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Without Limits

Astronaut Ellen Ochoa tells other women and minorities to aim high

By Anne Hart

How far do you want your education to take you? How about into outer space? If you think you can't make it that far, Dr. Ellen Ochoa will convince you that you can. An engineer, inventor, physicist and the first Hispanic-American woman in space, Ochoa still finds time to address students. She encourages them to stay in school, aim high, study technology, and in turn, become leaders in their own communities. Her goal is to pass from one generation to the next an understanding of the unlimited potential that comes from a solid technical education.

Dr. Ellen Ochoa

Dr. Ellen Ochoa

"Don't be afraid to reach for the stars," she says. "I believe a good education can take you anywhere on Earth and beyond."

Ochoa should know. Last June, she returned from a nine-day trip to space as part of the space shuttle crew that carried supplies to the International Space Station.

Ochoa makes it a point to talk frequently to groups of students about leadership, encouraging them to study engineering, computers and physics. "Leadership and encouraging students to get a good education is something I believe in," Ochoa says.

She emphasizes how important education is to communities and families, especially women and minorities for whom there is a shortage of technical role models. Her mother—whom Ochoa cites as her own role model—was enrolled in San Diego State University during some of the time the younger Ochoa was there. "She graduated in 1982, about two years after I received my B.S. in physics from SDSU.

Ochoa on the space shuttle 

Discovery during her first mission.

Ochoa on the space shuttle Discovery during her first mission.

I went on to earn my master's and doctorate degrees in electrical engineering at Stanford University, specializing in optics. Around the same time, three of my brothers and sisters also went to SDSU. We all learned that a good education is about commitment and that education can open doors."

Her achievements as an astronaut, her current work at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and her leadership in encouraging all people to attain a solid education have earned Ochoa numerous awards. These include the Hispanic Engineer Albert Baez Award for Outstanding Technical Contribution to Humanity (1995), the Hispanic Heritage Leadership Award (1995), the Women in Aerospace Outstanding Achievement Award (1997) and San Diego State University's Alumna of the Year in 1998. In 1995, NASA awarded her the Outstanding Leadership Medal, followed two years later by the Exceptional Service Medal. She also received two Space Flight Medals in 1993 and 1994, and two Space Act Tech Brief Awards in 1992.

Down to Earth

Being an astronaut gives Ochoa a special status when she speaks to students about their future plans. Over the past few years she's addressed more than 75 student assemblies, driven in part by NASA's commitment to educate the public about the space program. "We take a trip about once a month as part of our job," she explains. "Students are excited to meet someone who has been to outer space. Everyone wants to know more about space careers for engineers and scientists. They all ask me to detail how it feels to live in space. They want me to tell them what they'll be doing in space in the future."

Younger students usually ask Ochoa how astronauts eat, sleep, conduct experiments and go to the bathroom in space. "The high school and university students most frequently ask me what purpose I have being in space," she notes. "They ask me to detail what I do in my work and what I plan to do in the future, as well as what NASA plans for future space programs."

Ochoa with the crew of space 
shuttle mission STS-66 in 1994.

Ochoa with the crew of space shuttle mission STS-66 in 1994.

College students are frequently interested in what life was like for Ochoa during her student years. "I found my niche then," says Ochoa. "In my undergraduate days at SDSU, I explored several majors before choosing physics. But when I took a physics class for non-majors, it grabbed my interest so fast that I wanted to find out how to apply math to a scientific field."

Ochoa was born in the middle of the Baby Boom era, a time when reaching for the stars in education and in a career wasn't yet encouraged for women. But by the mid-1970s, many women began exploring their career potential in technology, despite the industry's reticence to hire women. By the time Ochoa turned 18, "having it all" became a catch phrase in the media and she responded to NASA's request for female astronaut trainees. When Ochoa graduated in 1980, NASA was moving closer to sending a woman into space, which it finally did in 1983 when Sally Ride took flight on the Challenger shuttle.

It was after earning her undergraduate degree that Ochoa first decided to become an astronaut. "While working as a graduate student at Stanford, a few of my friends applied to NASA's program to become astronauts," she remembers. "I hadn't even considered becoming an astronaut before that. Suddenly, I was listening to details on how NASA selects astronauts, how to apply and whether they were looking for someone with my qualifications. I was eligible and applied for NASA's program as soon as I finished my doctorate in electrical engineering. They selected me in 1990. One year later I became eligible for assignment to a space flight. Because I'm a scientist, my title is mission specialist astronaut, rather than pilot astronaut. I'm often in charge of experiments during the shuttle flights."

By April 1993, Ochoa was busy as a mission specialist on the Discovery, conducting atmospheric, climate and solar studies to determine the effects of solar activity on Earth's environment. "On my first flight, we studied ozone depletion of the Earth's atmosphere. We measured a wide variety of chemicals in the air. Measuring the concentration at different altitudes and the amount of energy coming from the sun were a way to understand important atmospheric chemical reactions. We took measurements during the entire mission which are put into a precise database and later used to correct and re-calibrate instruments and data on orbiting satellites," Ochoa explains.

On her second mission, STS-66 in 1994, Ochoa acted as payload commander and was in charge of the experiments to follow up on her previous mission on atmospheric research. "On both flights I also retrieved and released a satellite from the cargo bay with a robotic arm," she says.

Last June, she and the six other members of STS-96 returned from the mission which took them 4 million miles into space. Ochoa served as a mission specialist for that flight, which docked with the new International Space Station to transfer supplies and equipment.

Innovation and invention are as important to Ochoa as working in space. She's worked as a physicist and inventor in optical research and processing, obtaining three patents for inventions in these areas, she says. "I enjoy the variety in my job. In one week, I might participate in a flight simulation to train flight controllers, attend meetings as the astronaut representative on robotics issues, travel to another NASA center for training on a flight experiment, fly in a T-38 jet and scuba dive in the underwater facility for spacewalk training."

Personal Connections

Despite her high-flying career, Ochoa keeps a strong connection to family, schools and community. On her second space shuttle mission aboard the Atlantis as a payload commander in November 1994, she carried with her the class ring of Stacey Lynn Balascio, an aerospace engineering student who was killed in an auto accident four days before her college graduation. "It was my tribute to her," says Ochoa. "Stacey was an Air Force ROTC cadet. I'm a private pilot. Stacey was from my hometown, La Mesa, Calif., and had graduated from Grossmont High School where I graduated from, too. I presented Stacey's class ring to her parents when I gave a speech at SDSU to the Society for Women Engineers."

Balascio had joined the Society of Women Engineers at SDSU and the organization wanted to pay tribute to her memory. "She was very interested in flying," says Ochoa. "She wanted a career as an astronaut after completing her education. The Society celebrated her goals and accomplishments in engineering as a student member."

As for Ochoa, she continues to celebrate her own decision to become an astronaut. "I'd like to continue to fly on space missions," she says. "I really enjoy my career."

Anne Hart writes about career issues from Sacramento, Calif.

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