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Ochoa, Ellen: 1958—: Astronaut

Ellen Ochoa: 1958: Astronaut

Ellen Ochoa became the first Latina in space in 1993 when she served as the sole female crew member of Discovery space shuttle. By 1999, with three missions behind her, Ochoa had logged 720 hours of space time. An accomplished engineer and scientist who has served at Mission Control for other shuttle flights, the native Californian also likes to speak to school groups and young audiences about her work at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Ochoa stresses that staying in school gives one many more career options, and though she herself had never considered becoming an astronaut as youngster, her educational background made it possible. "Getting to be an astronaut is tough for anybody," no matter what their background, she told Lydia Martin in a Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service article. "[I]t's just a matter of working hard to have a very good education."

Twice Valedictorian

Ochoa was born 1958 in Los Angeles, but grew up in the San Diego area. Her Mexican heritage came to her through her father, but her parents had divorced by the time she was in her teens. Ochoa's mother struggled to raise five children as a single parent, but found time to take college courses in her spare timesetting an important example for Ochoa, her three brothers, and sister. All were achievers and award-winners in the La Mesa public schools, and Ochoa was valedictorian of her 1975 graduating class at Grossmont High. Offered a four-year scholarship to Stanford University in Palo Alto, near San Francisco, Ochoa chose to study at San Diego State University so that she could be near her two younger brothers, still in high school at the time.

Early on, Ochoa considered a career in journalism. She took writing, business, and computer science courses before settling on physics as her major. When she graduated in 1980, she was once again the valedictorian of her class. From there Ochoa entered Stanford University, where she earned both a master's degree in electrical engineering and a doctorate by 1985. While at Stanford, Ochoa met graduate students who were interested in NASA's astronaut training program, and realized that she might qualify for it as well. The candidates' program had only began accepting women in 1978, and the first Latino astronaut, Rodolfo Neri, flew his first space shuttle flight in 1985. Ochoa applied to the program that same year.

After finishing her doctorate, Ochoa began her career as a research engineer at Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore, California. She found her niche in the Imaging Technology Branch and, with others, worked on optical inspection systems and other new technologies. In time she would share three patents for her research work. Meanwhile, Ochoa leaned she had become one of a hundred finalists for the NASA training program. The following year, in 1988, she was hired at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as chief of the Intelligent Systems Technology Branch at its Ames Research Center. Here Ochoa worked on computational systems for aerospace missions.

At a Glance . . .

Born May 10, 1958 in Los Angeles, CA; daughter of Joseph and Rosanne (Deardoff) Ochoa; married Coe Fulmer Miles; two children. Education: San Diego State University, B.S., 1980; Stanford University, M.S.E.E., 1981, Ph.D.E.E., 1985.

Career: Sandia National Laboratories, Livermore, CA, research engineer in Imaging Technology Branch, 1985-88; National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)/Ames Research Center, Moffet Field Naval Air Station, Mountain View, CA, 1988-91; astronaut, NASA, Houston, TX, 1991-. Also member of the Presidential Commission on the Celebration of Women in American History.

Memberships: Optical Society of America; American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics; Phi Beta Kappa.

Awards: Women in Aerospace Outstanding Achievement Award; Hispanic Engineer Albert Baez Award for Outstanding Technical Contribution to Humanity, 1989; National Hispanic Quincentennial Commission, pride award, 1990; Hispanic Heritage Leadership Award; San Diego State University Alumna of the Year; Ochoa has also earned the following awards from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA): Space Act Tech Brief Awards, 1992; Space Flight Medal, 1993, 1994, 1999; Outstanding Leadership Medal, 1995; Exceptional Service Medal, 1997.

Addresses: Office National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, Houston, TX 77058.

Ochoa won a highly coveted place in the astronaut training program in January of 1990. Over the next year, she underwent a series of physical and mental challenges. The trainees had to undergo rigorous courses and testing in the space sciences, astronomy, geology, oceanography, meteorology, first aid, survival techniques, and the complex systems of space shuttle design. They were expected to know every part of the shuttle and each part's function. In an interview with her Stanford Department of Engineering Alumni Report, Ochoa said that her diversified background helped. "If you are motivated to excel in one area, you are usually motivated to excel in others. NASA looks for that."

Loved the View

Ochoa began as a flight software specialist in robotics development, testing, and training in 1991, and was surprised when she was chosen for her first mission, scheduled for April of 1993. "Usually it takes quite a bit longer; I got lucky," Ochoa told Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service journalist Martin a few months later. She was part of a five-member crew aboard the space shuttle Discovery, serving as a specialist the second ATLAS (Atmospheric Laboratory for Applications and Science) mission. Ochoa and hew crewmates conducted research on solar activity, and she used a Remote Manipulator System (RMS), a 50-foot robotic arm, to deploy and capture the Spartan satellite that retrieved data about the solar corona and solar winds. She recalled in the interview with Martin that she never tired of the view. "The most exciting thing was looking out at Earth from up there. It was beautiful."

Ochoa also took part in a November 1994 mission aboard the space shuttle Atlantis serving as payload commander for another data-collecting mission on solar energy. Her next flight was again on the Discovery, a ten-day space journey in the spring of 1999 for which she served as mission specialist and flight engineer. The Discovery mission was the first shuttle flight to dock to the International Space Station, which was expecting a resident permanent crew the following year. Ochoa and her team delivered several hundred pounds of supplies, again with the help of the RMS device. "There's no weight in space, so that's not the problem," Contra Costa Times reporter Elizabeth Zach quoted Ochoa as saying about this particular task. "What is a problem, though, is the mass. It's just so awkward." Ochoa was also scheduled for duty as a Mission Specialist on a planned Atlantis flight in April of 2002, which would be the thirteenth mission to the International Space Station.

Ochoa likens being an astronaut to being in school again, describing it as a constant learning process. Back at NASA, she has also served as spacecraft communicator at Mission Control for other shuttle flights, and as assistant for the space station to Chief of the Astronaut Office. Married with two children, she flies her own single-engine plane for recreation, and still plays the flute, as she did in high school. Her status as America's first Latina astronaut has made her the recipient of many awards. She enjoys speaking to groups of students, and does not hesitate to encourage young women to explore science as a career. She has delivered more than 150 such talks, and as she told the Stanford University School of Engineering Annual Report, "I never thought about this aspect of the job when I was applying, but it's extremely rewarding. 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."



Contemporary Heroes and Heroines, Book IV, Gale, 2000.

Dictionary of Hispanic Biography, Gale, 1996.

Notable Hispanic American Women, Book 1, Gale, 1993.


Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, CA), October 14, 1999.

Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, December 1, 1993.


Astronaut Ellen Ochoa,

"Crew Interview: Ochoa,"

Stanford University School of Engineering Annual Report, 1997-98, (February 23, 2002).

Impacto, Influencia, Cambio,

Carol Brennan

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Ellen Ochoa

Ellen Ochoa

A specialist in optics and optical recognition in robotics, Ellen Ochoa (born 1958) is noted both for her distinguished work in inventions and patents and for her role in American space exploration.

Among Ellen Ochoa's optical systems innovations are a device that detects flaws and image recognition apparatus. In the late 1980s she began working with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as an optical specialist. After leading a project team, Ochoa was selected for NASA's space flight program. She made her first flight on the space shuttle Discovery in April 1993, becoming the first Hispanic woman astronaut.

The third of five children of Rosanne (Deardorff) and Joseph Ochoa, she was born May 10, 1958, in Los Angeles, California. She grew up in La Mesa, California; her father was a manager of a retail store and her mother a homemaker. Ochoa attended Grossmont High School in La Mesa and then studied physics at San Diego State University. She completed her bachelor's degree in 1980 and was named valedictorian of her graduating class; she then moved to the department of electrical engineering at Stanford University. She received her master's degree in 1981 and her doctorate in 1985, working with Joseph W. Goodman and Lambertus Hesselink . The topic of her dissertation was real-time intensity inversion using four-wave mixing in photorefractive crystals. While completing her doctoral research she developed and patented a real-time optical inspection technique for defect detection. In an interview with Marianne Fedunkiw, Ochoa said that she considers this her most important scientific achievement so far.

In 1985 she joined Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore, California, where she became a member of the technical staff in the Imaging Technology Division. Her research centered on developing optical filters for noise removal and optical methods for distortion-invariant object recognition. She was coauthor of two more patents based on her work at Sandia, one for an optical system for nonlinear median filtering of images and another for a distortion-invariant optical pattern recognition system.

It was during her graduate studies that Ochoa began considering a career as an astronaut. She told Fedunkiw that friends were applying who encouraged her to join them; ironically, she was the only one from her group of friends to make it into space. Her career at NASA began in 1988 as a group leader in the Photonic Processing group of the Intelligent Systems Technology Branch, located at the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. She worked as the technical lead for a group of eight people researching optical-image and data-processing techniques for space-based robotics. Six months later she moved on to become chief of the Intelligent Systems Technology Branch. Then in January 1990 she was chosen for the astronaut class, becoming an astronaut in July of 1991.

Her first flight began April 8, 1993, on the orbiter Discovery. She was mission specialist on the STS-56 Atmospheric Research flight, which was carrying the Atmospheric Laboratory for Applications and Science, known as Atlas-2. She was responsible for their primary payload, the Spartan 201 Satellite, and she operated the robotic arm to deploy and retrieve it. This satellite made forty-eight hours of independent solar observations to measure solar output and determine how the solar wind is produced. Ochoa was the lone female member of the five-person team which made 148 orbits of the earth.

Ochoa's technical assignments have also included flight-software verification in the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory (SAIL), where she was crew representative for robotics development, testing and training, as well as crew representative for flight-software and computer-hardware development. Ochoa was on the STS-66 Atmospheric Laboratory for Applications and Science-3 (ATLAS-3) flight in November 1994. ATLAS-3 continues the Spacelab flight series to study the Sun's energy during an eleven-year solar cycle; the primary purpose of this is to learn how changes in the irradiance of the Sun affect the Earth's environment and climate. On this mission Ochoa was Payload Commander. She is currently based at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

Ochoa is a member of the Optical Society of America and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. She has received a number of awards from NASA including the NASA Group Achievement Award for Photonics Technology in 1991 and the NASA Space Flight Medal in 1993. In 1994, she received the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Engineering Achievement Award. She has also been recognized many times by the Hispanic community. Ochoa was the 1990 recipient of the National Hispanic Quincentennial Commission Pride Award. She was also given Hispanic magazine's 1991 Hispanic Achievement Science Award, and in 1993 she won the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Medallion of Excellence Role Model Award. Ochoa is also a member of the Optical Society of America, the American Institute of Aeronautics ands Astronautics, and Phi Beta Kappa and Sigma Xi honor societies.

Ochoa is married to Coe Fulmer Miles, a computer research engineer. They have no children. Outside of her space research, Ochoa counts music and sports as hobbies. She is an accomplished classical flautist—in 1983 she was the Student Soloist Award Winner in the Stanford Symphony Orchestra. She also has her private pilot's license and in training for space missions flies "back seat" in T-38 aircraft.

Further Reading

NASA Johnson Space Center, Missions Highlights STS-56, May 1993.

NASA Johnson Space Center, Biographical Data—Ellen Ochoa, August 1993.

NASA Johnson Space Center, Biographical Data—Ellen Ochoa,, "," July 22, 1997.

Ochoa, Ellen, Interview with Marianne Fedunkiw, conducted March 18, 1994. □

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