By Christine Bolaños.
Veteran NASA astronaut Dr. Ellen Ochoa, has flown in space four times, including STS-66, STS-96 and STS-110, logging nearly 1,000 hours in orbit. The first Latina astronaut to go to space in 1993, Dr. Ochoa is the first Hispanic woman to go to space and first Hispanic director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas.
Breaking barriers for countless women in NASA and other STEM-related fields, Dr. Ochoa joined NASA in 1988 as a research engineer at Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, California. She moved to JSC in 1990 when she was selected as an astronaut candidate. After completing astronaut training, she served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, conducting atmospheric studies to better understand the effect of solar activity on the Earth’s climate and environment.
“Everybody who grew up when I did was following up with the Apollo program,” she shares. In the late 1960s there were no women astronauts and only a few select women worked in the space flight program.
“No one would ever think to ask a girl at the time, ‘Do you want to grow up and be an astronaut?'”
Ochoa looked up at the stars at night and wondered about the endless possibilities after humans stepped foot on the Moon for the first time. But, she humbly insists, everyone was fascinated with the mysteries of the universe at the time.
At home in the southern California town of La Mesa, Ochoa had three brothers and one sister to keep her company. Her father was a Sears manager and her mother was passionate about learning and education.
“It rubbed off on all my siblings,” shares the daughter of a first-generation Mexican American father. “All but one of us had advanced degrees.”
A classical flutist, Ochoa pictured a future as a professional musician but her aptitude in math pushed her toward science. A physics teacher noticed her promise while she was taking a course to fulfill her college science requirements. After learning about her options Ochoa decided to major in physics.
There were only a few women, and even fewer Latinas, studying physics at San Diego State University. Ochoa also stood out when pursuing her master’s degree and doctorate in electrical engineering at Stanford University.
“I was in Stanford for five years and I never had a woman professor,” Ochoa recalls. “In fact, I think there were like 50 professors in the electrical engineering program but there was only one woman professor and I never met her.”
Instead of allowing her difference to set her back she used it to fuel her hunger for success. Time and again, Ochoa earned the top grade in her physics class, earning respect from her peers.
That tenacity continued when she became a researcher at Sandia National Laboratories and NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley where she co-invented three patents related to optical systems.
During her visit to the Smithsonian in 1996 she explained to children how her patents are used for processing images and finding a specific object within an image.
“You might use that on a manufacturing line if you’re trying to inspect equipment and if you’re looking for defects,” she said at the time per SmithsonianEducation.org. “Or you might use it on an autonomous lander to Mars when you’re trying to land around a particular spot and you’re using a video camera to look at it.”
Despite initial rejection, Ochoa was selected by NASA in January 1990 and became an astronaut in July 1991, joining the ranks of Sally Ride, the first American woman to go to space.
“January of 1990 is really when everything changed,” Ochoa remembers. The class of 20 arrived at the Johnson Space Center that summer and spent an entire year training to become astronau ts.
Her excitement is palpable as she recalls that moment in time. She describes it as “thrilling” and unlike anything else she has experienced.
“It’s very hard to get selected,” Ochoa explains. “You get the chance to go off in this incredible career and the position you’re in doesn’t compare to anything else.”
There were challenging times and many operational aspects to understand but Ochoa says the trainers wanted the class to succeed.
“It was like being in school again,” she shares. “There were things to learn and things to memorize and you had to be disciplined.”
Ochoa was used to discipline. She was at her best when she was challenged.
According to her official NASA biography, she went on to log more than 978 hours in space as mission specialist on STS-56 in 1993, Payload Commander on STS-66 in 1994, mission specialist and flight engineer on STS-96 in 1999 and on STS-110 in 2002.
Her missions served to better understand the effect of solar activity on Earth’s climate and environment. During her first mission, Ochoa used the Remote Manipulator System, or RMS, robotic arm to deploy and capture the Spartan satellite, which was used to study the sun’s outer atmosphere.
On her second mission, she used the RMS to retrieve the atmospheric research satellite once the free flight ended.
On her third mission, Ochoa coordinated transfer of supplies and operated the RMS during an 8-hour spacewalk. The crew made necessary preparations for the first crew to live on the station.
Her final space shuttle mission was in April 2012 where Ochoa played a central role in installing the S-Zero Truss and moving crewmembers during three of the four spacewalks.
“It was fantastic,” Ochoa says of her space flight experiences. “I got to take part in scientific research and be part of the International Space Station, which is a much larger team and includes people on the ground, making sure the space shuttle is ready and offering support during the mission.”
She says her space flights were critical to studying earth’s atmospheres and educating the public about why continuing space exploration is essential.
Ochoa served as deputy director at JSC before being named director in 2013 and leading 13,000 employees. Per NASA’s website, “as the nucleus of the nation’s astronaut corps and home to International Space Station mission operations, the Orion crew and a host of future space developments, the center plays a pivotal role in human science exploration and enhancing technological and scientific knowledge to benefit all human kind.”
She describes her role as one of the greatest things and one that allows her a “bird’s eye view” of all the innovation taking place at NASA.
Per its website, NASA wants to send humans to Mars in the 2030s, a journey made more likely by radiation data gathered by Curiosity Rover to help keep astronauts safe and the upcoming Mars 2020 rover, which will study availability of Martian resources, including oxygen.
In April, NASA announced findings from two prior missions provided new details about “icy, ocean-bearing moons” of Jupiter and Saturn — the closest NASA has come to identifying “ingredients needed for a habitable environment.”
Her career-long work earned her the Distinguished Service Medal, NASA’s highest award, and the Presidential Distinguished Rank Award for senior executives in federal government. Of her many accolades, she is especially honored to have five schools named after her, including three in her home state of California.
On May 19, she accepted her latest honor as she was inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame.
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