HomeAsian AmericansFormer astronaut Leroy Chiao’s journey to NASA stardom

Former astronaut Leroy Chiao’s journey to NASA stardom

Editor’s Note: This is the first of two profiles of Asian American astronauts. The second profile will be published tomorrow, June 16.

by Matthew Yoshimoto

As he marveled at the sky during the 1969 moon landing, realizing that two astronauts nearly a quarter million miles away were about to take those first steps, former NASA Astronaut and International Space Station Commander Leroy Chiao had only one thought: “I want to be like those guys.”

Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Chinese immigrant parents, Chiao set his ambitions towards becoming an astronaut from an early age. He was always fascinated by anything that flew – from model airplanes and rockets to birds flying across the sky. 

Chiao said opportunities for engineers and scientists to become astronauts increased when he studied engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, noting the expansion of the campus shuttle program alongside the launch of NASA’s first space shuttle in 1981. Four years later, he earned his master’s degree and PhD in chemical engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Working as a research engineer in California before joining NASA in 1990, Chiao learned he got admitted into the program over a phone call.

“It was just kind of surreal,” Chiao told AsAmNews. “It took me a moment to realize what’s going on, but you can imagine, it was a very life-changing moment for me.”

Chiao’s flight career with NASA spanned over 15 years and consisted of 229 days of spaceflight experience. During this time, Chiao said he “got to do everything [he] could possibly do” including flying on space shuttles, commanding the International Space Station and collaborating with Russian, Japanese and European space agencies, including the famous Expedition 10 aboard the International Space Station.

Chiao said his first flight was “nothing like the movies,” noting that despite months of training and conversations with experienced astronauts, he could never have imagined what the experience would truly be like.

Courtesy of NASA

“The coolest moment I had as an astronaut was when I was in a spacesuit on the International Space Station and had my boots attached to the robotic arm of the space shuttle, and I was being moved from one work site to another. For several moments, I was just face down towards the earth, and I couldn’t see either the space station or the space shuttle, and I was just looking at a down at the earth, watching the continents and for a second, I felt like a satellite flying over the air,” Chiao told AsAmNews. 

His longest mission lasted 193 days, or over six months, when he served as commander of Expedition 10 in 2004 with Russian cosmonaut Salizhan Sharipov. Despite having a “great experience” in space, during the fourth month of the mission, Chiao recalled thinking, “Well, I wouldn’t mind going home now … I love exploring space flying, but I much rather live here on Earth.”

Although he noted feelings of homesickness, Chiao expressed gratitude for being able to stay busy with work. Chiao said every day on the space mission was planned, down to the minute, including repairs, experiments or logistics tasks, and even breaks for lunch or exercise. 

He added they could retain communication with family and friends on the ground through short phone calls and messaging. 

One of the most dangerous incidents Chiao faced was when he was aboard a Russian spacecraft attempting to dock with the space station and the autopilot failed. Instead of slowing down, the spacecraft began to speed up. At the same time, the shuttle began rotating, which made them lose sight of the station. 

“That was a dangerous combination, but we were well trained for this kind of an emergency. We had our emergency books out and ready to go, got the spacecraft under manual control and stopped about 50 meters from the station. It’s one of those things that you just react quickly because you’ve done so much training and you do all the things you’re supposed to do. Then once you’re safe and docked, that’s when we took a deep breath and the hairs on the back of my neck went down.”

After 15 years of working with NASA where he collected over 16,000 photos every year from space, Chiao now works to uplift educators, students and businesses through technology startups and consulting opportunities for commercial space companies including SpaceX. 

In 2015, Chiao collaborated with a professional educator to create One Orbit, which aims to get the youth excited for their futures through sponsored education programs and motivation programs. Earlier this year, One Orbit started the initiative Aviation Academy where high school students can fly airplanes and helicopters and meet people in the industry. Chiao said the company will also be sending astronauts across the country for STEM workshops. 

As one of the few Asian American astronauts who traveled to space, Chiao described his pride as being a role model and understands the responsibility he has to inspire the younger Asian American community.

Noting that Asian cultures typically avoid self-promotion and seeking recognition, Chiao emphasized the importance of self-advocacy. He explained that the primary reason there are few Asian American astronauts is that not enough individuals from the community apply.

“Growing up in two cultures really helped me a lot,” said Chiao to AsAmNews. “In most Asian families, you and your parents kind of retain a lot of those Asian values at home and culture but then you go out in the mainstream of the US, well, it doesn’t look like that in this country. You don’t want to be braggadocious but you have to kind of speak out a little bit. You have to promote yourself a little bit, otherwise people are going to look past you. So it’s important to realize the environment you’re in and adapt to that environment to make yourself successful.” 

AsAmNews is published by the non-profit, Asian American Media Inc. Follow us on FacebookX, InstagramTikTok and YouTube. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to support our efforts to produce diverse content about the AAPI communities. We are supported in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.

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