Astronaut, Researcher, Engineer, Private Pilot & Classical Flutist: Dr. Ellen Ochoa

Dr. Ellen Ochoa
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Selected by NASA in 1990, Dr. Ellen Ochoa became an astronaut in July 1991, making her the first Hispanic female astronaut and subsequently, the first Hispanic woman to travel into space. As a mission specialist and flight engineer, she logged over 978 hours in space during her four space shuttle missions between 1993 and 2002 – two atmospheric research flights and two missions to the International Space Station.

We are recognizing Ellen Ochoa today as September 15th marks the start of National Hispanic Heritage Month in the United States.  In the spirit of this 30 day observance, we celebrate her contributions and outstanding accomplishments as both an American citizen of Hispanic descent and a woman you should know.

In a recent July 2011 interview with NPR’s Tell Me More for the series “Flying High: First In Their Class”, host, Michel Martin, and Ellen discussed her career choice.

“Ochoa says she did not originally consider space exploration because there were no female astronauts during her upbringing. In college, she was interested in music and business but ended up graduating with a physics degree. She went on to graduate school, where her love of research led her to pursue space exploration. She had learned that NASA launched a shuttle into space for the first time and used it as a base for research.  Shortly after NASA selected her for its team, Ochoa realized she had an opportunity to discuss science and education to a whole community of Hispanic-Americans. Over the past 20 years, she received thousands of letters from schoolchildren who developed space interests after hearing about her.”

Shuttle DiscoveryEllen’s first venture into space was in April 1993 during a nine day science mission aboard the Shuttle Discovery. When she was not busy using a suite of complex instruments to better understand the impact of the sun’s cycle on Earth, Ellen found time to play the flute she brought from home.  In the near weightless environment, the flute practically held itself aloft.  But, because the Shuttle cabin is pressurized, the flute, in the hands of Ellen, a classical flutist, played exactly the same in space as it did on Earth. (Source:  NASA – Johnson Space Center Press Release Archives)

Following her missions to space, in December 2002, Ellen became Deputy Director of Flight Crew Operations at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas – home to NASA’s Mission Control Center – and then Director of Flight Crew Operations in September 2006. She was appointed Deputy Director of Johnson Space Center in September 2007 and still serves in this position today.

Ellen holds a Bachelor of Science degree in physics from San Diego State University as well as a Master of Science degree and Doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford University.  Before becoming an astronaut she was a researcher at Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore, California, and a researcher and manager at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California.  She is also the co-inventor on three patents for an optical inspection system for performing information processing.

As if all that is not impressive enough, Ellen has been the recipient of numerous awards: NASA’s Distinguished Service Medal, Exceptional Service Medal, Outstanding Leadership Medal and four Space Flight Medals (2002, 1999, 1994, 1993); the Harvard Foundation Science Award; the Women in Aerospace Outstanding Achievement Award; The Hispanic Engineer Albert Baez Award for Outstanding Technical Contribution to Humanity; the Hispanic Heritage Leadership Award and San Diego State University Alumna of the Year. Ellen was also chosen as the first woman to receive the Engineer of the Year award by the Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Awards Conference in 2008.  In addition, she has two schools named after her:  Ellen Ochoa Middle School in Pasco, Washington and the Ellen Ochoa Learning Center in Cudahy, California.

AND… she is also a wife and mom of two sons.  Our WYSK hats are off to Dr. Ellen Ochoa.  Bravo!

(Source of all biographical and professional information:  NASA – Johnson Space Center Biographical Data)