National Hispanic Heritage Month: Carlos I. Noriega, Astronaut

In 1997, Carlos Ismael Noriega made history as the first Peruvian-born astronaut to fly into outer space. He had been born in Peru’s capital city of Lima in 1959. In a 2016 interview with the University of Southern California (USC) News, Noriega discussed his family’s move to the United States. “We came to this country when I was 5 years old with me speaking no English,” he said. “Even though my father would work two jobs to make ends meet, he would always emphasize the importance of studying hard and even pay a neighbor girl to talk to me in English so that my language skills would improve.”

Noriega graduated from Wilcox High School in Santa Clara, California, in 1977. He earned a B.S. degree in computer science from USC in 1981. Noriega was a member of USC’s Navy ROTC unit and, upon graduation, he received commission in the U.S. Marines Corps (USMC).

After completing flight school, Noriega piloted CH-46 Sea Knight tandem-rotor transport helicopters for two years at Marine Corps Air Station Keneohe Bay in Hawaii. His military activities also included six-month shipboard deployments in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. In addition, Noriega served at one point as the aviation safety officer and instructor pilot at the now-closed Marine Corps Air Station Tustin in California. By the time he retired from the USMC in 2003, he had logged approximately 3,000 hours in various types of fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft.

During his time in the military, Noriega also pursued studies at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He earned M.S. degrees in computer science and space systems operations in 1990.

As a Marine aviator, Noriega also began his career in space exploration. He was selected by NASA as an astronaut candidate towards the end of 1994 and reported to the Johnson Space Center in Houston the following year. After he completed a year of training and evaluation, Noriega became eligible for assignment as a mission specialist.

Noriega first flew into space as a member of the seven-person crew on the Space Shuttle Atlantis mission STS-84 to the Mir space station in 1997.  He returned to space in 2000 as a member of the five-person crew on the Space Shuttle Endeavour mission STS-7 to the International Space Station. This mission was the final human spaceflight of the 20th century. As the result of both expeditions combined, Noriega spent a total of 20 days, one hour, and 18 minutes in space.

“In general, it’s terribly exciting to work in space,” Noriega recalled in his 2016 interview with USC News. He good-naturedly added, “The biggest problem is that you will lose your stuff! It just floats away. If you’re lucky, you’ll find it by the ventilation fan inlet. But not always. So you gain a real appreciation for Velcro and duct tape.”

Noriega retired from the NASA Astronaut Corps in 2005. He left NASA altogether six years later. Noriega has been the recipient of several honors, including the NASA Exceptional Service Medal and two NASA Space Flight Medals.

“’The only closed doors are the ones you are willing to acknowledge,’” Noriega remarked in 2016. “I’m not sure if anyone’s actually said that other than me. But too many people assume that there are obstacles preventing their success so they don’t even try. You will only achieve if you try.”

Photo Credit: NASA

For more information on Carlos I. Noriega, please check out https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/atoms/files/noriega_carlos.pdf

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