Join over 200M doing good on their path to great.

Subscribe Now
GreatnessGreatness GreatnessGreatness

Celebrating Ellen Ochoa: The First Hispanic Woman to Explore Space

One small step for man, one giant leap for women.

Everyone knows the name Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. When it comes to astronauts and historical missions beyond our atmosphere into space, you can’t find more recognizable names than those two. They were the first of our species to set foot on the moon, and they left our nation’s mark on space exploration — one that can never be erased. 

However, there is another name that should be just as universally recognized in the world of astronauts as those two: Ellen Ochoa

Ellen Ochoa was a force to be reckoned with during her time at NASA. Not only did she make lasting, important contributions to the methods our nation uses to maintain satellite and space equipment, but she paved the way for women in minorities everywhere to pursue their dreams, no matter how high they may seem. 

Ellen Ochoa was the first Hispanic female astronaut, and she remains an inspiration to women everywhere for her many accomplishments and contributions to space exploration. If you’re looking for an inspiring true story involving one of our nation’s most accomplished and distinguished space explorers, you’re in luck. 

In today’s article, we’re talking all about the incredible journey of Ellen Ochoa. Let’s get into it!

Ellen Ochoa’s Early Life and College Years

Joseph and Rosanne Ochoa welcomed their daughter Ellen Lauri on May 10, 1958, in Los Angeles. Her father was born in California to parents who had moved from Sonora, Mexico to Arizona. 

After her birth, the family moved, and she spent her formative years in La Mesa, California. Ochoa was only 11 years old when Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the moon in July 1969. Even though she was old enough to remember the moon landing, the idea that she would one day join the ranks of astronauts never occurred to her at the time.

Ellen was the middle child of a family of five and lived with her mother and brothers after her parents divorced while she was in high school. In 1975, Ochoa received a high school diploma  from Grossmont High in El Cajon.

After high school, she attended San Diego State University and discovered her interest in physics, mathematics, and engineering during her time there, but ultimately decided to major in physics.

In her impressive college career, Ochoa earned three degrees. She received her BS in physics from San Diego State University in 1980, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa, her MS in 1981 from the Stanford Department of Electrical Engineering, and her Ph.D. in 1985 from Stanford as well. 

Even after receiving her Bachelor of Science in Physics from San Diego State University in 1980, Ellen still wasn’t sure if working in the sciences was right for her. In fact, Ochoa debated between pursuing a career as a classical flutist or working in business. However, she attended graduate school at Stanford in light of her mother’s conviction on the value of an education.

In 1983, while Ochoa was in the midst of completing her master’s degree in electrical engineering and doctorate, Sally Ride became the first female U.S. astronaut. This historic moment inspired Ochoa to reach for the stars, figuratively and literally! 

After completing her degree, she submitted an application to NASA.

Acceptance into NASA 

Ochoa focused her studies at Stanford on the development of optical systems that can “see” through technology, evaluate, and draw conclusions about their surroundings. She took up similar research again after finishing college, this time at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque.

Sandia helps NASA by creating optical and digital representations of space occurrences and phenomena. Ochoa was eventually awarded patents as a co-inventor on three different optical devices: a system that inspects items, a system that identifies and can “recognize” objects, and a system that minimizes distortion in photographs captured of an object.

Ochoa later specialized in creating computer systems for use on aeronautical excursions while working at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. There, she oversaw a team of thirty-five research assistants.

During this time, NASA began to take notice of Ochoa because of her knowledge of optics and computer hardware. Ochoa was accepted into NASA’s astronaut training program in 1990, and she was designated a U.S. astronaut in July 1991. This cemented her role in history as the first Hispanic female astronaut.

A Space Pioneer – Ellen Ochoa’s Accomplishments at NASA

Ochoa was a Mission Specialist on the Discovery Space Shuttle Mission that took place less than two years later.

On the subsequent Shuttle Mission the following year, she took the role of Payload Commander. Satellites like ATLAS-2 and ATLAS-3 were deployed during Shuttle missions so that Ochoa could study the Sun’s impact on Earth’s atmosphere and climate. The SPARTAN satellite was also launched with her as commander and spent two days studying the solar wind before being retrieved. 

In November of 1994, Ellen flew on the STS-66  mission aboard the Atlantis. The ATLAS-3, which Ochoa had previously worked with, was brought down to Earth on STS-66. A further miniature satellite, CRISTA-SPAS, was launched and spent eight days studying Earth’s atmosphere before being retrieved.

Ellen also participated in the first docking of the Discovery space shuttle to the ISS in May of 1999. The Russian Zarya and the American Unity were the only two modules that made up the ISS back then. Supplies were delivered to the ISS by Discovery in preparation for human occupancy.

On the ISS mission, Ellen’s crew also transported two cranes that would be attached to the station’s exterior and utilized to construct the remaining portions of the station. Tamara Jernigan and Daniel Barry, with the help of Ochoa operating Discovery’s robotic arm, spent nearly eight hours on a spacewalk installing the cranes.

In April of 2002, Ochoa was a part of the STS-110 mission aboard the shuttle Atlantis that sent her back to the ISS. During this trip, the ISS’s first truss was lifted by the station’s robotic arm from Atlantis’s cargo bay and attached by Ochoa and astronaut Daniel Bursch. Ochoa logged more than a staggering 40 days in orbit over her four spaceflights.

Roles of Leadership Following Her Years as an Astronaut

Ochoa led the U.S. Astronaut Office Support for the International Space Station project for two years and participated in an international investigation of ozone layer degradation. At one point during her nearly 1,000 hours in space, Ochoa made history by playing the flute in low-Earth orbit, becoming the first astronaut to do so.

From 2007 to 2013, she worked as the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center‘s deputy director, and from 2013 to 2018, she led the center as its director for NASA. By 2020, she had risen to the position of vice chair of the National Science Board.

Throughout the years, Ellen Ochoa has been a role model not only for Hispanic and female aspiring scientists but for anybody who believes that brilliance will eventually find its recognition and reward. During her career, she’s won multiple accolades for her achievements as an engineer, an astronaut, and a role model (including NASA’s highest honor, the Distinguished Service Medal).

Further Accolades and Legacy

Ellen’s many achievements have garnered the attention of many different schools in the country. Several schools across the United States and in California bear her name, including the Ochoa Middle School in Pasco, Ellen Ochoa Elementary School in Cudahy, and the Ánimo Ellen Ochoa Charter Middle School in East Los Angeles.

In addition to Ellen Ochoa Prep Academy in Pico Rivera, California, there is also the Ellen Ochoa STEM Academy at Ben Milam Elementary School in Grand Prairie, Texas. And the Union Elementary School District in Tulsa, Oklahoma, has also named one of its newest schools after her.

Skyping from Space

Since its inception, NASA has made it a priority to share its knowledge about space travel with the next generation. Not only will more children choose to major in related fields because of this, but it’s also a great tool for garnering public approval.

Dr. Ochoa finds this work rewarding because she knows she is giving hope to students, especially young Latina women. It’s common for astronauts like Ochoa to talk to classes while in space, allowing the children an inside look at what it’s like to be an astronaut. Kids are particularly interested in hearing about the specifics of living in space, such as what it was like to be weightless. 

They also love hearing tales, such as the one explaining why astronauts are forbidden from eating cookies in space. If you didn’t know, there is a high risk of damage to the spacecraft’s scientific instruments if anything involving crumbs is brought inside. Space flight sounds tough without the comfort of a chocolate chip cookie!

A Souvenir from Beyond The Atmosphere

In April 2002, Ochoa was part of a crew of seven who took the Space Shuttle Atlantis to the International Space Station for 11 days. On that trip, the crew took with them a flag bearing the school’s rocket logo from Ochoa Middle School in Pasco, Washington. The flag was given back to the school by Ochoa when she attended the 2002 dedication as a special guest, and it has been displayed proudly ever since.

Among Ochoa’s many honors are the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, the NASA Exceptional Service Medal, the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal, and the NASA Space Flight Medal.

The United States Astronaut Hall of Fame also inducted Ochoa and Michael Foale in 2022. Ochoa’s contribution to Johnson Space Center as a board director was acknowledged in the 2017 Best of the Boardroom issue of Hispanic Executive. She also joined the ranks of the 2018 inductees to the Women in Aviation and Space Hall of Fame

Additionally, Ochoa is a member of the National Academy of Inventors, Optica, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Ellen Ochoa: Inspiring Generations Through Greatness

It’s vital that we acknowledge and celebrate the inspirational women who have impacted humanity through their ideas, actions, and leadership. 

Ellen Ochoa continues to be an inspiration to women everywhere today, and through her inspiring journey, we are shown what greatness truly looks like. For even more inspirational true stories about the women that have shaped our world, head over to our website!

About author

Greatness Authors

Greatness Authors is a collection of writers, thinkers, curiosity experts, and students of the world who are committed to bringing you the most up-to-date, impactful, and inspiring information surrounding Greatness topics.

More articles by Greatness Authors

Join over 500M doing good on their path to great.

Discover how you can achieve Greatness in every area of your life today! Subscribe to the newsletter.

As seen on