The story of the Guatemalan astronaut who never was
Making up a life: How a dentist from Guatemala convinced his government to send him into space – with faked certificates and doctored photos. Read More
In 2014, a dentist named Vinicio Montoya gained national fame when he announced that he would travel to space in 2015 as the first NASA-trained Guatemalan astronaut. He became a media darling, gave talks at universities, and President Otto Pérez Molina even formally asked the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs to include him on a Russian space mission. The only problem with this diplomatic request was that Montoya was not an astronaut and had never been trained by NASA.
This is the story of a dentist who was tired of feeling like a failure in life. So he convinced the Guatemalan government that he was a NASA-certified astronaut. He submitted a resume and photos as proof that he had climed to the summit of the Himalayas, visited the South Pole, the North Pole, the Amazon and the Sahara, and completed a two-day course on commercial space flight.
Without checking the authenticity of a single document, Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina asked Russian diplomats to consider Montoya as a candidate for a space mission. Montoya became a hero, the pride of his country.
Here is how it all began...
This is the story of a dentist who was tired of feeling like a failure in life.
The avatar from another dimension
Vinicio Montoya felt he had failed many times in his life. “There was no area of my life in which I had not failed,” he recalls. Until the night of 3 December, 1998 that is. The night that God blessed him. That fateful day in December, a car crashed into him while he was driving through Guatemala City. When he expressed his extreme displeasure, the other driver shot him.
After “years of substance abuse” and a divorce in 1994, Montoya turned to religion. On that day in December, he realized God had knocked on his door twice. The accident was the first wake-up call, the shots the second. “I am the avatar of something that may be in the third, fifth, tenth, or eleventh dimension,” explains the orthodontist, maxillofacial orthopedist and lay preacher for the parish of St. Martin de Porres in Guatemala City.
The avatar of something from another dimension was born 48 years ago in Guatemala City and became famous last year as the first Guatemalan scheduled to travel to space after receiving NASA certification in September 2014. His story spread like wildfire through the media and garnered interviews, applause, and admiration. He became a national celebrity for achieving such an honour.
But you have to be a US citizen to be an astronaut for NASA. And Montoya had not been nationalized. Furthermore, you can only apply if you’re a mathematician, engineer, biologist or physicist. Accordingly, his name is not on any list of official NASA astronauts.
In truth, the first Guatemalan astronaut was never really an astronaut. He was never even down as a candidate to be an astronaut. Nor did he climb to the top of Mount Everest or dive to the deepest seabed. But he convinced the entire country that he had those credentials by providing a CV with faked certificates and photos.
How it all happened...
A two-day course to get ready for space
Montoya is in great demand at his clinic. During our meeting, he has to excuse himself four times to go care for his patients. A fifth time he leaves to fetch his computer. He wants to show us a video that explains the requirements for becoming a NASA astronaut. “But you are not a NASA astronaut,” we respond somewhat surprised. The computer isn’t booting up, so he starts opening and closing the laptop. What started out as a friendly conversation is clearly beginning to annoy him: “I can’t be certified by NASA, but by the private part of NASA called Nastar.”
But Nastar is not a private part of NASA. It is a private company that, among other things, offers short training courses for people interested in future commercial flights into space: purely commercial flights that are not yet a reality. In September 2014, Montoya took part in a two-day basic suborbital space training course in simulation ships at the Nastar Center. Suborbital means that the flight goes no higher than 100 kilometers above the earth. The images that appear in Montoya’s social media profiles were taken during this seminar. And while it is true that Nastar collaborates with NASA on some activities, NASA has absolutely nothing to do with this particular course.
A dentist involved in penguin research
According to Vinicio Montoya, his problem was that he never had much money. A diving instructor “who had shattered teeth” was the key to the dentist’s new adventurous path in life. As Montoya tells it, he managed to get a scuba license by agreeing to swap services with the instructor: Montoya fixed his teeth in exchange for sailing lessons and deep sea diving training.
In 2000 he discovered “through a friend” that the US magazine National Geographic organised expeditions to Mount Everest (8,848 meters). The dentist sent an email application hoping to be included on an expedition. He specified that his mountaineering experience included nothing more than climbing the Agua, a 3,760 meter volcano located in the Guatemalan department of Sacatepéquez. He was rejected, of course.
Nevertheless, in media features about him Montoya claimed that he had traveled to the South Pole, the North Pole, the Amazon, the Sahara and the Himalayas, and that he was sent there as a journalist to report for National Geographic. Asked why his name did not appear on the publication’s masthead, he says it was because he worked as a freelancer.
To back up his statement, he published an online video in which he shows a certificate identifying him as a member of the “National Geographic Society”. But this certificate only proves that he bought a subscription for National Geographic magazine – not that he ever worked for it.
This certificate only proves that he bought a subscription for National Geographic magazine – not that he ever worked for it.
“I went into the ocean abyss”
Among the activities he claims to have been involved in, he says National Geographic asked him to help monitor sharks in the Atlantic in 2005, go on an expedition to the Tombs of the Artisans in the Sahara desert in Egypt in 2006, undertake an exploration of the magnetic North Pole in 2008 and another of the South Pole to research penguin excrement in 2009.
Montoya says he dived to the world’s deepest seabed. He presented a document – without any official signatures or seals – to show he took a 610 meter plunge into the ocean. On his Facebook page, he claims this is the Central American record for deep sea diving, though it is not. We discovered that he actually went to the Caribbean as a tourist to visit Roatán Island in Honduras.
On another occasion, Montoya shared a photo on his Facebook profile in which he appears to be holding the flag of Guatemala at the Ceremonial South Pole. On closer inspection though, the photo has clearly been doctored. The origional was taken from Wikipedia, and the waving flags and shadows all are the same. The dentist simply inserted an image of himself.
At this point in our conversation, the story of a dentist who became a national hero, a great adventurer exploring Mount Everest and the South Pole, a candidate for NASA who was presented to Russian diplomats as a possible cosmonaut, also becomes the story of the dentist who refuses to show his passport to verify that he has actually been to all these places.
“I’ve never cared much for certificates,” he says.
A CV without certificates
But how could an astronaut who isn’t actually an astronaut fly into space?
The government of Guatemala tried to make it possible: On 26 March, 2015, President Otto Pérez took advantage of a visit by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to request that Montoya be allowed to join Roscosmos’ cosmonaut training programme (Russian NASA) and compete for the third seat in the Soyuz spaceship. He would travel to the International Space Station and pave Guatemala’s way into space history. But Pérez Molina had unfortunately neglected to verify any of Montoya’s claims.
Guatemala’s ambassador to Russia, Estuardo Meneses, explains: “Montoya could prove that he had undergone some related trainings and even participated in a NASA training program, as we saw in photos that accompanied his CV.”
Meneses refers to a resume Montoya sent by email to Eduardo Hernández, Chief of Staff of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 9 March, 2015. Although Minex requested the documentation from Montoya, they never checked anything. “Verifying these things is a job for the space agencies. We are not in the business of monitoring astronautics or cosmonautics,” Hernández notes.
In other words: for the ministry and the president, Montoya’s faked CV qualifies him as an astronaut. But why would the government promote a candidate for space travel without making sure he has been trained accordingly?
Hernández from the Foreign Ministry issued this response: “Supporting a compatriot to reach space would open the door not only to other candidates from Guatemala but even from all of Central America, and it would enable us to implement programmes of cooperation that are currently not accessible. If we have the opportunity to put the Guatemalan flag in space, and if the only thing needed is a little push, then we’ll give it a little push.”