Ellen Ochoa is an inventor, a NASA leader and a classical flutist. But she’s best known as a boundary breaker: She was the first Hispanic woman in space, and the first Hispanic person to lead the Johnson Space Center, NASA’s hub for human spaceflight activity.
Preparing to Launch
Born and raised in California, Ochoa was a talented flutist who thought about pursuing a music degree when she was in high school. But her friends from her calculus class were all going into science and engineering fields, and that helped nudge her toward physics, according to the American Physical Society. She earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from San Diego State University, then she earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford University. She developed a keen interest in optics, the behavior and characteristics of light.
As a research engineer, first at Sandia National Laboratories and then at NASA’s Ames Research Center, she helped develop optical systems for information processing. During her research days, NASA says, she wrote several technical papers and co-invented three patents: one for an optical inspection system, one for an optical object recognition method, and one for a method for noise removal in images.
A Career in Orbit
Ochoa joined NASA in 1988 and was selected as an astronaut in 1990. She became the first Hispanic woman in space in 1993 when she served on a nine-day mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery. She brought her flute along and played it in space. (She was the first person to play a musical instrument in low-Earth orbit, too.)
Ochoa flew into space three more times: Her first two missions studied the Earth’s atmosphere and ozone depletion; on her third and fourth missions, she helped build the International Space Station. Across her four spaceflights, Ochoa logged more than 1,000 hours in space.
“I felt like I was contributing to something larger than myself, that benefits people on Earth, and I was willing to take the risk,” she told the Harvard Gazette.
After her astronaut career ended, she went to work for the Johnson Space Center, first as a deputy director and then as the center’s 11th director. She was the first Hispanic person and the second woman to hold the position. During her tenure as director, from 2013 to 2018, she oversaw crucial research and exploration projects, such as the first Orion flight test and the selection of four astronauts for Commercial Crew training.
What Ochoa Means to Women of Color in STEM
“I know that role models make a difference, and I take seriously that part of my career and life,” Ochoa told the National Women’s History Museum. “For young Hispanic women, there are few well-known women in STEM fields so it’s even more important to let them know about the interesting and rewarding careers that they can pursue.”
Ellen Ochoa is a pioneer for women of color in STEM. Though there are more women in STEM than ever, they’re still underrepresented in physics and engineering — women of color especially so. Ochoa didn’t have many role models when she entered NASA’s program out of graduate school, but she’s helped open the door for more diverse candidates in the program.
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