First Mexican-born female astronaut credits City College with launching career

Originally from Guadalajara, Katya Echazarreta was the first citizen astronaut chosen by Space for Humanity


Katya Echazarreta displays the Mexican flag while standing in front of Blue Origin’s New Shepherd rocket after her inaugural flight to space on June 4, 2022. Katya Echazarreta courtesy photo

Kathryn Gray, Editor-In-Chief

To read this story in Spanish, click here.

Astronaut Katya Echazaretta, self-described as unemotional, doesn’t cry easily. But after her inaugural flight into space last June as a crew member on the Blue Origin NS-21 expedition, she developed a new appreciation for the ground she has walked on her whole life. Now, just peering out the window on a commercial airline flight at the flash of a jagged mountain peak and the fleeting glimpse of a green field can bring tears to her eyes.

“You really realize how valuable what we have here is,” Echazarreta said in a recent interview with City Times Media. “I need people to understand what this means. We can’t just continue to tear up this planet and then go to space and go live elsewhere. We have to, yes, continue exploring, but we have to take care of what we have here.”

Originally from Guadalajara, Mexico, Echazarreta, a San Diego City College alum, was the first citizen astronaut chosen by Space for Humanity out of 7,000 applicants and one of six passengers on the flight. 

The honor meant she was the first Mexican-born woman to travel to space.

Six astronauts in blue suits stand on the ground outside of the Blue Origin New Shepherd capsule.
Katya Echazarreta celebrates her return to Earth with fellow crewmembers from the Blue Origin New Shepherd rocket on June 4, 2022. Katya Echazarreta courtesy photo

Less than a year later, at age 27, she is just getting started with disrupting the aerospace industry as well as the accompanying fields of science, technology, engineering and math, collectively known as STEM.

Fearless and unapologetically multi-faceted, Echazarreta is an unstoppable force also making a name for herself in media, fashion, education and gender equality.

A UCLA alum currently pursuing a master’s degree at Johns Hopkins University in electrical engineering who has worked on five NASA missions, Echazarreta has a resume with world-renowned institutions running down it.

But Echazarreta said the time she spent at San Diego City College was the most pivotal in her life.

“I truly don’t think I would be where I am if I hadn’t gone to City College,” Echazarreta said. “That’s where I found myself.”

“I truly don’t think I would be where I am if I hadn’t gone to City College. That’s where I found myself.” — Astronaut Katya Echazaretta, City College alumna

Watching her friends leave for four-year universities from Eastlake High School in Chula Vista, Echazarreta initially struggled to let go of the future she had envisioned for herself and worried about what her friends would think.

Eventually, she realized she could create her own path at City without judgment.

Echazarreta said she unexpectedly found academic and personal confidence and a culture of support that helped her get through some of her hardest days.

Initially excelling in her engineering major at City, Echazarreta was shocked when she failed one of her exams. After being introduced to the Math Engineering Science Achievement program, also known as MESA at City, she joined on a whim for fear of failing her first class ever.

Rafael Alvarez, MESA director and “Cornerman” to his students, is still one of Echazarreta’s greatest mentors. 

In the MESA program, Alvarez said, he creates what he calls “monsters” – students armed with intellectual and cultural prowess, and an unstoppable drive to attack their goals.

Alvarez recognized the potential in Echazarreta and challenged her to embrace the MESA learning culture, which is characterized by commitment, responsibility, actions, finding solutions and self-advocacy.

“She exemplified commitment,” Alvarez said of Echazarreta. “She accepted responsibility, she took action and she sought solutions. You must want it as much as you want to breathe and this must be demonstrated by actions, not words.

“Absolutely. She owns that.”

Taking a full load of classes while at City and working to help support her mother and siblings, Echazarreta recalled coming home from a 12-hour shift with hours of studying ahead of her and wanting to give up.

Her mother, among her greatest supporters, put things in perspective.

Katya Echazarreta wearing a white wedding dress and veil (left) stands and touches foreheads with her mother Liliana Martin wearing a red dress (right) on her wedding day in 2022.
Katya Echazarreta (left) stands with her mother Liliana Martin (right) on her wedding day in 2022. Katya Echazarreta courtesy photo

“Like a good mother,” Echazarreta said, “she just looked at me and said, ‘you’re being ridiculous. Go to your room and study.’”

Although Echazarreta’s father was an electrical engineer, it was her mother – who had what Echazarreta describes as a basic education – who inspired her the most.

Echazarreta first proclaimed to her mother that she wanted to go to space at 7 years old and just 19 years later she sat in Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket in West Texas, preparing to launch.

With her childhood teddy bear dressed in a NASA suit and her mother and stepfather’s wedding rings with her, she felt an unexpected sense of ease.

“I was able to feel very relaxed and very calm,” Echazarreta said. “Everything that I’ve done has led me to this point. And now it’s just a moment of waiting for these 30 minutes until my life changes completely.”

Always wanting to pursue an education, Echazarreta’s mother wasn’t allowed due to the traditional gender roles she was subjected to by her father and previous husband.

After enduring a difficult 25-year-long relationship with Echazarreta’s father, she said her mother found the strength to leave the marriage when she was in high school. 

“As we grew up into young women,” Echazarreta said, “it was just so important to her that we understood we needed to be independent, that we needed to take advantage of the opportunities in this life that we had been given.”

Katya Echazarreta sits in an arcade helicopter with a red seat and her mother, Lilian Martin, stands next to her in a blue shirt.
A young Katya Echazarreta (left) practices flying an arcade helicopter as her mother Lilian Martin (right) stands beside her. Katya Echazarreta courtesy photo

Echazarreta moved from her home of Guadalajara to Tijuana with her family at age 4 before settling in San Diego three years later when her father was offered a job and a path to citizenship for the entire family.

This transition period, Echazarreta said, was challenging.

“Reality really kicks in very quickly,” she said. “Oh my gosh, this is a whole new world, and it was very difficult for all of us.”

Echazarreta, whose first words were “por qué” (meaning “why” in English), focused her fascination on understanding everything around her, which she says helped her get accustomed to a new city and country.

One of many “whys” Echazarrata has spent her life answering through advocacy and education is why there are not more women and minorities in STEM.

Katya Echazarreta dressed in a pink suit (right) speaks with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador dressed in a navy blue suit (left) in a large room in Mexico in 2022.
Katya Echazarreta (right) speaks with Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (left) in Mexico in 2022. Katya Echazarreta courtesy photo

The most harmful stereotypes about women in STEM, according to Echazarreta, are they aren’t pursuing careers in these fields because they don’t want to.

In reality, she said, women were not allowed to work in STEM fields for generations.

Echazarreta still sees these outdated ideals being perpetuated through media and merchandise targeted to children, referencing toy aisles that are sometimes still filled with tools and engineering kits for boys and aprons and cleaning tools for girls.

“It’s not that (women and girls) don’t like (STEM),” Echazarreta said. “It’s that we’re teaching them from the moment that they’re born, that this is what they’re supposed to like instead. And so naturally, a lot of women do feel more comfortable with those things.”

Echazarreta, who transferred from City to UCLA to complete her engineering degree, faced professors who berated female students for not knowing the right answers and celebrated male students when they answered correctly. 

“You’re in a classroom with 300 people, and you’re in one of five classes that (the professors) have,” Echazarreta said. “They’re never going to even remember your face, your name or anything like that.” 

At City, Echazarreta felt respected and supported personally and academically.

UCLA, she said, did not measure up.

“City College is doing the things that every other institution should do from the beginning,” Echazarreta said. “The focus on social justice throughout the curriculum and the diversity of people makes it easier to be open to finding yourself.”

Astronaut, advocate, science educator, cover model, television personality and UCLA graduate pursuing her master’s degree at Johns Hopkins University –  among other things – Echazarreta is now unphased by her detractors.

For Echazarreta, showing women and underrepresented groups that an engineer can be multi-faceted and look and express themselves any way they want is a lifelong mission.

Amy Gonzalez, a former City student in the MESA program pursuing her bachelor’s in electrical engineering at San Diego State University, sees Echazaretta as a beacon of hope.

“She also majored in electrical engineering like me,” Gonzalez said. “She comes from immigrant parents like me. … It inspired me to think ‘if she could go to space, what can I do?’”

Some fellow scientists have been critical, Echazarreta said, believing engineers should stick to their field and not branch out or garner attention.

The push for female scientists to be and look as masculine as possible is antiquated, she said, and remains something Echazarreta hopes will soon be a thing of the past. 

“I’m presenting them with this person who is very, very technically capable, very passionate about science and STEM in general,” Echazarreta said, “but who is also very feminine and somebody that is not afraid to sort of tap into that side.”

Her strategy is working.

The response to her October 2022 Mexican Vogue cover was so positive, Echazarreta said, the editor told her that the publication will feature more women like her.

“We’re opening up the path so that women being portrayed to us as an ideal can now be more of a real type of a woman,” Echazarreta said, “and not someone whose job it is to make you feel insecure.”

Echazarreta has an agenda, she said, and is prepared with the training and unwavering commitment to see it through. 

Preparation, Echazaretta said, is paramount.

Prior to her selection as Space for Humanity’s first citizen astronaut, a three-year process, Echazarreta independently pursued pre-flight hypoxia and micro-gravity training.  

Space for Humanity’s Citizen Astronaut Program uses the motto “to space, for earth,” referring to the shift in perspective astronauts feel when looking back at the planet and the responsibility they have to share it upon returning from their flight.

A rocket capsule held by three parachutes travels through the atmosphere to earth.
Blue Origin’s New Shepherd rocket parachutes back to Earth on June 4, 2022. Katya Echazarreta courtesy photo

With one space flight under her belt, Echazarreta is already planning her next one, this time out of Mexico.

Working with the Mexican Space Agency and the Mexican Congress to increase government support for space exploration and STEM education, Echazarreta hopes to create an infrastructure for supporting Mexico’s own group of astronauts.

Space exploration, she said, isn’t necessarily considered a priority in Mexico. Her goal is to amplify how it will benefit humanity indefinitely and to create a pipeline for future Mexican astronauts.

“I want to try to create opportunities there across different levels,” Echazarreta said. “While they’re students, while they’re interns, while they’re early in their careers, and then also creating a system of grants for any researchers that are developing any technology for space.”

Above all things, she’s learned through academia and her career that fearlessness pays off.