Hispanic Officer Flies Into Space
By Staff Sgt. Kathleen T. Rhem, USA
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 27, 1999 Nine-year-old Carlos Noriega watched transfixed as the first man walked on the moon in 1969 and thought that was "the greatest thing" someone could do. He dreamed of being there himself someday.
His perception of reality, however, made him soon forget this dream.
"An astronaut to me was somebody who had been raised from birth in some castle. He wasn't some kid like me who had only spoken English for a few years," Noriega said.
Not quite 28 years later on May 15, 1997, Marine Lt. Col. Carlos Noriega said he had to pinch himself to believe he was sitting in space shuttle Atlantis. A few minutes later, he was launched into space on a nine-day mission to the Russian Mir space station.
And in March 2000 Noriega will walk in space twice when the shuttle Endeavour crew works on the new International Space Station. Barring any scheduling changes, that space flight will be the 100th by a U.S. shuttle.
Noriega was five when he, his parents and his two younger sisters moved from their home in Lima, Peru, to Santa Clara, Calif. After high school, patriotism and a desire to go to college led Noriega to enroll in the Navy Reserve Officer Training Corps program at the University of Southern California, he said during a recent phone interview from his Johnson Space Center office in Houston.
Commissioned in the Marine Corps in 1981, he flew helicopters for several years at Marine Corps Air Station Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, and served on a deployment to Beirut, Lebanon. From there he served as an aviation safety officer and instructor pilot at MCAS Tustin, Calif.
He was selected to attend the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., in 1988 and collected dual master's degrees there in computer science and space systems operations. A tour at U.S. Space Command in Colorado Springs, Colo., taught him "a lot about the space business," he said, but still it hadn't occurred to him that he could ever be an astronaut.
Then, one day he came across a coworker applying for the astronaut program.
"I kind of laughed and said, 'What makes you think you're qualified to be an astronaut?' He showed me the paperwork from NASA. I started looking through it and thought, 'Well, shoot, I'm qualified, too,'" Noriega said. "I decided to apply based on the thought that 'If he can do it, why can't I?'"
Noriega moved on to a new assignment in Okinawa, Japan. It was there he got the call that would change his life: He had been accepted into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's grueling astronaut-training program. Ironically, the Colorado coworker who got him started didn't make the cut.
Noriega called being in space "a fantastic experience" and described his awe at being part of such a huge undertaking.
"It's more than just NASA or your service or even the country," he said. "I was going up there to visit the Mir Russian space station in preparation for building the International Space Station. Just to be a part of that is an incredible feeling."
As a U.S. military officer who served during the Cold War, Noriega said he's amazed at how far the world has come in international relations.
Even before he flew on the shuttle, Noriega had traveled to Russia and visited Star City, a previously secret military base where the former Soviet Union trained its cosmonauts. "When the Soviet Union was the 'Evil Empire,' Star City didn't even appear on maps, yet there I was wearing gym clothes running in and out the gate," he said.
While he was aboard Mir, Noriega remembered tracking the space station years before at Space Command. "If you lost track of the Mir space station for more than a couple of hours, you were fired," he said. "We wanted to keep close tabs those guys. We didn't know what they were doing up there." And now there he was, aboard Mir seeing for himself.
The immigrant kid who entered first grade not knowing how to speak English had come a long way, he figured.
Noriega said his family is proud of what he's done, and his five children think his being an astronaut is "great fun." But, he said, around Johnson Space Center it just isn't such a big deal.
"Around here the kids think everybody's dad goes to space every once in a while," he said.
He encourages his own children to be themselves and not feel they have to use being part of a minority as a "crutch," a trait he resents in others.
"Some people feel somebody has to give them a hand up in life because they come from this background or that," Noriega said. "But you have to work for yourself to do the things you want.
"When you're struggling to succeed on your own merits, you hate to have somebody come along who thinks you're where you are because of a handout along the way," he said. "It makes me work extra hard to prove them wrong, but I really hate to even have to fight that perception."
The people of his native Peru are proud of his accomplishments as well, he said. He's visited twice since becoming an astronaut, meeting with President Alberto Fujimori and speaking to university and school groups. He said speaking to students is one of the more enjoyable parts of his job.
Noriega gives the students he speaks to the same advice he gives his own children. "Don't be afraid to dream," he tells them. "You really can achieve anything you want if you're willing to work for it."