Ellen Ochoa


Ellen Ochoa

Born May 10, 1958, in Los Angeles, California, Ellen Ochoa, a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering, became the first female Hispanic astronaut in 1990. Dr. Ochoa is now Deputy Director of the Johnson Space Center.

“What everyone in the astronaut corps shares in common is not gender or ethnic background, but motivation, perseverance, and desire–the desire to participate in a voyage of discovery.”

Although she was born in Los Angeles, California, Ellen Ochoa has always regarded the suburban San Diego community of La Mesa as her hometown. She, her sister, and three brothers grew up in a single-parent household headed by her mother, Rosanne; her father left the family when Ellen was in junior high school.

I’ll be speaking with Ellen about her growing up years and important influences.

Rosanne Ochoa was a firm believer in the value of education and the idea that a person can succeed at anything if he or she tries hard enough. (She herself took college classes over more than two decades while raising her family and eventually earned three degrees.) Ellen was therefore encouraged to excel as far back as she can remember. She developed a love of math in particular and was an exceptionally good student, graduating from high school at the top of her class. In addition, Ellen was (and still is) very fond of music and earned recognition during her teen years as a classical flutist.

Ellen headed off to San Diego State University in 1975 and obtained her bachelor’s degree in physics (with top academic honors) in 1980. She then went on to graduate school at Stanford University to study electrical engineering and was granted her master’s degree in 1981 and her doctorate in 1985, all while performing as an award-winning soloist with the Stanford Symphony Orchestra.

We’ll be discussing how Ellen decided to major in physics and the beginnings of her career in the sciences.

Ellen subsequently began working as a researcher for Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and, later, for NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field Naval Air Station in Mountain View, California. In both positions, she specialized in studying and developing optical systems for performing information processing, especially regarding space exploration.

She is listed as co-inventor on three patents dating from this period of her career: one for an optical inspection system, a second for an optical object recognition method, and a third for a method to reduce noise in images. In her spare time, Ellen also took flying lessons and became a certified private pilot.

I’ll be asking Ellen what kinds of things she did in her early jobs and how she made the transition up the ranks.

Ellen first applied to become an astronaut in 1985, and in 1987 she learned she had been chosen as one of the top 100 candidates under consideration for the training program. She was still employed at the NASA Ames Research Center when it was announced in January 1990 that she and 22 other candidates had made the final cut (out of a group that originally numbered about 2,000).

Ellen, whose father’s parents were from Mexico, thus became the first Hispanic woman ever accepted into the elite astronaut corps.

I’ll be talking with Ellen about astronaut training and what were the surprising things for her about this process.

By the end of 1999, Ellen had logged nearly 720 hours in space. The veteran of three shuttle flights and countless hours of training compares the astronaut experience to the life of a student. “Being an astronaut allows you to learn continuously, like you do in school,” she remarked in an article published in the Stanford University School of Engineering Annual Report, 1997-98.

“One flight you’re working on atmospheric research. The next, it’s bone density studies or space station design.” But she readily admitted that other components of space flight such as the launch, weightlessness, and seeing the earth from afar have a strong appeal as well: “What engineer wouldn’t want those experiences?”

Between space shuttle flights, Ellen has held a variety of other technical support positions with NASA at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. She has, for example, verified flight software, served as crew representative for robotics, and worked at Mission Control as spacecraft communicator. As assistant for space station to chief of the Astronaut Office for two years, Ellen directed the crew involved in the international space station project, a high priority for NASA in 2000 and beyond.

Join us as we learn how Dr. Ochoa moved up through the ranks and arrived at her current position.

Ellen’s contributions to the space program have garnered her several awards, including two Space Act Tech Brief Awards in 1992, Space Flight Medals in 1993, 1994, and 1999, an Outstanding Leadership Medal in 1995, and an Exceptional Service Medal in 1997. A number of other honors have come her way as well, among them the Women in Aerospace Outstanding Achievement Award, the Hispanic Engineer Albert Baez Award for Outstanding Technical Contribution to Humanity, and the Hispanic Heritage Leadership Award. In addition, Ellen has served as a member of the Presidential Commission on the Celebration of Women in American History.

Ellen is frequently asked to speak to students and teachers about her career and the success she has enjoyed as NASA’s first Hispanic female astronaut. She regards this part of her job as an unexpected bonus and relishes the many chances she has had to inspire young people to study mathematics and science. “I never thought about this aspect of the job when I was applying, but it’s extremely rewarding,” she noted in the Stanford University School of Engineering Annual Report, 1997-98. “I’m not trying to make every kid an astronaut, but I want kids to think about a career and the preparation they’ll need.”

I’ll be discussing how Ellen balances her family life with work demands…

As a parent herself, and the daughter of a woman she has described as a “super-mentor,” Ellen is very much aware of her status as a role model, particularly among women and Hispanics. “I do as much speaking as I am allowed to do,” she explained to Lydia Martin of Knight-Ridder Newspapers. “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.”