally, which she internalized by refusing to get her nails done and always wearing pants.

“The way that any of us choose to dress really has nothing to do with what we're capable of and what our work is like,” she said.

She now embraces the aspects of herself that she was made to feel questioned her intelligence and professionalism.

“I love getting my nails done and even now I have a So Blue Origin Inspired Nails,” she said as she showed off her manicure. “I just love using it as a way to express myself."

Echazarreta wants everyone to feel welcome in STEM and in space, because while she may be the first Mexican-born woman going to space, she’s confident she won’t be the last.

"I don't want this to be me going to space and having this experience for myself,” she said. “I want everybody to come along and join me.”