Ellen Ochoa: Still Leading The Way

Like many who grew up in the 1960s, I'm a huge space nerd and as a by-product also a big sci-fi fan.

I'll shell out for just about any sci-fi movie. Watching The Martian, which BTW was fantastic (but as great as the movie was, of course the book by Andy Weir was even better), and more recently a re-run of Gravity on TV (great special effects; sappy internal conflict aka pity party), I was reminded of why we don't send stupid people into space. NASA's astronaut training program is highly selective and rigorous, as well it should be.

I had the privilege of writing a children's biography of one of these space geniuses several years ago. Ellen Ochoa was the first female Hispanic astronaut in space. I felt some kinship with her when I discovered

  • we share a birth year
  • we're also both female, natch
  • we love to read
  • we had a hard time deciding on a major in college

and that's where our paths digress. Dr. Ochoa finally settled on physics for her bachelor's. Let's just say, I didn't. She got that 'Dr.' in front of her name studying electrical engineering at Stanford. She has some patents in optics. And of course there's the whole astronaut thing.

Although she was a bright kid, Ochoa never considered becoming an astronaut because there was no such thing as a female astronaut. Imagine that! Oh, the irony of growing up in the 1960s. But when she was in grad school at Stanford, guess what happened? Or should I say, guess WHO? Yep, Sally Ride broke the glass ceiling in space in 1983, and Ellen started getting ideas. It took her a couple of tries and a year of training, but she made history as part of space shuttle Discovery's crew in April 1993. She was also a crew member for the first time the space shuttle docked with the International Space Station in 1999. Ochoa completed a total of four space flights and has logged more than a thousand hours in space.

Her last space flight was in 2002, but Ochoa was hardly put out to pasture. She continued a career at NASA. Dr. Ochoa is currently the director of the Johnson Space Center (second woman director; first Hispanic director). Something tells me if she ever found herself in a pickle like Sandra Bullock's character in Gravity, there would have been a lot less pity party, and a lot more git 'er done.

Note: the original version of this post first appeared on my blog in May 2016.

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