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Amanda Nguyen unveils journey of 1st woman of Vietnamese origin to fly to space

Amanda Nguyen unveils journey of 1st woman of Vietnamese origin to fly to space

Monday, April 29, 2024, 22:43 GMT+7
Amanda Nguyen unveils journey of 1st woman of Vietnamese origin to fly to space
Amanda Nguyen dons an 'áo dài' (Vietnam's traditional long gown) and 'nón quai thao' (Vietnamese flat palm hat) during her visit to Ha Long Bay in Quang Ninh Province, northern Vietnam. Photo: Supplied

At the end of March, the announcement that the first woman of Vietnamese origin would journey into space quickly spread not only within the Vietnamese community in the U.S. but also across Vietnam. 

Specifically, the non-profit organization Space for Humanity revealed that Amanda Nguyen, a nominee for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, will fly into space on the upcoming launch of American aerospace company Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket.

However, the flight date has not been announced.

Rigorous training

Amanda Nguyen, 32, born to Vietnamese parents and raised in California, graduated from Harvard University and interned at NASA in 2013.

She then worked at the Harvard & Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. 

Nguyen credits the Overview Effect, a cognitive shift reported by some astronauts while viewing the earth from space, for sparking her fascination with the universe.

“It’s an experience that many astronauts have when they go to space for the first time,” Nguyen explained. 

“It’s an orbital perspective that every living being is on this pale blue dot. 

“They leave earth as technical scientists, but they return to earth as activists compelled to do humanitarian work.”

Nguyen opted to collaborate with Space for Humanity’s Citizen Astronaut Program as its mission is guided by the Overview Effect. 

Prospective candidates for the Citizen Astronaut Program will undergo a rigorous selection process consisting of three rounds. 

The initial round involves submitting an online application showcasing their passion, personal mission, and involvement in leadership and community development endeavors. 

Successful applicants must demonstrate fluency in English, possess strong community leadership skills, excel in effective communication, and have a track record of making a positive impact. 

Amanda Nguyen. Photo: Amanda Nguyen

Amanda Nguyen. Photo: Amanda Nguyen

Additionally, candidates should exhibit empathy, self-honesty, openness to new experiences, and a genuine desire to experience the Overview Effect. 

Most importantly, they must be committed to the Citizen Astronaut Program’s objectives.

“Space for Humanity not only looks for individuals with a passion for space, but they look for people who can use this spaceflight as a way to uplift their work and their community,” Nguyen said.

For the last three years, Nguyen has been undergoing astronaut training at the International Institute for Astronautical Sciences in Florida. 

There, she underwent rigorous academic and physical exams, including high G-force flights, space egress simulations, survival systems, and hyperbaric chamber tests. 

Throughout her intensive training, she harbored concerns about potentially losing consciousness during a high G-force flight test. 

However, upon boarding the plane, she discovered that individuals of shorter stature are less prone to blood draining from their brain, reducing the risk of fainting.

“It showed that not only was I physically equipped to pass these tests, but things that I thought would be disadvantages turned out to be advantages,” she said.

Amanda Nguyen during a space training session. Photo: Supplied

Amanda Nguyen during a space training session. Photo: Supplied

Time Magazine’s Woman of the Year

Before making history as the first woman of Vietnamese origin to fly into space, Amanda Nguyen was known for championing the rights of sexual assault victims and spearheading efforts to combat hate directed at Asian Americans. 

She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 and named Time Magazine’s Woman of the Year in 2022.

More than a decade ago, Nguyen postponed her dream of becoming an astronaut after experiencing sexual assault during her senior year at Harvard University in Massachusetts. 

This incident exposed the injustices within the U.S. legal system, particularly the destruction of rape kits after six months if victims fail to request an extension, despite the 15-year statute of limitations for investigation and trial in Massachusetts.

Immediately taking action, Nguyen drafted and advocated for the Sexual Assault Survivors Bill of Rights. 

In 2014, she founded Rise, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting sexual assault survivors. 

Her efforts culminated in the passage of the bill by the U.S. Congress in 2016, signed into law by then-President Barack Obama in October of the same year.

Under this law, victims are entitled to retain forensic evidence at no cost within the statute of limitations and must receive clear notification 60 days before the destruction of their rape kits, among other provisions. 

Amanda Nguyen, founder of Rise, a sexual assault survivor rights nonprofit group, speaks at the Capitol in Washington. Photo: Elle Magazine

Amanda Nguyen, founder of Rise, a sexual assault survivor rights non-profit group, speaks at the Capitol in Washington. Photo: Elle Magazine

In December 2021, Rise launched the exhibition ‘What were you wearing?’ at the United Nations headquarters in New York, showcasing 103 outfits worn by abuse victims, representing 1.3 billion sexual assault survivors worldwide. 

The exhibition aimed to urge the UN to adopt a resolution recognizing the rights of these survivors.

In 2022, Nguyen’s advocacy efforts achieved a historic milestone when the UN officially adopted a landmark resolution which grants access to justice for survivors of sexual violence -- its first standalone motion recognizing rape in peacetime. 

“Vietnam voted in favor of my organization’s United Nations General Assembly Resolution for survivors,” Nguyen said. 

“That was an incredible moment for me to see such a concrete symbol of my community in Vietnam supporting my work and my journey.”

The Vietnamese woman also disclosed her plan to publish a memoir chronicling her advocacy journey in 2025.

“At the crossroads of greater justice or my dreams, I chose justice,” Nguyen shared in a video on her Instagram account with over 325,000 followers in September 2023.

“For 10 years, I traded my telescope for a pen to draft laws protecting survivors."

Then Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signs extending the preservation times of rape kits with Amanda Nguyen to his left in 2016. Photo: NBC News

Then Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signs extending the preservation times of rape kits with Amanda Nguyen to his left in 2016. Photo: NBC News

When questioned about the motivation to resume the pursuit of space exploration after her decade-long struggle, Nguyen responded, “Healing.”

“My life has been a journey to heal,” she said. 

“Healing also includes honoring who I was before I was hurt. 

“That girl 10 years ago at NASA dreaming of one day reaching the stars. 

“With this opportunity I get to honor my past self.”

Having overcome the hurtful events, Nguyen returned to her dream of reaching for the stars, this time with a larger goal: inspiring her community. 

“I fly into space so that Vietnamese girls can imagine themselves among the stars,” Nguyen said. 

“I’m going to be the first [woman of Vietnamese and Southeast Asian origin to fly into space], but I will not be the last.”

‘Vietnam means heritage’

Amanda Nguyen’s sentiments always carry a sense of pride whenever she mentions her connection to Vietnam. 

Growing up in the U.S. to parents who immigrated from Vietnam after 1975, her knowledge of Vietnam was shaped by American movies and family narratives, often centered around war.

Driven by a desire to connect with her mother’s roots and understand the resilience of the Vietnamese people, she embarked on a journey to retrace her family’s path out of Vietnam. 

This included visiting her hometown of Bac Lieu Province in the Mekong Delta and meeting relatives, an experience she describes as “deeply moving.”

“My mom has a garden of beautiful plants in California,” Nguyen said in an Instagram video captured during her Vietnam visit earlier this year. 

“And as a child, I thought they were just plants she liked. 

“And now that I’m here, I realize these plants are native to Vietnam. 

“I never understood that her green thumb was nurturing a connection to her home. 

“There’s so much heritage that I just don’t know. 

“What does war rob from us? For generations?

“Vietnam means heritage to me. 

“When I think of Vietnam I think of the people who have shaped that heritage.”

Nguyen said that her family in the U.S. holds Vietnamese values dear.

“My parents always taught me to be proud of my heritage,” she said. 

“We only speak Vietnamese at home, my first language is Vietnamese. 

“From the food to the culture to holidays like Tet [Vietnamese Lunar New Year] honoring Vietnamese heritage has always been a cornerstone of my upbringing.”

Amanda Nguyen visits her relatives in Bac Lieu Province, southern Vietnam. Photo: Amanda Nguyen

Amanda Nguyen visits her relatives in Bac Lieu Province, southern Vietnam. Photo: Amanda Nguyen

Nguyen had heard much about Vietnam’s beauty, but witnessing it first-hand, she found her homeland even more stunning than she had imagined.

“I think that Ninh Binh is the most beautiful place on earth,” she commented, referring to a province in northern Vietnam. 

“The Vietnamese people welcomed me like family, and I am so incredibly grateful.”

On social media, Nguyen enthusiastically showcased Vietnamese souvenirs she brought back after a month-long visit to her homeland. 

Among them are a traditional white áo dài (Vietnam’s long gown), a pearl from Ha Long Bay in northern Quang Ninh Province, bamboo and rattan products, lacquerware, and ceramics. 

She also recounted how she is continually reminded of Vietnam’s tradition of studiousness, a cultural value that led her to Harvard University and will now take her to space. 

Nguyen revealed that it took her parents a while to come to terms with her choice of becoming a civil rights activist and an astronaut.

“It took them a while, but I know that they are proud now,” she said. 

“I want all young people to know that your dreams matter and the most important thing is that you’re happy and healthy.”

Celebrating with bánh xèo

Reflecting on the moment she was announced the first woman of Vietnamese descent to journey into space, Nguyen expressed profound gratitude for her Vietnamese heritage and everyone who supported her along the way to achieving this milestone.

“I celebrated with my community here in the U.S. by eating bánh xèo [Vietnamese sizzling crepe], and it’s been so moving to see the response from my community in Vietnam,” she said.

Nguyen also expressed her hope to return to Vietnam soon, eagerly anticipating the opportunity to share her journey with the community.

“To Vietnamese women, I would just say that you can be anything you want to be,” she said. 

“Our dreams matter, we matter, and we can make it through.”

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Bao Anh - Thanh Hien / Tuoi Tre News

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