Ellen Ochoa: A Pioneer on Land and in Space

Today’s post was written by Lynn Nashorn, textual processing and accessioning archivist at the National Archives at College Park.

Ochoa in a space shuttle looking out a window down to Earth
Mission Specialist Ellen Ochoa taking photos out the window from a flight deck stations, 17 Apr, 1993 (NAID 23272400)

On April 8, 1993, the space shuttle Discovery launched from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and Ellen Ochoa became the first Mexican American in space (NAID 23272400).  During the mission, STS-56, Mission Specialist (MS) Ochoa assisted with the flight’s primary goal of studying Earth’s ozone layer and used the Remote Manipulator System (RMS) robotic arm to engage and capture the Spartan satellite which studied the solar corona. Notably, Ochoa, a classically trained flutist, also made history during STS-56 as the first astronaut to play the flute in low-Earth orbit (NAID 23273186).  After nine days in space, the shuttle landed, but STS-56 only represented a small fraction of Ochoa’s accomplishments and contributions to NASA.

Ochoa playing flute. Feet are strapped down to hold her in place in 0 gravity
Candid view of Mission Specialist Ellen Ochoa, in the aft flight deck, playing a flute, Apr 17, 1993 (NAID 23273186)

Born on May 10, 1958 to Rosanne Ochoa and Joseph Ochoa, Ellen Ochoa’s paternal grandparents emigrated from Sonora, Mexico to Arizona and then headed west to California where her father was born.  Ellen Ochoa excelled in school graduating Phi Beta Kappa from San Diego State University with a degree in physics in 1980, and then going on to earn a master of science degree and a doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford University in 1981 and 1985.

During her doctoral studies and throughout her early career, Ochoa studied optical systems for performing information processing first at Sandia National Laboratories and later at NASA’s Ames Research Center.  At Ames Research Center, she led research on optical systems for automated space exploration. In 1985 and 1987, Ellen Ochoa patented an optical system to detect defects in repeating patterns and is listed as a co-inventor for patents on an optical inspection system, an optical object recognition method, and a method for noise removal in images.  While at Ames, she also served as the Chief of Intelligent Systems Technology Branch overseeing 35 engineers and scientists’ research and development of computational systems for space missions.

Ochoa and another astronaut are back to back writing info in books
PC Ochoa and Cdr. McMonagle work on Atlantis’ flight deck during STS-66, Sept 25, 1997 (NAID 22868200)

After three attempts to enter the Space Program, NASA accepted Ochoa in 1990, and she became an astronaut in 1991. After STS-56, Ochoa returned to space as a member of three shuttle crews. From November 3 to 14, 1994, Ochoa served as the Payload Commander on STS-66 Atlantis Atmospheric Laboratory for Applications and Science- 3 Mission (NAID 22868200) studying solar energy during the sun’s 11-year cycle and how the sun’s irradiance affects Earth’s climate and environment, and she recovered the CRISTA-SPAS atmospheric research satellite at the end of an eight day free flight.

Five years later, from May 27 to June 6, 1999, Ochoa served as a mission specialist on STS-96 Discovery where her responsibilities included the coordination and delivery of four tons of logistics and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) to prepare for the first crew to live on the station and the operation of the RMS during an eight hour spacewalk (NAID 23209713). Finally, in April 2002, Ochoa acted as mission specialist aboard the STS-110 Atlantis mission (NAID 23359335) and worked to deliver and install the S0 (S-Zero) Truss with the station’s robotic arm and used the robotic arm during three of four space walks.

Following her space missions, Ellen Ochoa led NASA’s Flight Crew Operations Directorate and served as the Director of Flight Crew Operations before becoming the Deputy Director of the Johnson Space Center in 2007. In 2012, she became the 11th director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center and first director of Mexican American descent and remained in that role until her retirement in 2018. As of May 2021, Ochoa chairs the Nomination Evaluation Committee for the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, is a Fellow of the American Association for Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). She continues to give speeches throughout the country and tells students, “Don’t be afraid to reach for the stars…a good education can take you anywhere on Earth and beyond.” Speaking with NBC News in December 2019, Ellen Ochoa emphasized the need for diversity in STEM fields saying, “We need all the best and brightest people working in science and engineering fields, and that is certainly not limited to men or white men or anything like that.” During the same interview in reference to her legacy which includes numerous awards and six schools named in her honor, Ochoa stated, “To me, as I look back on 30 years, just having the opportunity to contribute to something bigger than myself and that brings benefits to people on Earth, I just couldn’t have asked for anything more.”

Ochoa seated at a table, hands a paper to young lady standing in front of her
Director Ochoa signs autographs at the Johnson Space Center Open House, 2010 (NAID 201699122, page 11)