NASA astronauts speak out for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (video)

Four NASA astronauts recently spoke about their cultural heritage to celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, which runs through May.

Appearing in a NASA YouTube video (released May 21) were astronauts Sunita Williams (an Indian-American), Jonny Kim (Korean-American), Kjell Lindgren (Asian-American-Chinese) and Raja Chari (Korean-American). 

Each astronaut spoke about the influence their family and culture had on their lives and careers, while NASA administrator Bill Nelson mentioned the role AAPI Heritage Month can play in "advancing leaders through purpose-driven service," the theme of this year's month.

"It's important to empower others to serve, with the understanding that our greatest mission is to make the Earth a better place and ensure a bright future for everyone on it," he continued. "Our astronauts do that. On the ISS, they carry out groundbreaking science that's important to unlocking discoveries, and those discoveries solve problems, and treat diseases here on Earth. They're also doing needed research that eventually will land American astronauts on Mars."

The astronauts all talked about what they learned from their parents and their cultures that helped in their lives and careers.

"My parents had the biggest influence on me. Their heritage and traditions have made me the person I am today. My father, an immigrant from India, and my mother of Slovenian descent, were instrumental in shaping me as a person and as an explorer," Williams said in the video.

From left: NASA astronauts Raja Chari, Sunita Williams, Jonny Kim and Kjell Lindgren share stories of resilience and leadership to mark Asian American Pacific Islanders month in 2021. (Image credit: NASA)

Lindgren recalled watching Ellison Onizuka – the first Asian-American and person of Japanese origin to go to space – preparing for his final mission, STS-51, aboard space shuttle Challenger that lifted off on Jan. 28, 1986. Challenger exploded moments after liftoff and killed all seven astronauts on board.

"I of course was absolutely heartbroken at the loss of the Challenger," Lindgren said. "Coming full circle, I'm so grateful for the opportunity to go to Hawaii during my postflight [responsibilities], and to share the message of human spaceflight, reaching for goals, and investing in communities."

The astronaut group all spoke about the NASA-led Artemis moon-landing program, which just received an offer of participation from South Korea, and the increasing emphasis on international participation in space. 

"It means having the privilege to provide representation and a voice to young kids who want to dream, who deserve every right to pursue those dreams, and who need to have role models they can identify with," Kim said of the human spaceflight program at NASA.

"My heritage has shaped my lived experiences, and has taught me perspective. And it's shown me that diversity strengthens our bonds, and enables powerful achievements," added Chari.

The video didn't touch on the subject of China, however, which has limited collaborations with NASA despite being very active in robotic and human spaceflight over ongoing security concerns

In the past month alone, China drew ire during Congressional and Senate hearings due to landing a rover on Mars (which some U.S. politicians see as a shot of trying to prove space superiority ahead of the American-led Artemis moon-landing missions) and allowing a rocket core stage to plummet uncontrollably to Earth, which luckily resulted in no casualties.

"Spacefaring nations must minimize the risks to people and property on Earth of re-entries of space objects and maximize transparency regarding those operations," Nelson said in a statement posted on NASA's website regarding the Chinese rocket fall. "It is clear that China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris."

Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month happens every year in May to recognize the contributions of Asians and Pacific Islanders in the United States, according to the government website, which also has a list of all of the Asian-Pacific zones included in the celebration. The commemoration began as a seven-day event in 1979 and was expanded to a month in 1990.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: