Like many of us, Leroy Chiao, 57, looked up to the stars as a child and dreamed of reaching outer space one day.
But unlike most people, he managed to turn what seemed like wishful thinking into reality — and more.
Born on Aug. 28, 1960, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Chiao realized his dream of reaching space when he watched the Apollo landing nine years later. Most kids at the time wanted to be astronauts, but his aspiration never waned.
Chiao attended the University of California, Berkeley and obtained an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering in 1983. He pursued further studies in the same field, graduating with master’s and doctorate degrees from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1985 and 1987, respectively.
It was after getting his Ph.D. when Chiao started flying lessons and eventually got his license. He also worked for Hexcel Corporation, an aerospace materials company, as well as the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which oversees the United States’ nuclear deterrent.
“Seven months later, I got a phone call inviting me to come to Houston for an interview. It meant I’d made the first cut from 2,500 applicants to the 100 they were going to interview. They wanted me there for a week, even though the interview was only an hour. The rest was a big medical exam. On average, half of the people fail this, usually for something they didn’t even know about. At the end of the week they told me I passed the medical.
“Four months later, in January 1990, I got the life-changing call. I had about five or six months to wrap things up with my job and buy a house in Houston. I’ve been there ever since.”
Chiao officially achieved his dream of becoming an astronaut in July 1991.
His time at NASA was nothing short of hard work. Academic work continued, but he also got the chance to fly jets and spend hours on simulators.
Then, four years into NASA, Chiao was finally headed to space. He was aboard Space Shuttle Columbia with six other crew members.
“Going to space for the first time was emotional. I wasn’t scared, just really excited,” he recalled.
“You’re literally exploded off the launch pad – you hear a big bang and it feels like someone has kicked the back of your seat. You can feel the vibration and hear the pitch of the wind noise changing as you rapidly accelerate. The sky turns dark pretty quickly. In less than a minute, you are higher than any plane, and you are in orbit in just under nine minutes.”
On that mission, he became the 196th NASA astronaut to fly in space and the 311th human in space.
Chiao embarked on more adventures throughout his 15-year career at NASA, serving different positions and taking on various roles.
He left the agency in December 2005, but remains in love with space through OneOrbit, a company offering corporate and school programs he co-founded in 2015.
Chiao acknowledges that Asian and Asian American children — especially girls — are “generally more reserved,” but encourages the importance of projecting oneself so that superiors become aware of one’s accomplishment and capabilities.
For children hoping to reach their own stars, he leaves a piece of advice:
“Our big message for kids is developing ethics and morals: you are not entitled; you have to work hard, and treat people with respect. We encourage them to follow their dreams and persist. So if it doesn’t work out, at least you tried.”
Chiao captured his spaceflight experience in “One Orbit”, a book featuring photos taken from space (many of which he took himself) and his thoughts about each of them.