Ellen Ochoa: Making History Aboard Discovery

Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum

A four time shuttle veteran with more than 1,000 hours in space, Ochoa is an inspirational figure in spaceflight.

On April 17, 1993, astronaut Ellen Ochoa and the crew of the STS-56 Discovery returned to Earth after a nine-day mission. Ochoa made history as the first Hispanic woman in space.

As Ochoa approached her retirement as the director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in May of 2018, she reflected on her path toward spaceflight and her decades of leadership in the aerospace field.

Image: Ellen Ochoa in the Flight Control Room of Johnson Space Center, 2017.

When STS-1 Columbia, the first spaceflight of NASA’s Space Shuttle program, launched on April 12, 1981, the world was watching—including Ellen Ochoa who would go on to become the first Hispanic woman in space.

Ochoa watched the shuttle take off when she was a first-year graduate student in Stanford’s electrical engineering program. For her, the new scientific possibilities ushered in by Columbia seemed endless.

Image: Space Shuttle Columbia STS-1's first launch on April 12, 1981.

“It was a very different kind of spacecraft than had ever existed before,” she said. “I thought, ‘How great to be able to do experiments in a unique laboratory, things that you could only do in space, that you could never be able to do on Earth.'”

It was a turning point for Ochoa, whose groundbreaking career would send her on four separate space missions and eventually to the helm of NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) as its first Hispanic director.

Image: Astronaut Ellen Ochoa using a 70mm handheld camera to record an ocean scene during the ATLAS 2 mission aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery, STS-56, in 1993.

The road to NASA’s astronaut class was not a simple one. Six months after Ochoa submitted her application was the Space Shuttle program’s 25th mission, STS 51-L, Challenger. The ensuing tragedy put NASA’s selection of an astronaut class on hold.

“Of course, one had to think about—is this still something that I wanted to do?” Ochoa said. But her passion for pursuing science and spaceflight remained undeterred.

A year later, Ochoa was called for an interview. She went down to JSC—the place whose inner workings she would come to know very well—for the first time. (In fact, it was the first time Ochoa had been to any NASA center.) Later came the news; she was not selected.

“Some people have described it as, ‘I failed.’ I didn’t really view it that way,” Ochoa said. “I tried to turn it into, what is it that I could I do that would make me a better candidate?”

Image: The Space Shuttle Challenger STS-51L explosion on January 28, 1986.

Ochoa took a different job at NASA and earned her private pilot’s license. Then, she applied again with some new skills on her resume. This time, she got in.

Image: Portrait of NASA astronaut Ellen Ochoa, 1997.

Several years of training later, Ochoa was aboard STS-56 Discovery, studying the Earth’s ozone layer. Getting a chance to conduct experiments in space, against a background of the Earth 200 miles below, was, “more than I could have ever expected,” Ochoa said.

“It was not just about experiencing space,” she said. “We were up there for a purpose. We had people counting on us. We had a job to do and we needed to work together to do it.”

Since that first flight, collaboration has been a key to Ochoa’s career success, whether leading up NASA’s CAPCOM branch or being on the ground floor for the development of the International Space Station (ISS).

Image: Ellen Ochoa playing the flute on STS-56.

As she reflected on her nearly three decades with NASA, she also looked ahead to the next great discoveries, including new experiments aboard the ISS and NASA’s Orion spacecraft, designed to bring humans farther into space than ever before. It’s an exciting moment for space exploration that harkens back to Ochoa’s trip to JSC decades ago, and all the possibilities that lay ahead.

“It’s a moment you never forget—it absolutely changes your life forever.”

Image: Ellen Ochoa, during her time as Director of the Johnson Space Center, 2017.

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