Ellen Ochoa: First Latina Astronaut, Inventor and Now Director of “Mission Control”

Ellen Ochoa
Photograph by Bill Stafford

Ellen Ochoa (1958-   ) is a veteran astronaut who was chosen for four space flights and has almost one thousand flight hours to her credit.  She was the first Latina to be chosen as an astronaut, and she is now director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, the second woman to hold the title and the first Latina.  She also holds three patents on optical systems that can applied in multiple uses, including space.

The space program in its infancy during Ochoa’s childhood, so she did not grow up dreaming of becoming an astronaut. Even when the United States began sending men into space (the first manned spaceflight was 1961), the program clearly involved no women.

Sally Ride’s first flight was in 1983 and this opened a window for many women, but the NASA Training Program has always been highly competitive.  Dr. Ochoa applied three times before she was accepted in 1990.

Ellen Ochoa’s Background

Ellen Ochoa was born in 1958 and grew up in La Mesa, California, the middle child of five. Neither parent had college degrees, so the Ochoa children’s initial focus was on gaining an education.

Her father served in the Navy and later managed a retail store. He grew up in New Mexico, the youngest of 12 children born to parents Ellen Ochoawho had emigrated from Mexico.  He and his siblings often faced discrimination, and this affected him strongly. (One example involved the public pool. The Hispanics could only swim on the day before it was to be cleaned; the community felt they would make the water dirty.)  As a result, her father wanted his children to assimilate and insisted they not speak Spanish.

Her mother valued family and education. She had no college degree but when Ellen was a baby, her mother began taking college colleges–one at a time.  It took her 22 years but she achieved her goal and received a college degree.  With their mother as a role model, all of the Ochoa children pursued their education.

After graduating at the top of her high school class, Ochoa was offered a scholarship to Stanford, but she opted to stay nearby to help her mother. (Her mother and father divorced while she was growing up.)

Nose of Discovery
Nose of Discovery

Ochoa attended San Diego State University where she sampled many classes in selecting her major course of study.  She was a gifted musician (flute player) and considered majoring in music, but ultimately decided to major in physics after she had been discouraged from engineering, which she had been told was “not a woman’s field.”

When she graduated, Ochoa contemplated a career in music or in science; her mother recommended graduate school.  This time she was able to pursue her preferred subject as she received an engineering fellowship to Stanford.

Specializing in Optical Aspects of Engineering

At Stanford she became fascinated by the field of optics, and between her work at Stanford, and later her employment at Sandia National Laboratory (Livermore, California) and  NASA’s Ames Research Center (Mountain View, California), she eventually became the owner of three shared patents.

Dr. Ochoa investigated optical systems for performing information processing. Simply put, her work involved helping computers to “see.” One of the patented inventions is an optical inspection system, another is an optical object recognition method, and a third is a tool for “noise removal” in images.

On the Smithsonian education website, Dr. Ochoa provides a very understandable explanation of her work. She describes her patents asinvolving ways for a computer to find a particular object within an image.  This system could be used in manufacturing such as inspecting for flaws, or it might be used on a space vehicle such as the rover that is currently at work on Mars. In the case of space flight, the goal is for the computer to be able to locate and land the vehicle at a particular spot.

Applying to the NASA Training Program

In 1985 Dr. Ochoa applied for the NASA Training Program but she was rejected. She continued her work in optics at Sandia and Ochoa flight suitdecided to get a pilot’s license as that might be helpful to her.

In 1987 she applied again. She was again turned down, but she learned she was among the top 100 of the thousands who had applied.  Her third application in 1990 was accepted. She finished training in 1991, which made her one of 110 astronauts eligible for flight.

Ochoa did not have to wait long.  She was soon selected for a mission on Discovery, a flight that took place in April of 1993.  The purpose of the mission was to conduct atmospheric and solar studies in order to better understand the effect of solar activity on the Earth’s climate and environment. Dr. Ochoa was placed in charge of the Remote Manipulator System (the robot arm). One of her assignments on that flight was to launch and retrieve a satellite. The Spartan satellite was successfully launched into orbit for 2 days before being retrieved by the robotic arm.

In November of 1994 she was payload commander to the Atlantis where studies were continued on the energy of the sun. Her third flight was in 1999 on board the Discovery; a primary mission of the trip was taking supplies to the International Space Station.  Her fourth and final flight was again to the International Space Station in 2002 where she was again responsible for manipulating the robotic arm.

Now Director of “Mission Control”

Even after she quit flying, she remained with NASA. In 2008 she became deputy director at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, often called “Mission Control.”  In 2013 Dr. Ochoa took the helm and became director of the entire Space Center, a position she continues to hold.

Ellen Ochoa has received a very long list of honors and has had at least four schools named after her.

Ochoa’s Personal Life

In 1990, Ellen Ochoa met a NASA employee who was to become her husband.  Together they have two sons.

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