Dr. Ellen Ochoa was the first Hispanic woman in space.
Born in 1958 and raised in La Mesa, Calif., Ochoa learned the value of education from her mother. After her father left when she was a child, Ochoa watched her mother struggle to complete a college degree while raising five kids. Ochoa and her siblings were high achievers in the La Mesa public school system, and Ellen was valedictorian of her graduating class in 1975.
Like many of us, Ochoa didn’t know what she wanted to do yet. She enjoyed playing the flute and considered a career in music. She never dreamed, however, she would be an astronaut.
Ochoa ended up completing her Bachelor’s degree in Physics at San Diego State University in 1980, and enrolled in graduate school at Stanford.
She completed her Master of Science degree in 1981 and her Doctorate in Electrical Engineering in 1985. Ochoa’s doctoral research focused on optical systems for information processes.
But something special happened while Dr. Ochoa completed her degree. In 1983, Sally Ride became the first woman in space. This sparked a new passion for Ochoa, and she applied to NASA’s highly competitive astronaut program.
She applied three times before being accepted, and worked at Sandia National Laboratories and the NASA Ames Research Center.
In the meantime, Ochoa became a co-inventor on three patents related to optical information processing and published numerous technical papers on the subject. She also got her private pilot’s license.
Finally, in January 1990, Ochoa was accepted into the astronaut program. Aboard the space shuttle Discovery in April 1993, Ochoa became the first Hispanic woman in space.
The nine-day mission (STS-56) was sent to study the effect of solar activity on the Earth’s climate and environment. Ochoa served as a mission specialist, and used the robotic arm to deploy and capture the SPARTAN-201 satellite, which studied the solar corona.
After this first successful mission, Ochoa went on to serve as the Payload Commander aboard the space shuttle Atlantis in 1994 (STS-66), a 10-day mission to further study the Sun’s energy output and the Earth’s atmosphere.
She also served as the flight engineer and mission specialist in the 1999 (STS-96) and 2002 (STS-110) missions to the International Space Station. She logged nearly 1,000 hours in space between her four missions.
Ochoa has earned many awards and honors, including NASA’s highest award, the Distinguished Service Medal. She has also received the Presidential Distinguished Rank Award, the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal, and the Women in Aerospace Outstanding Achievement Award.
Ochoa won the 1995 Hispanic Heritage Leadership Award, and was the Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Awards Corporation Engineer of the Year in 2008. She has six schools named after her.
Ochoa was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame in May 2017.
Today, Ochoa serves as the 11th Director of the Johnson Space Center. She is the first Hispanic director, and the second female. She’s also a wife and mother of two sons.
Ochoa continues to encourage students to push for their dreams. “Don’t be afraid to reach for the stars,” she says. “I believe a good education can take you anywhere on Earth and beyond.”
Are you interested in empowering women in the STEM fields? The Women in Science (Wi-Sci) group wants you! Meetings every Friday in the Women’s Center, 12:30 p.m.