by Logan Walker
From her seat in the machine perched in a corner of the universe rarely disturbed by any living being, Dr. Ellen Ochoa may well have let her mind wander back to the beginnings of a journey that had led her so high into the unexplored sky. The year was 1993 and this foray into the place where gravity thinned like tissue paper and the world was dark and silent was Ochoa’s maiden voyage into space as a member of the crew on the STS-56 mission aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery. Her participation in the 9-day mission distinguished the 34-year-old as the first Hispanic woman to make it into outer space, and her days ahead held even more records to be broken and awards to be received; but, on that day the little girl who had never so much as heard of a female astronaut looked down on Earth, the place where she was born and where she now hovered above, from millions of miles. The trajectory of her life had taken her far, far above the limits of her world’s atmosphere. It was a place she would return to again and again.
Born in California in 1958, Ochoa was the middle of five siblings born to Joe, a Navy serviceman and sometime retail manager and his wife, Rosanne, a homemaker. The son of Mexican immigrants, Joe experienced his share of racial discrimination growing up; the memory of a childhood spent swimming in public pools only on the days before they were set to be cleaned because of public fear that he would “dirty” the waters stuck keenly with him. Consequently, Ellen and her siblings were pushed to assimilate completely into American society, and were even discouraged from speaking Spanish. The fact that neither of their parents possessed a college degree seemed to bolster the Ochoa children’s desire to educate themselves (Ellen’s mother Rosanne, who began steps to earn a college degree after giving birth to several children, would finally earn one 22 years later).
Without any female role models to look to in space travel, Ellen nonetheless took an interest in the field, stating that, “I can't image not wanting to go into space. But I never considered being an astronaut as an option because when I was growing up there were no female astronauts. It wasn't until the first six female astronauts were selected in 1978 that women could even think of it as a possible career path.” An exemplary student who held a particular interest in science, she graduated top of her high school class and was offered a scholarship to Stanford University but chose to attend the much closer to home San Diego State University in order to assist her then divorced mother.
At San Diego State, Ochoa weighed her options in considering a major. An accomplished flutist, she considered studying music but also harbored an interest in business and engineering. Her ambition toward the latter, however, was discouraged when she was told that engineering was not a “woman’s field” so she majored in physics instead. Having earned her bachelor’s degree, Ellen was encouraged by her mother to attend graduate school. She soon received a fellowship from Stanford, which unlike her former college, laid no gendered distinctions on their fields of study. It was while earning her master’s degree and doctorate in electrical engineering that a landmark event occurred, the effects of which were reverberated through Ochoa’s own life; “When the first space shuttle took off in 1981, Sally Ride flew for the first time,” Ellen would note later. “Putting all that together with my interest in space is what led me to apply (to NASA).”
It wasn’t long before Ochoa was working as a research engineer at Sandia National Laboratories, investigating optical systems for information processing. Her ambitions to join NASA were realized in 1988 when she was hired as the Chief of Intelligent Systems Technology Branch at Ames Research Center, where her responsibilities included supervising 35 scientists and engineers as they researched and developed computational systems for aerospace missions. During this time Ellen applied three times to NASA’s notoriously selective astronaut program, and her efforts finally paid off in 1990, when she was chosen as a future space explorer and moved to Johnson Space Center. Among the factors that she has credited for her selection are her love of music, which she notes made her a well-rounded candidate, and the pilot’s license that she had earned at an earlier date.
After her first groundbreaking foray into space in 1993, during which she deployed and captured a research satellite used for solar study and conducted studies on Earth’s atmosphere, climate, and environment, she would go on to embark on three more missions, including STS-66, STS-96, and STS-110. STS-96 was the first Space Shuttle to dock with the space station (and then proceed to deliver supplies to the station via a robotic arm operated by Ellen). All in all, Ochoa has spent nearly 1000 hours in orbit. Remembering her last mission into space, she fondly recalls, “We had docked in the international space center. We were looking down at the Earth, and we were watching bright green auroras, and the sun came up and it illuminated the station instantaneously. It was just an amazing visual view. It was amazing to see what we were building in space, and we had an international crew…There were a lot of amazing thoughts associated with that moment.”
In 2013, Ochoa was appointed Director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, the second woman to ever hold the position. On her evolving career, Ochoa states, “Being an astronaut, and part of a team, is really rewarding, and now I have a different perspective. The end goal is still the same-carrying out exciting and challenging missions in space.”
In addition to her work with NASA, Ochoa is a co-inventor on three patents and author of various technical papers. She has received a series of awards including NASA's Exceptional Service Medal, Outstanding Leadership Medal, Space Flight Medals and the Presidential Distinguished Rank Award. She has also received the Harvard Foundation Science Award, Women in Aerospace Outstanding Achievement, The Hispanic Engineer Albert Baez Award for Outstanding Technical Contribution to Humanity, and is the first woman to receive the Engineer of the Year award by the Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Awards Conference. Ochoa is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, serves on several boards and chairs, and even has schools named after her!
Having embarked on a dazzling career in an organization that in earlier days would have barred her entry, Ochoa’s thoughts on the past, present, and future of women in NASA are optimistic; “I was fortunate that women had been members of the astronaut corps for a dozen years when I joined. The astronaut corps has been about 20% women during the time I’ve been at NASA- a higher percentage than women who choose engineering or piloting as their careers but nevertheless a percentage that will hopefully grow larger as more women choose science and engineering fields. In the last 20 years we’ve seen the first woman pilot and command a Space Shuttle, and the first woman command an International Space Station expedition. There’s no job in the astronaut corps that women haven’t done and continue to do.”
Dr. Ochoa, wife and mother of two, continues to play the flute, enjoys flying, outdoor activities and spending time with her family. She also spends time mentoring children just as her own mother did for her. In fact, Ochoa cites her mother as the biggest influence in her life. Rosanne Ochoa began college when her daughter was just a year old, taking one class a time while struggling to raising five children as a divorced parent. It took 22 years but Rosanne earned her degree expressing that during the long educational experience, she had always remained focused on the learning. That stayed with her daughter Ellen through her studies and beyond.
These days, Ellen Ochoa hopes to inspire and encourage children in much the same way. She emphasizes the value of hard work, determination and perseverance and encourages them to get a good education and keep focused on pursuing their goals. She says, "I tell students that the opportunities I had were a result of having a good educational background. Education is what allows you to stand out."