Asian-American and Pacific Islander Transportation History: Leroy Chiao, Astronaut

The trailblazing NASA astronaut Leroy Chiao was born in Milwaukee in 1960. The son of immigrant Taiwanese parents of Han Chinese ancestry, Chiao grew up in Danville, California. He graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1983 with a B.S. in chemical engineering. Chiao went on to earn an M.S. and Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara. He subsequently began a career performing research on aerospace materials at Hexcel Corporation and then the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Chiao was selected as a candidate for NASA’s astronaut program in 1990. He became an astronaut the following year and was qualified for flight assignment as a mission specialist.

Chiao first flew into space in 1994 as a member of the seven-person crew on the Space Shuttle Columbia mission STS-65. “I had wanted to be an astronaut since I was an 8-year-old kid watching the Apollo 11 moon landing,” he recalled while discussing his first spaceflight in a 2016 interview with the news agency SupChina. “Going up on the space shuttle Columbia, it was just as you can imagine, very emotional, very thrilling. Actually getting up there and seeing the Earth from space with my own eyes was a very special moment.”

In 1996, Chiao returned to space as a member of the seven-person crew on the Space Shuttle Endeavour mission STS-72. He made history during this mission as the first ethnic Chinese and the first Asian American to walk in space. Chiao’s objective in performing this activity was to demonstrate tools and evaluate techniques for the assembly of the International Space Station (ISS). His next spaceflight occurred in 2000 when he was a member of the seven-person crew on board Space Shuttle Discovery for the mission STS-92.

Chiao undertook his fourth and final mission into space in October 2004 as commander of ISS Expedition 10. Chiao and his fellow crew member, Russian cosmonaut and flight engineer Salizhan Sharipov, made their way to the ISS. They lived on board that space station until flying back to Earth in April 2005. It was during his time on the ISS that Chiao made history yet again when he became the first American to vote in a presidential election from outer space. He did so by using email to forward his completed ballot for the 2004 presidential race to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. (“The best part of voting from the ISS?” Chiao remarked. “No lines!”)

Chiao retired from NASA just a little over seven months after the completion of ISS Expedition 10. By that time, he had logged in a total of 229 days, seven hours, 38 minutes, and five seconds in space. Chiao has been involved in a wide range of aerospace research initiatives in the time since he left NASA. Over the years, he has also been the recipient of a large number of honors. These include the Pioneer Award from the Organization of Chinese Americans (now known as the OCA – Asian Pacific American Advocates); and the NASA Distinguished Service Medal. In addition, Chiao was inducted into the Space Technology Hall of Fame.

For more information on Leroy Chiao, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leroy_Chiao.

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