It wasn't easy being a Puerto Rican woman in South River, New Jersey, who wanted to go to space.
My dream was to become an astronaut, even though it was still the early days of human space flight — and a decade before women were even allowed to apply. I joined Civil Air Patrol (CAP) as a teenager so I could get an aerospace education. I learned how to fly before I learned to drive a car.
I remember watching the televised landing of the Apollo 11 spacecraft on the surface of the Moon. It was a Sunday afternoon around 4:15pm on July 20, 1969. I had seen the other U.S. space missions leading up to this event but this was the big one! The camera produced a coarse black and white image, which the entire world watched in awe.
My first job was in the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory satellite project (OAO-3C) in the Astrophysics Department at Princeton University. It was at Princeton that I earned my pilot’s license. I enjoyed the thrill of being in control of a machine that gave such a beautiful view of the world. One summer I took hang-gliding lessons in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina -- not far from the site of the Wright brother’s historic first flight.
When women were first allowed to apply to become astronauts, I submitted my application even though I knew I was too short and too near-sighted to go far in the review process. Still, I drove nonstop for 21 hours to watch Sally Ride become the first female U.S. astronaut to leave the Earth's atmosphere.
Seeing Sally Ride's launch was a confirmation of what I had held on to: women could achieve their dreams.
In 1984 I moved to Houston to work at the NASA-Johnson Space Center (NASA-JSC) where I worked on software for the space shuttle flight controllers. I relished the opportunity. I'd go to Building 1, and on the door there was a metal plaque with the NASA logo engraved on it. I would caress it, literally, touch it. Because I knew what it had taken for me to get there.
Although I never became an astronaut, I have been an active participant in space history. In my career I have worked on satellites, the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station. When I study space, I am always stunned by its sheer diversity. I want to see that diversity reflected in the STEM profession, as more women and minorities join in.
I will quote my friend Story Musgrave, an astronaut who did some of the Hubble walks. He would show a picture of a child at the beach, holding a seashell. We're all born to be explorers, he said, just like a little child marveling at a seashell.
I remember being like that, and I like to think I still am. With a lot of people, it gets worked out of you over the years, but I always held on to that childlike willingness to ask "What if?"