Ellen Ochoa’s biography, a NASA physicist, scientist and astronaut. Her paternal grandparents were Mexican.
Main merits of this Mexican astronaut
She was the first woman of Hispanic origin to travel to space and featured in the Astronaut Hall of Fame in the USA.
She is a member of the American Optical Society and of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronomy. In 1997, NASA awarded her with the “Outstanding Service Medal“.
In addition, her professional achievements earned her the “Hispanic Heritage Award.”
Between 1993 and 2002, she made four trips on NASA space missions.
Childhood, family and studies of Ellen Ochoa
Ellen Ochoa was born on May 10, 1958 in Los Angeles, California. Her parents were also born in the United States; her grandparents were Mexicans from Sonora.
In 1959, her family moved to La Mesa, a city located in San Diego, California.
Thanks to this circumstance, Ellen Ochoa studied at Grossmont High School, the oldest school in San Diego County.
She graduated in 1975 with excellent grades in mathematics.
At school, Ellen Ochoa excelled in multiple subjects, most notably in math.
She was also an outstanding flutist. Therefore, she considered for a time the possibility of pursuing a career related to music.
This last option was the one that was most recommended to her, because in those years it was not seen well that female students opted for technical careers.
Ellen Ochoa decided to study Physics at the University
However, Ellen Ochoa was very curious about Physics.
This hobby and her remarkable aptitudes for mathematics, decided her to study Physics.
She managed to enter the San Diego State University, the “San Diego State University“.
When Ellen Ochoa was a teenager, her parents separated.
Ellen and her four brothers had seen how their mother, Rosanne Ochoa, in addition to taking care of them and the house, dedicated her free time to studying.
Little by little, Rosanne followed classes in biology and business. Until finally, she got a college degree in liberal studies at San Diego State University.
The end of this willful feat took place three years after her daughter Ellen graduated from the same university.
Ellen Ochoa’s academic career
In 1980, after graduating in Physics from San Diego State University, Ellen Ochoa continued her studies at Standford University.
The following year, she obtained a Master of Science. In 1985 Ellen earned a doctorate in Electrical Engineering.
Stanford University is a private university located in Stanford, California, about 56 km southeast of San Francisco.
This university is famous for the quality of its teaching. It is considered one of the ten best universities in the world.
In her graduate studies, Ellen Ochoa specialized in optics, in the study of the nature of light and its behavior.
Her mentor was a well-known optical scientist, Joseph Goodman, who became President of the Optical Society of America.
Ellen Ochoa fondles the idea of being an astronaut
In 1983 Ellen Ochoa was preparing her doctorate at Stanford. One day that year, American women marveled at the news that Sally Ride was the first American woman to be traveling in space.
Long before, in 1963, Valentina Tereshkova had been the first woman in the world to do so, and in much more precarious circumstances.
But in the 1980s it was no longer just about going to space, but about investigating from space. That was what Lucy Shannon did in 1985.
Astronaut Sally Ride had also studied at Stanford University; reason why Ellen Ochoa felt especially moved with the news of that historical flight.
When some of her friends decided to apply to NASA’s Astronaut Candidate program, Ellen Ochoa couldn’t resist also submitting an application for admission.
The answer from NASA announced that she would have “possibilities” when she had obtained a PhD in Physics.
She decided to work to become an astronaut. Along with Britain’s Helen Sharman, she was one of the few unborn women to travel into space.
Two years later, in 1985, with the title of doctor in hand, Ellen submitted a new application to be admitted to the astronaut program.
Ellen Ochoa worked investigating
While waiting for an answer, she began working at the Sandia National Laboratory.
This was one of the best research and development laboratories of the United States Department of Energy.
There Ellen Ochoa was able to apply her specialized knowledge of optics.
In March 1987, she was summoned by NASA for a week of tests and interviews at the Johnson Space Center in Texas. It was NOT among the finalists.
Ellen Ochoa persisted in becoming an astronaut
When she learned that she had not been selected for the astronaut program, Ellen Ochoa decided to do more to achieve her goal.
Working with Joseph Goodman who had been her mentor, and with another researcher, she obtained her first patent for an optical device capable of recognizing and inspecting an object (for example, an electronic circuit board) and identifying manufacturing defects in it.
In that same year 1987, Ellen Ochoa and her colleagues at the Sandia Laboratory registered two other patents.
One of them was so that a device, using optical technology, was able to identify a landing site for an aircraft, regardless of the size of the target or its orientation.
The third patent was for an optical system capable of reducing image distortion.
Ellen Ochoa did not stop accumulating merits
In 1988, Ellen did two more things to increase her chances of passing at the astronaut program admission interview: She obtained a private pilot’s license and began working as a researcher in NASA’/AMES Research Division.
AMES investigations also cover space flight and play an important role in many of NASA’s missions.
Ellen Ochoa was named Head of the “Intelligent Systems Technology Branch“. She supervised 35 engineers and scientists, in the research and development of optical and computer systems, to “automate” space exploration.
In 1989, she was quoted again for another interview at the Johnson Space Center.
This time, Ellen Ochoa had more and better cards in hand and was one of the 23 candidates selected to be an astronaut, from among the 2,000 submitted.
In July 1990, she began her training. During the training period, Ellen Ochoa and her companions had, among many other activities:
- Deploy liferafts to simulate an emergency rescue. This was done in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory at the Johnson Space Center.
- Learn everything related to aircraft safety.
- Master basic astronomy
- Attend classes in meteorology, orbital mechanics, and navigation.
- Study flight manuals.
- Prepare to live and work in a micro gravity environment
- Learn how to act in evacuation situations from an aircraft.
Finally managed to graduate as an astronaut
In July 1991, after the training period, Ellen Ochoa graduated as an “astronaut”.
When Ellen Ochoa was admitted as a NASA astronaut, space shuttles were “science labs” in space.
Ellen’s scientific experience and knowledge were indispensable and adequate for living and working on a space shuttle.
Everything she had learned in the previous years allowed her to properly assimilate the details necessary to fully understand the mechanisms that worked on a space shuttle.
Ellen Ochoa was well versed in the powertrain, electrical system, power system, mechanical system, life support system, flight control system, and communications system.
In short, she could control that all these systems worked well; and, in case of problems, she would know how to diagnose the causes and fix what was necessary.
Upon being admitted to the astronaut group, Ellen Ochoa was assigned to serve as a “specialist” in space missions.
Her main duties on the shuttle were linked to research and data collection.
Ellen Ochoa space flight
Ellen Ochoa made four space flights. She was a mission specialist on STS-56 and STS-96; cargo commander on STS-66; and on STS-110 she was a flight engineer.
STS-56 Mission (1993)
On April 3, 1993, Ellen Ochoa made history: she became the first Hispanic woman to travel to space. She did so aboard the space shuttle Discovery, which was launched from the Kennedy base.
Five crew members were on the shuttle. Ellen Ochoa was assigned the position of “specialist”. The spacecraft circled Earth every 90 minutes at a height of between 291 and 299 km.
The astronaut was compensated for her efforts by living in a microgravity environment that made her feel three times lighter than on Earth. Another reward was the opportunity to gaze at Earth from space.
But the five astronauts were not in space for space tourism. They were on a mission called STS-56, which lasted nine days, after completing 148 full orbits around Earth. She returned to Kennedy Base on April 17, 1993.
The Discovery spacecraft carried seven highly specialized instruments in order to conduct experiments and collect data about the relationship between the Sun’s energy output and Earth’s average atmosphere and how these factors affect the ozone layer.
On April 11, the crew used a robot arm (Canadarm) to deploy a self-contained, free-flying scientific instrument tool designed to study the speed and acceleration of the solar wind and observe sunlight.
The crew also made numerous radio contacts with schools around the world. They also established brief radio contact with the Russian Mir space station; It was the first such contact between a shuttle and Mir, using radio amateur equipment.
Ellen Ochoa also played her flute during the flight for entertainment, and as part of an educational video. Then she said it was not as different as playing the flute on Earth, because the space shuttle was pressurized like an airplane cabin. But in a weightless environment, the flute held itself up in the air, without much support from Ellen.
On November 3, 1994, Ellen Ochoa made her second space trip.
On that occasion, he did so aboard the space shuttle Atlantis, which was launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.
Six crew members were on the shuttle. Ellen Ochoa was assigned the position of “cargo commander”.
The spacecraft circled Earth every 90 minutes at a height of between 291 and 299 km.
The mission undertaken had the objective of collecting data for the study of solar energy and to know its effects on Earth’s climate.
Data was also collected that could help answer questions about the thinning of the Earth’s ozone layer.
As with all STS mission flights, the crew’s schedule of activities was scheduled minute by minute.
The new computers allowed the ground team to monitor the experiments and data collection, send commands directly to the instruments, and communicate with the shuttle’s crew.
Ellen Ochoa was responsible for using the robotic arm to retrieve the CRISTA-SPAS atmospheric satellite.
The Atlantis spacecraft landed at Edwards Air Force Base on November 14, 1994, after it had circled the Earth 174 times during the nearly 11-day mission.
On her third flight, conducted on May 27, 1999, Ellen Ochoa participated as a specialist in the first docking of a shuttle with the International Space Station.
The shuttle Discovery carried 7 crew: commander, pilot and five specialists.
This time it was a logistics mission and supply of materials, research equipment and supplies, to gradually adapt the habitability of the International Space Station.
They carried four tons of equipment and supplies to prepare for the subsistence and work of the first crew of the Space Station.
Ellen Ochoa coordinated the transfer of equipment from the shuttle to the Station and carried out a 7-hour space flight, in order to carry out essential work in coupling certain equipment.
One of them was for the reflections of sunlight to allow the International Space Station to be seen from Earth, during sunrises and twilights.
Discovery returned to Kennedy Base on June 6, 1999, after 9 days; five of which, was docked to the International Space Station.
On April 8, 2002, Ellen Ochoa was one of seven astronauts aboard the space shuttle Atlantis that departed from the Cape Canaveral Launch Center, bound for the International Space Station (ISS).
One of the main objectives of this STS-110 mission was to continue building the ISS.
They carried a beam 13 m long and 13.5 tons of mass on the shuttle.
This beam was the first to form the main structure of the ISS, which would be 110 m long and would later support the solar panels and radiators of the Space Station.
Atlantis’ docking with the ISS occurred on April 10, 2002.
On their previous mission in 1999, Ellen and her companions had joined a vacant ISS.
This time they were greeted by the crew that was already living aboard the station.
It was nice for everyone to sit together to chat and share the food and music that the newcomers had brought.
During that mission, the combined crew of the station and the shuttle worked together to install the structure that would support the hectare of solar panels that were to supply power to the ISS laboratory.
Once again, Ellen Ochoa was tasked with working with the robotic arm.
In addition, she helped maneuver what is called the structure truss (bra).
She also collaborated with the other crew members, during the obligatory spacewalks, outside the ship.
It was an incredible space adventure where people from all over the world worked together assembling an incredibly complex structure.
The shuttle undocked from the ISS on April 17, 2002, seven days after its arrival.
The shuttle returned to the Cape Canaveral Launch Center, Florida on April 19, 2002.
Ellen Ochoa had been out of “home” for 10 days and 19 hours, flying 226 km above sea level.
Special honors Ellen Ochoa has received
For her contributions to aerospace programs, Ellen Ochoa has received numerous honors from NASA, including:
- The Exceptional Service Medal (1997),
- The Medal of Excellent Leadership (1995),
- Space Flight Medals (1993-1994-1999)
- Two Technical Space Awards (1992).
- The Hispanic Engineer Albert Baez Award
- Hispanic Heritage Leadership Award
- San Diego State University Student of the Year
When she is not working or traveling to space, Ellen Ochoa plays the flute and spends time with her husband and two children. In addition, Ellen teaches various technical conferences and writes articles for scientific journals.
In January 2013, Ellen Ochoa was named director of the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center.
She was the second woman to serve in that role, and the first of Hispanic origin.