Ochoa, Ellen

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Ellen Ochoa

Born May 10, 1958 (Los Angeles, California)

American astronaut, electrical engineer

Ellen Ochoa began training as an astronaut in 1990, twelve years after the program was opened to women. In 1993 she became the first Latina (woman of Hispanic descent) to travel in space, and by 2002 she had participated in three more missions. An inventor and optics expert (one who studies the origin and uses of light), Ochoa continues her active career in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Her achievements have made her a popular role model for other Hispanics, yet she prefers to see herself simply as an astronaut. After her first trip into space, Ochoa was given a medal by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. In her acceptance speech she said, "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."

"I never got tired of watching the Earth, day or night, as we passed over it."

Begins career as engineer

Ellen Ochoa was born on May 10, 1958, in Los Angeles, California, the third of five children of Rosanne Deardorff Ochoa and Joseph Ochoa. She grew up in La Mesa, a suburb

of San Diego. Her father, a native of Mexico, was the manager of a retail store and her mother was a homemaker. When Ellen was in junior high school, Joseph left the family and Rosanne struggled to raise five children alone. Described by Ellen as a "super-mentor," Rosanne took college courses in her spare time and, over a period of twenty years, earned three degrees. Ellen, her sister, and her three brothers were outstanding students in the public schools. During high school Ellen gained recognition as an outstanding classical flutist, and she was the valedictorian of her graduation class in 1975. (The valedictorian is generally the highest ranking student in the class who has earned the right to give the farewell speech during the graduation ceremony.) Although she was offered a four-year scholarship to Stanford University in Palo Alto, she chose instead to attend San Diego State University. She wanted to stay near her two younger brothers, who were still in high school at the time.

Ochoa was planning to study journalism when she entered college, but she eventually changed her major to physics. After graduating from San Diego State in 1980—once again as valedictorian—she enrolled in graduate school at Stanford University. She earned a master's degree in electrical engineering in 1981 and a doctorate in the same field in 1985. During this time she also performed as a flute soloist with the Stanford Symphony Orchestra. Ochoa became interested in the NASA astronaut training program when several other graduate students submitted applications. NASA had been accepting women and minorities into the candidates' program only since the late 1970s (see Guy Bluford [1942–] and Sally Ride [1951–] entries). The first Latino astronaut, Rodolfo Neri Vela (1952–; see box on this page), flew his first space shuttle mission in 1985, the same year Ochoa applied to the program. (A space shuttle is a craft that transports people and cargo between Earth and space.)

Rodolfo Neri Vela

Mexican astronaut Rodolfo Neri Vela became the first Latino to go into space in 1985. Flying aboard the space shuttle Atlantis, he participated in a seven-day, joint NASA–European Space Agency (ESA) mission. A specialist in communications technology, he carried out multiple experiments and placed in orbit the Mexican satellite Morelos 2. From 1989 until 1990 Neri Vela worked on the International Space Station (ISS; see entry) for the ESA in Holland. He later held academic positions at universities in Mexico and other countries, teaching courses on satellites and astronautics. He has written numerous articles and published ten books on subjects such as communications satellites, the solar system, and space travel.

Takes first trip in space

While awaiting acceptance as an astronaut candidate, Ochoa took a research position at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In 1987 she learned she was among one hundred finalists for the NASA training program. The following year she was hired as chief of the Intelligent Systems Technology Branch at Ames Research Center at Moffett Field Naval Air Station in Mountain View, California. During this period she was the coinventor of three patented

devices: 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 took flying lessons and became a certified private pilot.

Ochoa continued to persevere throughout the lengthy and difficult NASA selection process. She finally achieved her goal in 1990, becoming the first female Hispanic astronaut in NASA history. Training began in late 1990 at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. The program was physically and mentally demanding, involving 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 devoted considerable time to learning about the space shuttle itself. Ochoa passed the rigorous course and officially became an astronaut in July 1991. She began as a flight software specialist in the development of robots (remote-controlled devices that perform human activities). She was also involved in flight testing and training.

Ochoa participated in her first mission, a nine-day flight aboard the space shuttle Discovery, in April 1993. The only woman on the five-member crew, she was a specialist for the second mission of ATLAS (Atmospheric Laboratory for Applications and Science). Ochoa and her crewmates conducted research on solar activity to gain a better understanding of Earth's climate and environment. She operated the Remote Manipulator System (RMS), a fifty-foot (15.42 meters) robotic arm, to deploy (release into orbit) and capture the Spartan satellite, which retrieved data about the solar corona (colored circle around the Sun) and solar winds (plasma continuously ejected from the Sun's surface into and through planetary space). Ochoa later recalled that observing the universe from the shuttle's windows was an awe-inspiring experience. "I never got tired of watching the Earth, day or night, as we passed over it," she told Nora López, a reporter for Latina magazine. "Even though we brought back some pretty incredible pictures, they don't quite compare with being there."

Helps assemble space station

Ochoa's next space flight, an eight-day trip, took place in November 1994 on the space shuttle Atlantis. As payload commander, she again collected data on solar energy. Her third mission, aboard the Discovery in 1999, was a ten-day journey (May 27–June 6) for which she served as a mission specialist and flight engineer. The seven-person crew included representatives from the Canadian Space Agency, the Russian Space Agency, and a French representative of the ESA. May 29 was a particularly momentous day, in that it marked the first time the shuttle docked with the International Space Station (ISS; see entry), an orbiting research laboratory being constructed for use by many nations.

The Discovery crew was preparing for the arrival of the first crew to live onboard the space station the following year. 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 Discovery to the ISS craft. She also operated the RMS during a lengthy space walk by two of her fellow astronauts. Ochoa's most recent space journey, in April 2002, was on the Atlantis, which visited the ISS and marked the thirteenth shuttle flight to the space station. During the eleven-day mission the three-person crew installed the S-Zero (SO) truss on the ISS. The truss was the first segment of the main backbone of the station, which would be expanded to carry solar panel wings and radiators. The crew also moved around the station for the first time. Between space shuttle flights, Ochoa has held a variety of other positions with NASA at the Johnson Space Center. She has tested flight software, served as crew representative for robotics, and worked at mission control (communications base for all spaceflight) as spacecraft communicator. She also directed the crew involved in the ISS project, a high priority for NASA in the twenty-first century. In 2003 she held the position of deputy director of flight crew operations.

Shares experiences with students

In addition to receiving the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Medallion of Excellence Role Model Award in 1993, Ochoa holds numerous other honors for her achievements. These include 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. Others are 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 achieved as NASA's first Hispanic female astronaut. She regards this part of her job as an unexpected bonus and enjoys having the chance to inspire young people to study mathematics and science. Ochoa and her husband, Coe Fulmer Miles, have two children. She flies her own single-engine plane for recreation, and still plays the flute, as she did in high school.

As a veteran of four shuttle flights and countless hours of training, Ochoa compares her experiences with 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 Earth from afar have a strong appeal as well: "What engineer wouldn't want those experiences?"

For More Information


Camp, Carole Ann. American Women Inventors. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow, 2004.

Machamer, Gene. Hispanic American Profiles. New York: Ballantine Books, 1996.

Stille, Darlene R. Extraordinary Women Scientists. New York: Scholastic Library, 1995.


López, Nora. "La Primera Astronaut [The First Astronaut]." Latina. (May 1998): pp. 60–63.

Web Sites

"Astronaut Bio: Ellen Ochoa." Johnson Space Center, NASA.http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/htmlbios/ochoa.html (accessed on June 29, 2004).

"Ellen Ochoa." Inventors.About.com.http://inventors.about.com/library/inventors/blochoa.htm (accessed on June 29, 2004).

"Ellen Ochoa." Stanford University School of Engineering Annual Report, 1997–98.http://soe.stanford.edu/AR02-03/index.html (accessed on June 29, 2004).

"Rodolfo Neri Vela." Encyclopedia Astronautica.http://www.astronautix.com/astros/nerivela.htm (accessed on June 29, 2004).

Other Sources

Ochoa, Ellen. Speech to Congressional Hispanic Caucus, 1993. Cited in Contemporary Heroes and Heroines, Book IV. Detroit: Gale Group, 2000.