LAWRENCE - When he was a young man living in Costa Rica, Dr. Franklin Chang Diaz wrote a letter to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration saying he "wanted to come to the United States and be an astronaut."
He got back a form letter saying, "Careers with NASA are generally limited to U.S. citizens."
But Chang Diaz wasn't put off - he was immediately encouraged and felt NASA was saying to him, "Hurry up and come here."
So Chang Diaz convinced his parents to let him come to America and his father bought him a one-way ticket. In 1968, when he got to the U.S., Chang Diaz had $50 in his pocket and could not speak a word of English.
Thirteen years later, in 1981, Chang Diaz became the nation's first Hispanic NASA astronaut, after earning a doctorate in applied plasma physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He would fulfill his dream of being an astronaut - becoming a veteran of seven space missions logging more than 1600 hours in space, including 19 hours in three space walks.
Yesterday, Chang Diaz, 62, shared his personal journey of achieving the American Dream, with 125 people who gathered at the Lawrence Senior Center. Chang Diaz talked about coming to a new country, learning English, educating himself and embarking on a variety of space missions.
"When opportunities appear, take them. Don't vacillate," said Chang Diaz to the crowd, which included many children.
"Sometimes a route is not straight, you have to take turns," he added.
Chang Diaz is also the founder and current chief executive officer of Ad Astra Rocket Co., a U.S. firm developing advanced plasma rocket technology. His company has operations in Houston, Texas and his native Costa Rica.
His daughter is State Sen. Sonia Chang Diaz, a Boston Democrat, who was in the crowd yesterday with her husband.
"They are here to keep me honest," Chang Diaz quipped.
Chang Diaz yesterday used a series of slides to amplify his presentation. The first showed him in a space suit, hanging outside of the international space station. He spoke of being on board the station, circling the earth in a matter of minutes and noting in space "when it gets dark, it gets really dark."
He said by age 15 he knew definitively he wanted to be an astronaut and have a career in rocket science. He made home-grown rockets, which his relatives were not always so happy about, he said. He showed a picture of one of the first rockets he and fellow classmates built for school. The rocket made it 200 meters into the sky with a mouse on board.
"We got a 100 on the test," said Chang Diaz.
When he arrived in the United States, Chang Diaz immediately enrolled as a high school senior again because he could not speak English. He later graduated from the University of Connecticut and went on to MIT.
In 1973, NASA launched the Skylab, a tremendous space success "where we really learned how tough it is to be in space," he said.
By 1980, Chang Diaz was now a U.S. Citizen in good physical shape and the necessary requirements to be an American astronaut. Space exploration, he said, "is an international global effort and we are just one player." When asked what felt more like his home, Costa Rica or the United States, Chang Diaz said he is a "citizen of planet earth." As an astronaut, "you begin to see we are really in this all together."
"This is the only home we get," Chang Diaz said.
Chang Diaz's visit yesterday was a Northern Essex Community College White Fund lecture. The White Fund's purpose is to have a free series of interactive presentations for Lawrence area adults, youth and children.
Chang Diaz speaks again this morning to students at Lawrence High School and at 1 p.m. this afternoon at NECC's David Hartleb Technology Center, 100 Elliott St., Haverhill. The presentation is free and open to the public.