Ellen Ochoa: The Pioneer

Ellen Ochoa, the first Latina to go into space and the first Latino director of the Johnson Space Center (NASA)

Ellen Ochoa, the first Latina to go into space and the first Latino director of the Johnson Space Center (NASA)

When she stepped off Space Shuttle Atlantis in April 2002, Ellen Ochoa had flown on four space missions and had logged nearly 41 days in space. Having become the first Latina in space back in 1993, Ochoa’s career as a NASA astronaut was already historic, and yet her trailblazing wouldn’t end with her last mission.

Born the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants and raised in California, Ochoa went on to earn a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Stanford University in 1985. She began working at NASA’s Ames Research Center, where she managed the 35 research engineers of the Intelligent Systems Technology Branch and co-invented an optical inspection system, an optical object recognition method and a method for noise removal in images.

She joined the crew of the Space Shuttle Discovery in April 1993 as a mission specialist and later was the payload commander aboard Atlantis’s 1994 flight and a flight engineer during her 1999 and 2002 missions. During her last three missions she (wo)manned the robotic arm.After her last mission, Ochoa began working at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, where in 2013 she became the first Latino and only the second women to be named director.

For her many firsts, a school in Pasco, Washington and two schools in California have been named in her honor.

In an 1999 interview, Ochoa was asked if she felt her Latino heritage placed more pressure on her:

I don’t believe that being Hispanic American puts any additional pressure on me. I seem to put enough pressure on myself as it is. As for my accomplishments, being an astronaut has given me the opportunity to speak to children all over, including children with the same background as myself. I think that it’s important for children to have a role model to see what they can grow up to be. It’s important they know that if they work hard, they can be and accomplish whatever they want. I am proud to be an example of that.

Honoring Ochoa — and remembering that, for Latinos, even the sky isn’t the limit — is how we celebrate our heritage.