Born: April 10, 1958 in Los Angeles, California
"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."
Born May 10, 1958, in Los Angeles, California, Ellen Ochoa became the first female Hispanic astronaut in 1990.
Ellen Ochoa first dreamed of taking part in a space flight during her graduate-school days, when several of her fellow students applied to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) astronaut training program. While they did not make the final cut, she persevered throughout the lengthy and difficult selection process and finally achieved her goal in 1990, making her the first female Hispanic astronaut in NASA history. Since then, Ochoa has spent hundreds of hours in space as a member of three different shuttle crews performing vital research and taking part in historic firsts. Such high-profile success has made her a role model for students across the nation, an assignment Ochoa has accepted with pride and enthusiasm.
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. 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.) Ochoa 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, Ochoa was (and still is) very fond of music and earned recognition during her teen years as a classical flutist.
Ochoa 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.
Ochoa 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, Ochoa also took flying lessons and became a certified private pilot.
Ochoa 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). Ochoa, whose father's parents were from Mexico, thus became the first Hispanic woman ever accepted into the elite astronaut corps.
Ochoa's training began in late 1990 at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. The program is physically and mentally demanding, encompassing academic subjects such as geology, oceanography, meteorology, astronomy, orbital mechanics, and medicine as well as land and water survival techniques and even parachuting. Each astronaut also devotes a significant percentage of his or her time to learning about the space shuttle itself, inside and out. Ochoa passed the rigorous course and officially became an astronaut in July 1991.
Ochoa participated in her first space shuttle mission aboard the Discovery in April 1993. During the nine-day flight, the five-person crew studied various atmospheric and solar phenomena to gain a better understanding of the earth's climate and environment, paying particular attention to the impact of certain factors on the ozone layer. As a mission specialist, Ochoa operated a remote robotic arm to deploy and then capture a satellite that had collected data on the velocity and acceleration of solar wind and the sun's corona. Observing the beauty of the universe from the shuttle's windows was an awe-inspiring experience, she later recalled. "I never got tired of watching the Earth, day or night, as we passed over it," she told a reporter for Latina. "Even though we brought back some pretty incredible pictures, they don't quite compare with being there."
In November 1994, Ochoa flew a second time in space, this time aboard the space shuttle Atlantis on a ten-day mission with a total crew of six, including a French representative of the European Space Agency. The sun was again the focus of attention as mission specialists gathered data on fluctuations in its energy output and the impact such variations have on the earth and ozone levels in the atmosphere. In her role as payload commander, Ochoa once again used the remote robotic arm to retrieve a satellite that had performed atmospheric research.
Her next space shuttle flight began on May 27, 1999, and culminated on June 6 of that same year. During her stay aboard the Discovery, whose seven-person crew included representatives from the Canadian Space Agency and the Russian Space Agency, Ochoa served as both a mission specialist and flight engineer. May 29 was a particularly momentous day during the journey in that it marked the first time the shuttle docked with the International Space Station. Ochoa's responsibilities included coordinating the transfer of nearly two tons of supplies such as clothing, sleeping bags, medical equipment, spare parts, and water from one craft to the other to prepare for the arrival in 2000 of the first crew to live on board the space station. She also operated the remote robotic arm during a lengthy space walk by two of her fellow astronauts.
By the end of 1999, Ochoa 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, Ochoa 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, Ochoa directed the crew involved in the international space station project, a high priority for NASA in 2000 and beyond.
Ochoa'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, Ochoa has served as a member of the Presidential Commission on the Celebration of Women in American History.
Ochoa 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." As a parent herself (she and her husband, Coe Fulmer Miles, have a young son) and the daughter of a woman she has described as a "super-mentor," Ochoa 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."
Addresses: Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, Mail Code CB, 2101 NASA Road 1, Houston, TX 77058-3696.
Contemporary Heroes and Heroines, Book IV. Gale, 2000. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale. 2007.