As a young girl, Dr. Ellen Ochoa (1958- ) was fascinated by the Apollo astronauts as they launched to the moon. But she could only dream about traveling beyond the earth since women weren’t selected to go into space at that time. Undeterred, Ellen focused her studies on physics and engineering, excelling at both. So when NASA eventually opened its astronaut class to women in 1978, Ellen’s goal went from dream to possibility.
Dr. Ochoa joined NASA in 1988 as a research engineer at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California after earning a doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford University. Two year later, in January of 1990, she was selected by NASA as an astronaut candidate. Ellen then made space history in July 1991, when she became the first Hispanic woman astronaut and subsequently, the first Hispanic woman to travel into space.
In a July 2011 interview for NPR’s Tell Me More series, Ellen, who is of Mexican descent, talked about her ground-breaking achievement. “It wasn’t something I was thinking about, you know being a first or anything when I applied… but, certainly shortly after I was selected, I realized that there was a whole dimension to that, that I hadn’t thought about, and that was the opportunity to talk about exploration and science and engineering and education to a whole group. And there were so many Hispanic-Americans who were excited about that.”
Ellen’s first venture into space was in April 1993 during a nine day science mission aboard the Shuttle Discovery. When she was not busy using a suite of complex instruments to better understand the impact of the sun’s cycle on Earth, Ellen, a classical flutist, found time to play her beloved instrument, which she brought with her. “In the near weightless environment, the flute practically held itself aloft,” according to NASA. But, because the Shuttle cabin is pressurized, the flute, in Ellen’s expert hands played exactly the same in space as it did on Earth.
As a mission specialist and flight engineer, Ellen Ochoa logged nearly 1,000 hours in space during her four space shuttle missions between 1993 and 2002 – two atmospheric research flights and two missions to the International Space Station.
Following her missions to space, in December 2002 Ellen became Deputy Director of Flight Crew Operations at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas – home to NASA’s Mission Control Center – and then Director of Flight Crew Operations in September 2006. She was appointed Deputy Director of Johnson Space Center in September 2007. Dr. Ochoa is now the Director of Johnson Space Center. She is Johnson’s first Hispanic director and only its second female director.
In addition to having six schools named for her, Dr. Ellen Ochoa is the recipient of numerous honors. Those from NASA include the Distinguished Service Medal, Exceptional Service Medal, Outstanding Leadership Medal, and four Space Flight Medals. Her other awards include the Harvard Foundation Science Award, Women in Aerospace Outstanding Achievement Award, HENAAC (Hispanic Engineer National Acheivement Awards) Engineer of the Year (she’s the first woman to receive this), the Hispanic Heritage Leadership Award, the California Hall of Fame and San Diego State University Alumna of the Year. Dr. Ochoa is also the co-inventor on three patents.
In May 2017, 48 years after watching her hero Neil Armstrong take his first steps on the moon, Dr. Ochoa was inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, honored for her own pioneering career with NASA as a research engineer, astronaut, and director.