Hispanic Heritage Month: The Celebration of Ellen Ochoa

October 8, 2021 / Mb Staffing

In 1993, Ellen Ochoa became the first Hispanic women to go to space. She achieved many accolades in space travel, including conducting important research into the Earth’s ozone layer in the Discovery shuttle for nine days, been on an additional three space flights and logged 1,000 hours in space in total.

She’s revered as an iconic figure for people of color and Hispanic/Latinx women who want to get involved in engineering and space exploration.

When Ochoa is asked what she would’ve changed in her life, the legendary NASA astronaut responds with nothing. For her, to change anything about her life would suggests that she would’ve never accomplished anything in her historic journey, according to CNBC.

Ellen Ochoa was born in La Mesa, California, a suburb in San Diego. Her father was Mexican and grew up in California in a household of 12 siblings. Her mother met her father after she moved to California from Oklahoma when she was a teenager. Rosanne Ochoa raised Ellen, her four brothers and her sister alone until Ellen graduated from High School.

Rosanne Ochoa was taking one class per semester around the same time Ellen and her siblings were in school; education was an instrumental to Ellen’s career as her mother imposed strong academic skills. “My mother loved learning, and knew education was important to us…We would always hear her talk about her classes and see her do homework, along with us doing homework,” Ochoa says.

After graduating high school, Ellen would pursue a degree in physics at San Diego State University in 1980. She eventually went on to the graduate’s program at Stanford University to study electrical engineering. Sally Ride, the first woman to travel to space, contributed to Ellen’s deep interest in engineering and space exploration. After earning her doctorates in 1985, she would apply to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) intense astronaut program.

In 1981, NASA seems to be interested in partnering with scientist and engineers of all different backgrounds in education. This was a milestone for the space program and an incredible advantage for Ellen as her influencers—Franklin Chang Diaz, the first person of Hispanic Heritage to travel to space two years after Sally’s journey—seems to be of diverse backgrounds. Sally Ride graduated from Stanford and studied physics, much like her protégé.

Six months after her interview for the astronaut program, she was selected.

When she joined the corps in 1990, it was unusual for her being the only Hispanic woman in the program. “I did get some discouragement,” Ochoa says. “I can’t say whether it was because of my Hispanic background or because I was a woman, because people don’t actually tell you.”

For her position, it was a challenge for not only a woman, but a Hispanic woman and a minority in the field of science to pursue a career in engineering and space exploration. It was a perspective that people needed, much like what she needed from Sally Ride and Franklin Chang Diaz.

1993 was the first time she traveled to space. As part of the mission to study the effects of solar activity on Earth’s atmosphere, she released and controlled a research satellite with robotic arms. Her next spaceflight was a year after in 1994, she retrieved a research satellite aboard the Atlantis spacecraft.

Ellen Ochoa, at 63, retired from NASA and enjoys speaking with young woman and Hispanic/Latinx communities about her experience in space. She has a mountain of rewards recognizing her accomplishments, including: the Distinguished Service Medal, the Presidential Distinguished Rank Award for senior executives in the federal government and is honored to have six schools named after her.

Ellen Ochoa is a classical flutist. She’s been playing the flute since she was a child, and has played it even during her space trips.