engineer, astronaut, former director of NASA Johnson Space Center.
"NERD AT GRADUATION, STAR AT REUNION!"
Ellen Ochoa, a former astronaut and research engineer, was the 11th director of NASA's Johnson Space Center. She is the first Hispanic women to go to space and is also the first Hispanic and second woman director of JSC. She has been honored by NASA's highest award, the Distinguished Service Medal, as well as the Presidential Distinguished Rank Award.
What are your favorite hobbies and things to do in your free time?
I play the flute and now I have the time to really practice and to take lessons again. My husband and I also enjoy hiking, walking vacations, and attending performing arts.
To whom or to what do you dedicate your successes to?
My mother had the biggest impact on me. She loved to learn and inspired all of her kids to focus on education.
WHAT IS THE MOST ENJOYABLE PART OF YOUR JOB?
Accomplishing successful missions in space! We’ve currently had astronauts living onboard the ISS for almost 18 years – so high school seniors have never known a single minute when astronauts weren’t in space. We’ve also had a successful test flight of Orion, and are working towards the first flights with crew of Orion, the Boeing Starliner, and SpaceX Crew Dragon.
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO BECOME AN ASTRONAUT?
The Space Shuttle flew for the first time during my first year in graduate school. Over the next few years, it demonstrated so many different capabilities including ones that advanced science and technology research and development, which matched my interests in engineering research. NASA also flew the first female and minority astronauts, which definitely made an impact on me. Sally Ride had studied physics, like me, and had also gone to Stanford, where I was currently a student, so her flight made becoming an astronaut at least a possibility even though it still seemed quite improbable!
WHAT HAS BEEN THE BIGGEST HONOR OF YOUR CAREER?
Having 6 schools named after me!
WHAT IS SOMETHING THAT IS STILL CHALLENGING TO YOU ABOUT YOUR CAREER?
I enjoy continuing to learn and working with a team to achieve a goal.
START OF HER CAREER
"I applied to NASA for the astronaut job as soon as I got my Ph.D., but I didn’t really expect to hear from them. So I pursued a career as a research engineer, first at Sandia National Labs, and then at NASA Ames Research Center. It was when I was at Ames that I was selected to be an astronaut."
What has been the toughest moment in your career and/or life, and how did you overcome it?
Losing Columbia and her crew was definitely the toughest period. As a human space flight team, we felt responsible – but also very committed to understanding what happened, making changes to address the risk, and get back to flying people in space again. It took awhile to work through all of that, and get the team to agree on what changes needed to be made, but we succeeded because we had a common goal and the talent to make it happen.
What has been the most memorable part of being an astronaut and working at NASA?
It’s hard to pick just one or two! Of course, my space flights were all amazing. Two of them focused on atmospheric chemistry and physics, studying the issue of ozone depletion and the ozone hole. The other two were part of assembling the ISS, including the first shuttle flight to dock with ISS, and adding the first piece of the truss structure. I also got to work with the Russians on determining how we were going to train for and operate ISS as well as select multinational crews, and I led the astronauts working in Mission Control as we transitioned from only short-duration shuttle flights to 24/7 operations in support of ISS. After moving into management roles, I supported the return to flight efforts after Columbia, completion of ISS and shuttle retirement, the development of Orion, a spacecraft for beyond low earth orbit, and both the Commercial Cargo and Commercial Crew programs to first develop and then procure services from U.S. companies to support ISS. In the end, what is most memorable is the people I got to know and work with – so talented, dedicated, and just plain fun to work closely with.
Where do you see yourself in 15 years? The world in relation to gender equality and promoting women in the workplace in 15 years?
I hope to be doing about what I’m doing now, which is applying my technology, operations and leadership skills in different ways, such as on both government/non-profit and corporate boards, and in speaking opportunities. I’ve seen a lot of change in opportunities for women and recognition of their abilities during my career, but there’s still a long way to go overall in the country, and I plan to continue to be a voice for respecting and valuing all people, and especially women and minorities in STEM fields.
HER ADVICE FOR YOU
IF YOU COULD GO BACK AND DO ANYTHING DIFFERENTLY WITH YOUR LIFE, WHAT WOULD YOU DO?
I would have taken more science in high school. I really didn’t think I was interested in science, so it wasn’t until I was halfway through my undergraduate years that I ended up changing my major to Physics. Fortunately, I had taken a lot of math, so that helped me do well!
WHAT IS A QUOTE THAT MOTIVATES YOU THE MOST THAT YOU WOULD LIKE TO PASS ON?
“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader” - John Quincy Adams
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR GIRLS WHO ASPIRE TO BECOME ASTRONAUTS AND ENGINEERS?
believe in your value,
learn from others,