Hispanic Heritage Month

Hispanic Heritage Month: New Mexico native makes journey to space

Shoot for the stars; its an expression many of us have likely heard before. One New Mexico man took the words of encouragement to heart.

Sidney McNeill Guiterrez is quite possibly one of the most influential Hispanics in the world, but he's also one of the most humble. He also is from New Mexico.

Gutierrez is a husband, father of five and retired United States Air Force colonel at home. However, to the world, Gutierrez was an astronaut who made history twice.

"I am the first U.S born Hispanic astronaut," Gutierrez said. "I always wanted to be an astronaut."

It's a title that Gutierrez said he never thought about on his long journey to the stars. A journey that started when he was around 10-years-old.

"In 5th grade, I decided I wanted to be an astronaut," Gutierrez said.

It was the early 1960's when the Apollo program was taking off, the space race was on and a young boy from New Mexico was watching.

"The early astronauts were starting to fly," Gutierrez said. "We were seeing them."

It wasn't long after the first launch into space that Gutierrez had his sights on the sky and his mind made up. His mission in life would be getting into space.

"So I laid out a path doing that," Gutierrez said.

That path would be filled with twists and turns but driven by persistence. Gutierrez came from humble beginnings. 

His father had first worked with the forestry division, but then turned to real estate after having children. Gutierrez' mom was a homemaker. You could say Gutierrez was just the boy next door.

"Went to school at Los Ranchos Elementary where my dad went to school," Gutierrez said. "I went to Taft Junior High School and then Valley High School."
  
While, most kids were longing for summer break. Gutierrez was mapping out his journey to space.

"I decided, well I need to be a pilot so the best way to be a pilot is to go to the Air Force Academy," Gutierrez said.

For many, that would be one lofty goal. But, it wasn't for Gutierrez. He remembers his first stop was an air show at Kirtland Air Force Base.

"There was a representative from the air force who had catalogs for the air force academy," Gutierrez said.  "So I went home and read it, front and back and figured out what all the requirements were." 

Gutierrez said math and science classes were a must. In fact, Gutierrez said he passed the same high school science class three times.

"I thought well maybe I'll learn something new," Gutierrez said.

What he did learn was that pilots needed brains and brawn.

"I initially didn't weigh enough. I had to get up 115 pounds to get into the Airforce Academy," Gutierrez said. "We had a long driveway and I would go round, and round and round. I got a set of weights too.

Gutierrez accomplished his first goal and made it into the Air Force Academy. He would then soar through this second goal by becoming a pilot.

Gutierrez first flew the F15 and then became a pilot instructor. He also would become a test pilot for an F16. But the New Mexico native wasn't done yet.

Gutierrez would then apply with NASA and got a call.

"I think I was 32," Gutierrez said.

Gutierrez's wife Marianne would be the first person he would call to share the news.

"I thought if anybody could, he could, he's a real motivated person," Marianne said.

She would be the one to keep New Mexico's astronaut grounded.

"We went to bed and I told her how does it feel sleeping with an astronaut? She said, don't let it go to your head," Gutierrez said.

Gutierrez never did for two reasons; he was always too humble and the job didn't allow it.

January 1986. about a year and a half after Gutierrez put on the NASA uniform tragedy struck the space program. The Space Shuttle Challenger exploded on liftoff. The world was left in shock and the NASA family was left in tears.

"I remember umm...talking to the wife of the pilot, the commander Dick Scobee, I remember she gave me a hug after the accident, a day after the accident, she gave me a hug and said we need to fix this.  We have to make it better, so this doesn't happen to you," Gutierrez said.

As NASA investigated the incident and worked to fix what went wrong, Gutierrez was sent to Washington D.C. His new task was to answer everyone's questions surrounding the Challenger disaster.

"President Reagan would get letters from around the country about the accident," Gutierrez said. "I am actually the person who drafted many of those responses for him to send back."  

It was a difficult time for NASA, but still Gutierrez said it never crossed his mind to give up on his mission into space.

"Anybody can be an astronaut when things are going right, but its a real challenge when things are going poorly," Sid said.

It wasn't long after Gutierrez returned to Houston that his dream would become a reality.

In 1991, the first U.S. born Hispanic Astronaut would head into space aboard Shuttle Columbia. By then, Gutierrez's family had grown to five.

With the tragedy of Space Shuttle Challenger still fresh on the minds of the world; Gutierrez and his crew suited by, boarded the shuttle and lifted off.  

"You saw it going up, but feeling those shock-waves in your chest, made you realize that they're really going into space," Marianne said.

Marianne reflected on the day her husband landed safely back on Earth.

"There I am with our three children," Marianne said.

Columbia sent the first mobile medical lab into space. Gutierrez took up a piece of New Mexico.

"These Viking's pins that I have here are actually Viking's pins that he had taken up," Vally High Principal Anthony Griego said.

That Vikings lapel pin now sits in a glass frame at Valley High; along with Gutierrez's NASA patch, a picture of the crew and a picture of the Valley High alum which still inspires today.

"For us to be recognized and to be kept in his heart is really heartwarming," Valley High Senior Syanna Padilla said.

Padilla wasn't even born yet when Gutierrez would make history again.

In 1994, Gutierrez became the first Hispanic to command any space mission, including Russian missions. That means he landed the enormous Shuttle Endeavor with six lives onboard.

"The most important thing, is you only get one shot on this; with an F16 you get to hit the power and go back around," Gutierrez said.

His landing was a success at Edwards AFB in California.

"In that flight, we had about 10-15 miles to spare," Gutierrez said.

"This mission was a real team effort," Gutierrez said in a press conference soon after the mission was complete.

A real team effort is the way Gutierrez describes his entire time with NASA. He said he never thought about the firsts he accomplished as a Hispanic.

"I never saw it as being a Hispanic astronaut," Gutierrez said, "I always wanted to just be an American Astronaut."

However, the world saw it a little different. Gutierrez received many accolades for his time with NASA to include a NASA Exceptional Achievement Medal. 

The New Mexico native was also featured on the Hispanic Engineer magazine, he was given the Hispanic Engineer of the Year National Achievement Award and the 1995 Hispanic Achievement Award in Science.

He was also named one of the most influential Hispanics by Hispanic Business Magazine. Gutierrez was also awarded the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Award in 1990.

"That was interesting because it was awarded by a congressman," Gutierrez said.

So, the real question is -- who is Sid Gutierrez?

If you ask his wife, he's a family man; an amazing father to three kids and a wonderful grandfather and her handyman at home.

If you ask Sid, he's the kid from New Mexico who had a desire to explore. An explorer who described Earth as "small" from space.

He's also a New Mexican who never forgot where he came from, a fellow Hispanic who continues to hold discussions in schools and a form of inspiration for the next generation of scientists, engineers, explorers and trailblazers.

"I tell them don't let people limit you from doing what you want to do because you're a boy, you're a girl, you're Hispanic or you're from New Mexico; whatever it is," Sid said.

He's also the man who will be remembered as one of the few who made history twice.

"Its true, I guess he did make history," Marianne said. "But, he fulfilled his dream and I guess to me that's just as important as making history."


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