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As astronaut Ellen Ochoa prepared to rocket into space as part of a nine-day journey aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1993, she was so focused on her mission that the enormity of the moment would not sink in until she was safely back on Earth.
“At the time, it was really a personal thing,” Ochoa told TODAY as part of Hispanic Heritage Month. “It was something I was very excited to participate in, and I loved working with the team and with my crew and doing work that was important to understanding changes in the atmosphere.”
She realized the significance of her journey when she saw how many people it impacted. Ochoa became the first Hispanic American woman to go to space as a crew member of the Space Shuttle Discovery studying the Earth’s ozone layer.
“I realized the mission had repercussions well beyond that,” she said. “I had the opportunity to talk to a lot of student groups, I was featured in children’s books, textbooks – I’m just really grateful there was this whole extra dimension to that flight beyond the major goal of it.”
Ochoa, who had been an astronaut since 1991 before her historic mission, was inundated with invitations to speak at schools, most of them with largely Hispanic student bodies.
“It was eye-opening,” she said. “Everybody is out there cheering and greeting me in a way I hadn’t seen before. I realized, ‘This is bigger than I was originally thinking.’”
Ochoa, 63, has even had six schools named after her, many of which focus on STEM education.
“Education was important to my family and key to my career, so to see that, that’s something that’s going to live on,” she said.
Ochoa retired from spacecraft operations in 2007 after completing three other missions to space in addition to her landmark one in 1993. While she was certainly a pioneer as an astronaut, it’s what came after that phase of her career that may have even more significance.
In 2013, she became the first Hispanic director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston and just the second woman to achieve the prestigious position. She showed the next generation of people of all backgrounds that it was possible to attain a position of leadership in NASA.
“It was certainly important for me to see other women and people of underrepresented groups move into leadership positions at NASA,” she said. “When I joined NASA, one of the first things I noticed was more women working there, so it was clear they made a concerted effort at diversity in the workforce, but 30 years ago you didn't see those same people as leaders as center directors or leaders at NASA headquarters.
“That is something I did change. I was part of that, and it was a huge privilege to be the director at Johnson and direct that amazing team. It let people in future who want to work at NASA know that there are all kinds of opportunities for people in all kinds of backgrounds, and it’s important to get that message out.”
“I had the opportunity to talk to a lot of student groups, I was featured in children’s books, textbooks – I’m just really grateful there was this whole extra dimension to that flight beyond the major goal of it.”
Ochoa can attest to how important it is to have role models help show the way to the next generation. When she was rising up through the ranks at NASA, she was inspired by astronaut Sally Ride, a fellow Los Angeles native and Stanford University graduate who became the first American woman in space in 1983.
“Sally Ride flew and that made a big difference to me,” she said. “Seeing someone I have things in common with, who’s a physics major and a Stanford graduate, I think I really needed to see those connections for it to become an actual thought I could do this.”
Ochoa is now that figure for the current generation of women aspiring to become astronauts or forge careers on the STEM path.
“One of the things I learned was that people who did discourage me weren't people that knew me at all,” she said. “They had a view of what a scientist looked like, and that view didn't look like me. It wasn’t personal, in most cases was an unconscious bias.
“I was actually at a university one time and someone was getting ready to graduate and said, ‘I had a picture of you on my wall since I was in second grade.’ I thought, ‘I must be getting old!’ I've gotten quite of bit of that since then, and I’m glad to know I made a difference to these people in the way that Sally Ride made a difference to me.”
Ochoa admitted feeling lonely at times as the rare Hispanic woman in many of her classes and jobs, so she encourages other students to seek out professional groups like the Society of Women Engineers and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers.
“That gives you a group of people more like you who may also face barriers and apprehension, and at the very least you can talk about it with people in similar situations and find some good strategies and find faculty members who can help.”
Ochoa retired as director of Johnson Space Center in 2018, but she is still is an active speaker promoting science and engineering and serving as a chair of the National Science Board. She is part of the NSB's Vision 2030 effort to diversify the domestic STEM workforce and develop skilled technical workers, including those who may have slipped through the cracks or don’t have a four-year degree.
The next Ellen Ochoa could be waiting out there. She just needs the right opportunity.
“We’re missing out on talent,” Ochoa said. “There has been some progress, but a lot of those groups don’t represent the demographics of our country. We need to find that talent and continue to be innovating to make those interesting discoveries and turn them into benefits for all people.”