By: Leonor Camarena
By: Mary Feeney
Dr. Ellen Ochoa, former director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, is an American engineer, astronaut, and the first Hispanic woman to go to space and has logged close to 1000 hours in space after four space flights. Ochoa has a Bachelor of science in physics (1980) from San Diego State University and a Master of Science (1981) and Ph.D. in electrical engineering (1985) from Stanford University.
Ochoa started her career as a researcher at Sandia National Laboratories – one of three National Nuclear Security Administration research and development laboratories in the US – and the NASA Ames Research Center, where she worked on optical systems for information processing, automated space exploration, and computational systems for aerospace missions. Her work as a research engineer led to on patent and three co-inventor patents for optical systems. Her work as an engineer is especially notable given the low number of women, in particular women of color, in the field. According to the Society of Women Engineers, as recently as 2018, only 20% of bachelor’s degrees in engineering and computer science were awarded to women and a mere 6% of engineering bachelor’s degrees were awarded to women of color. The proportion of engineering Ph.Ds awarded to women of color is even smaller.
In 2007, following her research career and time in space, Ochoa took a leadership role serving as the Deputy Director of the Johnson Space Center where she managed and directed the Astronaut Office and Aircraft Operations. In 2013, she became the Johnson Space Center director. Ochoa’s achievements as a scientist, astronaut and public servant are notable for her many firsts and her continued distinguished service to NASA, space flight, and the advancement of Hispanic women in STEM fields. In recognition of her accomplishments, she has been awarded NASA's Distinguished Service Medal (2015) and the Presidential Distinguished Rank Award for senior executives in the federal government. In 2007, she was inducted into the US Astronaut Hall of Fame.
Dr. Ochoa continues to play a leadership role though service as vice chair of the National Science Board (2018-2020) and on the committee evaluating nominations for the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. She is a fellow of American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the National Academy of Inventors.
As the first Hispanic woman to break barriers in NASA, both as an astronaut and Director, she continues to inspire and highlight the importance of representation and inclusion. Dr. Ochoa’s advocacy efforts not only focus on advancing space exploration but also on the integration and inclusion of minorities in STEM and importance of women in leadership roles. Her achievements and commitment to the next generation of leaders are a true testament of her legacy.