A young man flies down the road on his motorcycle. He’s weeping so hard that he can barely see the road ahead of him. He merges onto the highway, not caring where he goes, as long as he escapes his family, a job he hates, and a future he fears. Once Catholic, he has even lost his faith in God. As he plunges into the dark, he imagines his own death – ramming a car head-on, getting crushed by a truck – and he welcomes this end. He veers onto back roads, weaving aimlessly through the countryside, until he arrives at his friends’ home. He is exhausted, but before he falls asleep, the young man begins to make the hardest resolution of his life: He must leave his wife and children. He must start all over again.
“Such was the end of our life together and the beginning of the most harrowing years of my life,” writes the man, decades later, as he looks back on his youth.
Watershed moments like this one take place in any number of lives, but the protagonist of this story is not just any narrator: he is one Franklin Chang Díaz, the beloved U.S.-Costa Rican astronaut and a national hero here in his first homeland. The young man who prayed for death to escape his troubles became a respected scientist and a team member on seven Space Shuttle missions. Tied with Jerry L. Ross, Chang holds the record for most spaceflights for a single astronaut.
Reading his new memoir, “Dream’s Journey,” is a surreal experience, because the reader sees Chang as a mere mortal. This is a person who invented a high-powered plasma rocket. In many of his NASA photos, Chang looks petit and smiley, donning a space suit and cradling a helmet. Born and raised in Costa Rica, Chang is the portrait of Tico happiness. He seems buoyant and imperturbable. That smile seems to belong in zero gravity.
Yet at the beginning of “Dream’s Journey,” Chang is a clueless teenager, fresh off the plane from Costa Rica, knowing no English or U.S. customs. A gangly adolescent, Chang waltzes into a U.S. high school rife with racial conflict at the height of the Civil Rights movement, and because his background is Chinese and Hispanic, his fellow students have no idea how to categorize him. He explains repeatedly, in broken English, that he is Costa Rican, not Puerto Rican, to which one thug retorts, “All you Ricans are the same.”
Slowly and meticulously, Chang recounts his wending life story, from dating a needy girl named Candace to smoking pot for the first time. We see him at college parties, we learn about his English lessons, and we watch him take the wrong city bus and end up in a different town. In one anecdote, when a cop pulls over Chang’s car, the hapless foreigner can’t produce any form of ID, and he is hauled to a police station with his sobbing girlfriend. Yet the reader has the benefit of hindsight. We know that every paragraph could end, “And then I became one of the most admired astronauts in the history of space exploration.”
“Dream’s Journey” is an unusual book for many reasons: It is the second part of an autobiographical trilogy, continuing where his first book, “Los Primeros Años,” left off. (“I have chosen to write my memoirs in the language in which I lived them,” Chang notes in his introduction. Thus, the first volume is in Spanish, the second in English.) “Dream’s Journey” covers his first decade in the United States, from his arrival in 1968 to the day of his NASA recruitment in 1980. These years are an uphill slog, from language acquisition to his eventual divorce, but through it all, Chang sticks to his dream: He yearns to become a rocket scientist, and he wants to spend time in space.
There is only one drawback to “Dream’s Journey”: as a literary effort, it’s not very good. That is, despite his impeccable memory and astonishing command of English, Chang is not a “writer.” Like a true engineer, he details events and emotions in a clinical way, like a legal deposition. Here he describes meeting a new friend during his freshman year of college:
I met Elizabeth An Buker, also known as “Betsy,” the next morning. Stanley had gone to pick her up at the airport and the four of us met back at the NYU dorm upon their return. A bit taller than Candace, Betsy was an engaging person with a broad smile and vivacious eyes that peeked behind thick glasses. She projected a highly intellectual mind with a deep interest in everything around her. Her long blond hair was flowing free that morning, though in most of our subsequent meetings she would prefer to keep it conveniently out of the way in a simple ponytail that betrayed her lack of interest for appearance and personal beauty.
Although much of the book is sentimental and even moving, Chang describes his life from a distance. There is little dialogue or tactile description. You never feel like you’re there. “Dream’s Journey” was published by Ad Astra Rocket Company, the spaceflight technology developer; because Chang himself is CEO and president of Ad Astra, the book is basically self-published. The volume is challenging to track down and can’t be found in most bookstores. The price of a single paperback is a staggering $26 (before shipping fees). Given his accomplishments, Chang deserves a good editor, or even ghostwriter. He deserves a serious publishing house. He deserves a book that is professionally distributed and affordable for the everyday fan.
But literary merit and ease of purchase are not the point. If a national hero wants to publish his own book, that’s his right, and it is fitting for such a self-made man. Chang is the Horatio Alger of astronauts. He arrived in the United States with $50, he miraculously graduated from high school on schedule, and he spent his entire youth (literally) reaching for the stars. “Dream’s Journey” is not a breezy read, but it is a powerful social document, told by the same man who has lived this extraordinary life. No agent has meddled with his writing to force its appeal. Chang repeatedly refers to the United States as “The Land of Opportunity,” in capital letters, as if referring to a benevolent god. He constantly gives credit to his mentors and friends for helping him through difficult periods. There have been plenty of brilliant people who wrote stultifying autobiographies (John Stuart Mill and Tracy Austen, to name a couple). The virtue of such books is the legacy they preserve, not the pleasure of reading them.
Meanwhile, Chang holds a special significance to Costa Rica: In a country famous for terrestrial splendor (jungle, exotic animals, campesinos working the soil), Chang is the Tico who left, became a U.S. citizen, and explored the cosmos. Costa Rica takes enormous pride in Chang, one of its most iconoclastic native sons. He is proof that Costa Ricans can achieve excellence on a global scale, inspiring the entire planet.
Yet Chang is shockingly earnest about his past, describing loneliness and relationship problems with ease. We might not expect such candor from John Glenn or Buzz Aldrin, because they must uphold their superhuman Cold War mythos. The early test pilots were known for their unflinching chutzpah, for “pushing the envelope.” In contrast to these giants, “Dream’s Journey” narrates the life of a shy nerd with an improbable dream. The gawky 18-year-old who arrives in Connecticut does not seem like astronaut material, and his journey is so unlikely that Chang can afford to relate his doubts and mistakes. Indeed, these doubts and mistakes are what make him so endearing.
While “Dream’s Journey” will likely attract a fare share of fans, it ends with a cliffhanger, and Chang’s next book should draw the real crowds. How did Chang fare at NASA? What was his training process? How did he go from a pencil-pushing engineer to a planet-orbiting spaceman? Fewer than 550 people have left the Earth’s atmosphere, leaving about seven billion of us to wonder what Chang experienced in that vast expanse. No matter how he writes that book, Chang is sure to make it interesting. Writing books is hard, but when you have such stratospheric material, it’s hardly rocket science.