ELLEN OCHOA, Ph.D., Astronaut and Deputy Director, Johnson Space Center
Born May 10, 1958 in Los Angeles, California, but considers La Mesa, California, to be her hometown. Married and they have two children. She is a classical flutist and private pilot, and also enjoys volleyball and bicycling.
Graduated from Grossmont High School, La Mesa, California, in 1975; received a bachelor of science degree in physics from San Diego State University in 1980, a master of science degree and doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford University in 1981 and 1985, respectively.
As a doctoral student at Stanford, and later as a researcher at Sandia National Laboratories and NASA Ames Research Center, Dr. Ochoa investigated optical systems for performing information processing. She is a co-inventor on three patents for an optical inspection system, an optical object recognition method, and a method for noise removal in images. As Chief of the Intelligent Systems Technology Branch at Ames, she supervised 35 engineers and scientists in the research and development of computational systems for aerospace missions. Dr. Ochoa has presented numerous papers at technical conferences and in scientific journals.
Selected by NASA in January 1990, Dr. Ochoa became an astronaut in July 1991. Her technical assignments to date include flight software verification, crew representative for flight software and computer hardware development, crew representative for robotics development, testing, and training, Assistant for Space Station to the Chief of the Astronaut Office, directing crew involvement in the development and operation of the Station, and lead spacecraft communicator (CAPCOM) in Mission Control, and Acting Deputy Chief of the Astronaut Office. A veteran of four space flights, Dr. Ochoa has logged over 978 hours in space. She was a mission specialist on STS-56 (1993), was the Payload Commander on STS-66 (1994), and was a mission specialist and flight engineer on STS-96 (1999) and STS-110 (2002).
Armando Sanchez: When you were in high school were you dreaming of someday becoming an astronaut?
Dr. Ellen Ochoa: No, it was not something I considered back then. When I was in high school, I was interested in many different things, but I didn't have any particular career plans. Probably my main interest outside of school was music. I played my flute, I was in the concert band and I was in a member of a city orchestra. This is how I spend most of my extra time while in high school. In high school, I took a lot of math and literature courses but I was still not sure where I was headed.
Armando Sanchez: So when you were in high school and you were playing your flute as part of your extra curricular activities did you ever consider making music your college major?
Dr. Ellen Ochoa: I did go to college thinking about the possibility of becoming a music major, but eventually I decided that it was better for me as a hobby than as a career.
Armando Sanchez: To be in the science field that you are in, you obviously needed to be a very good student in the sciences. What attracted you to enter this field?
Dr. Ellen Ochoa: I need to admit that I really did not take many science classes in high school. I think the only science class I took in high school was biology. I never took chemistry or physics because at the time I didn't think I would be interested in it nor did I know much about it. However I did take a lot of math courses, I was good at it and I enjoyed it. When I was in college it was my math classes that got me interested in exploring the sciences and engineering.
Armando Sanchez: Did you take the math courses because they were part of your general education course requirements or because it was part of your major?
Dr. Ellen Ochoa: I took a class because I was interested in the subject matter. I had taken calculus in high school and when I got to college, I wanted to finish the series of calculus classes they had to offer.
Armando Sanchez: Sounds like you were interested in this field of sciences as an undergraduate but not yet fascinated with it. Is this correct?
Dr. Ellen Ochoa: Yes, that is right.
Armando Sanchez: I am amazed to learn that in the early years you were not yet drawn to the scientific world and yet in addition to being an astronaut you also own several important scientific patents. What encouraged you to enter this fascinating scientific world?
Dr. Ellen Ochoa: When I was in college, I decided to take an introductory physics class for non-majors and after that I became interested in that subject. I talked with the department chair and I then decided to major in it.
Armando Sanchez: What specifically motivated you from the physics introductory course that you took to help you decide to major in this area?
Dr. Ellen Ochoa: I think it was the fact that physics is the study of the basic physical properties of everything I see every day works. It was interesting to me to hear explanations about why flags wave in the wind and how rainbows are formed. These are everyday things that you see and I enjoyed being part of a subject that actually describes how and why they happen.
Armando Sanchez: What did your college peers and family think about your fascination for physics?
Dr. Ellen Ochoa: I don't remember really discussing it much with others. I did not have a particular circle of friends that I was with in college. I did tell my parents and my mom had always encouraged me to study anything I wanted to. She was happy if that was something that was interesting to me. She was happy I was pursing it. I didn't really have a particular circle of friends that I was with in college. I lived at home while I was in my undergraduate program. It was a personal decision.
Armando Sanchez: What is the background on your parents?
Dr. Ellen Ochoa: My father's family was from Mexico and his family immigrated to the United States before he was born. My mother is originally from Oklahoma and her background is of European descent.
Armando Sanchez: When did you begin thinking of obtaining a graduate degree in Stanford in your field of study?
Dr. Ellen Ochoa: When I was an undergraduate student the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) had just picked the first space shuttle astronauts and that was also the first group to include women. That was a very big deal at that time. This was happening just about the time when I was declaring myself as a physics major at San Diego State. The astronaut program was not something I was thinking of pursing back then, but when I was in graduate school there were other students that were interested in the astronaut program and I learned a little more about it from them. I was then motivated to write to NASA and learn specifically about their program and what they were looking for and how to apply. This was the first time I started to think about this seriously.
Armando Sanchez: Did you talk to someone in NASA and asked them many questions?
Dr. Ellen Ochoa: I thought at the time I just wrote to the NASA office that has to do with astronaut selection and I asked them to send me the information.
Armando Sanchez: Did you ever wonder if you were qualified to become an astronaut? Any sense of doubt?
Dr. Ellen Ochoa: Well sure. First of all I found out what the basic requirements were and I knew that I either fulfilled them or was about to by the time I would finish my Ph.D. program. But of course I knew that many thousands of persons applied and that it was very difficult to get selected so I actually never expected to be selected. I figured that I would never know if I did not send in my application. I thought it was worth trying for.
Armando Sanchez: How did you feel when you found out you had been accepted into the astronaut program?
Dr. Ellen Ochoa: Oh, I was absolutely thrilled and it was one of the high points of my life.
Armando Sanchez: How did your family feel about your acceptance?
Dr. Ellen Ochoa: They were thrilled too. They knew it was something I really wanted and that it was very difficult to get selected and they were very happy for me.
Armando Sanchez: Given your background and experiences what would be your advice to high school and college students?
Dr. Ellen Ochoa: Partly that often times students do not know what particular careers they wish to pursue, but it is important to keep their options open. A lot of people don't take math and science at a higher level and that makes it difficult for them to pursue a wide variety of careers latter on. Fortunately even though I did not know a lot about those fields, I did end up taking math all the way through and that was really the only reason I could get into physics in college since I didn't have that background in high school. My advice to students is for them to continue taking a wide variety of classes throughout high school and into college and of course to continue taking the math and science courses. This will give students, many options as their interest matures and they look around to see what they might want to pursue.
Armando Sanchez: I would like to discuss the issue of woman in the math and science world. I understand that these fields are typically male dominated areas. Did you feel uncomfortable being in these fields considering you were a triple or a quadruple minority in these fields?
Dr. Ellen Ochoa: Well it was pretty noticeable that there were not other women! So sometimes that does make it a little bit more difficult and it would have been a bit nicer to be in classes where you didn't feel like you stood out so much so I do think it adds a little bit of pressure but that should not discourage people. It is not that you cannot do the work, it is just that you have to realize that you are going to be a bit more visible and you have to be willing to accept this. So it is unfortunate that still exists and that for a long time we will continue to see where women, and especially minority women, are not going to be very well represented so it is something you have to realize and go on.
Armando Sanchez: What specific advice would you give students in order for them to excel academically regardless of their college majors?
Dr. Ellen Ochoa: Part of my advice is for students to take it one day and one class at a time. Sometimes it can get overwhelming to think about all the things you have to do in order to graduate. You have to realize that well you just need to attack it one day at a time and it is much easier to approach it in that way. I also want to share that they should take advantage of all the help that is available to any student, whether its going to see your professors during office hours, which I did quite a lot if you feel you need extra help in a particular class. There is almost always tutoring programs that are available. The main thing to do is react quickly if feel like you need a little extra help or you need some questions answered and not get too far behind. In technical classes it is easy to get behind quickly so you need to be thinking all the time that if there is something you do not understand get help from the class teaching assistant or tutoring program or go see the professor. Professors, I found, were very willing to meet and talk over anything you wanted to talk about that happened in the class and you should realize that that is a standard thing to do. You should not think of it as a last ditch effort. Instead it should be the first thing one thinks about if one has a question.
Armando Sanchez: Did you find yourself accessing your professors and the student support systems a great deal when you were a student or where you just so brilliant that you caught and understood everything you hear and read the very first time?
Dr. Ellen Ochoa: I definitely went to see my professors whenever I had a question or I was not sure of anything I did not follow in class. I tried to clear it up as soon as possible. Certainly office hours were something I did take advantage of quite frequently. I actually never did any of the tutoring, but if I had felt that I needed it, I certainly would have done it.
Armando Sanchez: Is there a future for future Latino professionals in the space programs?
Dr. Ellen Ochoa: Absolutely! In fact, if you look throughout NASA they generally have hired both women and minorities at a higher percentage than almost any other technical groups that you can think of. I was quite pleasantly surprised when I moved from Sandia National Laboratories (http://www.sandia.gov/about/index.html) to NASA to see how many women and more minorities were represented there so NASA does aggressively try to woman and minorities students know of the opportunities that they have here and they try to provide hiring opportunities for them. There are many jobs at NASA and the position of an astronaut (http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/outreach/jobsinfo/astronaut101.html) is just one of the many positions available. There are many very interesting jobs within the technical areas and student should certainly be encouraged to look into them.
Armando Sanchez: Are the opportunities growing as our space program progresses?
Dr. Ellen Ochoa: On a year-to-year basis, sometimes there are hiring opportunities and sometimes they are not, but what you can certainly say is that globally there are fewer people overall going into science and engineering and we are going to continue to need scientists and engineers. So I do believe that this is an area that will need more and more people overall. Now this does not mean that on a particular year that the opportunities will be there for a particular skill, but as an overall sense, yes we do need women and minorities to enter these areas. One other thing I should mention is that NASA has a co-op program so that as a college student, you can leave and come to work at NASA for a semester and then go back to your campus. You can do that three or four times during your college career and look at different career opportunities within NASA. Actually, when NASA does cut back on hiring often they hire only people who have been in the co-op program with them. Being in the program gives them a leg-up in years when there is not a lot of hiring done. This is a great program for students to help them increase their employment opportunities.
Armando Sanchez: Is this co-op program only for students to work at the NASA headquarters in Houston?
Dr. Ellen Ochoa: No, it is to work in NASA centers throughout the nation. There are also specific programs geared for minority students, graduate research programs and NASA also provides money to Hispanic colleges and universities in the form of research monies for working on NASA research projects.