April 8, 1993 is a day Ellen Ochoa will likely never forget. At 1:29 am, the space shuttle Discovery lifted off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida with Ochoa and four other crewmembers on board. Ochoa’s first flight to space, the trip marked both a personal milestone in her scientific career and the first time in history a Hispanic woman had traveled to space (Figure 1).
A winding path toward the stars
Some people know from a very young age what kind of career they want to pursue. Ellen Ochoa, an optical engineer, astronaut and now director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, was not one of those people. Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, she had watched the “space race” and the first flights to the moon with interest. But she never dreamed of becoming an astronaut. “I was definitely interested in space exploration when I was little…” she recalled in a 2001 interview. “But, at that time, women were excluded from becoming astronauts, so I never thought it was a career I could grow up to pursue” (Contreras, 2001).
In school Ochoa excelled in multiple subjects, including math, science and writing. She was also an accomplished flutist and considered pursuing a career in music. At the time, female students were not usually encouraged to take math and science classes or to major in these subjects in college. But Ochoa’ s high school calculus teacher, Paz Jensen, had inspired her. Despite frequently finding that she was the only woman in her classes, Ochoa went on to study physics at San Diego State University.
Ellen’s mother, Rosanne Ochoa, also had a strong influence on her daughter’s attitude toward school. Ellen and her four siblings had grown up watching their mother dedicate her free time to learning. While raising five children mostly on her own, Rosanne took college classes ranging from biology to business. After 22 years of taking one class at a time, she earned her bachelor’s degree in liberal studies from San Diego State – three years after watching Ellen graduate from the same university.
After graduation, Ochoa decided to attend graduate school and study optics (the study of light and its behavior) in the electrical engineering department at Stanford University. There, she was mentored by a renowned optical scientist, Joseph Goodman.
In 1983, two years before Ochoa completed her Ph.D., Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. (Two female Russian cosmonauts, Valentina Tereshkova and Svetlana Savitskaya, had traveled to space in 1963 and 1982, respectively.) Ochoa took note of Ride’s historic flight. When some of Ochoa’s friends decided to apply to the NASA Astronaut Candidate program, she also contacted NASA. She learned that candidates were required to have a bachelor’s degree in engineering, math, or science and either three years of related work experience or an advanced degree. That meant she would be eligible to apply after finishing her doctorate. For the first time, becoming an astronaut was a real possibility.
Becoming an astronaut
In 1985, Ochoa submitted an application to the astronaut program and began working at Sandia National Laboratories – a government research facility where she could apply her knowledge of optics. In March of 1987, NASA selected Ochoa to interview for the astronaut program. She traveled to the Johnson Space Center in Texas where she and other applicants underwent a week of tests and interviews. That summer, Ochoa learned that she had not made the cut.
Although she had not been selected for the astronaut program, Ochoa achieved something else that year. She earned her first patent (shared with Goodman and another Stanford researcher) for an optical device that inspects an object, such as a circuit board, for defects by identifying interruptions in a repeating pattern (US Patent No. 4,674,824, 1987). That same year Ochoa and colleagues from Sandia applied for two additional patents, both of which were approved over the next few years. One was for a device that uses optical technology to identify a particular target – such as a landing site for a spacecraft – regardless of the target’s size and orientation (US Patent No. 4,838,644, 1989) (Figure 2). The third patent was for an optical system that reduces image distortion (US Patent No. 4,949,389, 1990).
In 1988, Ochoa did two things that added to her chances of being noticed by the astronaut program: She earned her private pilot’s license and began working at NASA’s Ames Research Division. In her new job at Ames, Ochoa led a team of 35 scientists in developing optical and computer systems for automated space exploration. The next year she was invited back to Johnson Space Center for another interview. This time, Ochoa was selected to be an astronaut candidate – one of 23 from among nearly 2,000 applications – and she reported to training in July 1990.
Training to go to space means learning about everything from aircraft safety to astronomy. Trainees attend lectures in meteorology, orbital mechanics, and navigation. They study flight manuals. They prepare for what it will be like to live and work in microgravity every day, and they practice scenarios, such as bailing out of an aircraft, which they hope never to experience (Figure 3).
Ochoa graduated from astronaut training in July 1991. Less than two years later, in April 1993, she was on her first mission to space aboard the space shuttle Discovery. Known as STS-56, this mission would be the first of four that Ochoa would make and just the beginning of the 978 hours she would log in space over the next decade.
A science lab in space
Ochoa’s scientific background was indispensable for living and working on a space shuttle. “My science education has enabled me to learn every necessary detail of the Shuttle systems,” she explained in a 2005 interview. “I need to understand how the propulsion, electrical, power, mechanical, life support, flight control, and communications systems all work – well enough to diagnose, troubleshoot, and recover from problems” (Sullivan, 2005).
As a mission specialist, Ochoa’s primary duties on the shuttle were tied to research and data collection. A space shuttle is an excellent platform for conducting scientific research, and Discovery was loaded with instruments and equipment, both inside the cabin and outside on an area of the shuttle called the payload bay.
Studying Earth as a global system: ATLAS
On STS-56, the shuttle’s payload bay was equipped with the Atmospheric Laboratory for Applications and Science (ATLAS), a collection of scientific instruments used to gather data on the chemistry of the atmosphere and the effects of solar radiation on ozone. This was the second time ATLAS had been sent to space to collect data, and its focus on this mission was data that could help scientists answer questions about the thinning of Earth’s protective ozone layer. (For more on ozone and the ozone layer, see our module The Composition of Earth's Atmosphere)
Each flight on the shuttle is like a carefully choreographed dance, with a minute-by-minute schedule of crew activities, experimental requirements, and maneuvers of the shuttle itself. Long before the shuttle leaves the ground, NASA staff and scientists associated with each of the onboard experiments meet to plan out the timeline for the flight.
The ATLAS program was an international collaboration, and the ground team included scientists from the US and five other countries (Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland). During the nine days that Discovery was in orbit for STS-56, the ground team controlled the ATLAS instruments around the clock from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Banks of computers allowed the ground team to monitor the experiments and data collection, send commands directly to the instruments, and communicate with the shuttle crew.
Initially, researchers had envisioned the ATLAS missions as a series of 10 flights over the course of an 11-year solar cycle. Ultimately, due to funding constraints and increased demand for shuttle space for other experiments, there were only three ATLAS flights. Ochoa was on two of them: STS-56 and her second space flight, STS-66 in 1994. Although more limited than originally envisioned, the ATLAS missions collected a large amount of data that could not have been gathered by scientists working on Earth. Those datasets served as the basis for dozens of scientific papers (e.g., Kaye and Miller, 1997; Gunson et al., 1997) and contributed to NASA’s “Mission to Planet Earth,” a long-term effort to study the Earth as a global system.
Other research on the shuttle
In addition to ATLAS, Discovery carried a large, gold-colored instrument called the Shuttle Point Autonomous Research Tool for Astronomy (SPARTAN) on the STS-56 mission (Figure 4). SPARTAN was a free-flying spacecraft equipped with two specialized telescopes designed to gather data about the sun’s corona. On STS-56, Ochoa operated the robotic arm that released SPARTAN into space and recaptured it a few days later, after it finished collecting data.
While ATLAS and SPARTAN were the headlining research projects on STS-56, dozens of other experiments ranging from astronomy to cellular biology also took place during the nine-day mission. Between experiments, the astronauts shared their research and the excitement of traveling to space with people back on Earth. Through the Shuttle Amateur Radio Experiment, or SAREX project, crewmembers used an amateur “ham” radio to talk to students in classrooms around the world. Ochoa also played her flute during the flight for entertainment and as part of an educational video. She later noted that it was not much different than playing a flute on Earth because the space shuttle cabin is pressurized like the cabin of an airplane. But in the near-weightless environment, the flute held itself up without much support from Ochoa (NASA, 2003) (Figure 5).
The work of an astronaut
“I always liked school, and being an astronaut allows you to learn continuously, like you do in school,” Ochoa explained in a 1998 interview with her alma mater, Stanford. “One flight you're working on atmospheric research. The next, it's bone density studies or space station design."
Indeed Ochoa’s four flights to space included a wide variety of activities. During the first two in 1993 and 1994, Ochoa was behind the controls of the shuttle’s robotic arm (Figure 6), using it to release and retrieve free-flying spacecraft like SPARTAN. On her third flight (STS-96 in 1999) the crew performed the first ever shuttle docking to the, then vacant, International Space Station. They delivered four tons of equipment and supplies in preparation for the first crew to begin living on the station the following year.
In 2002, during her final mission to space (STS-110), Ochoa and the rest of the crew on the space shuttle Atlantis returned to the International Space Station – this time to be greeted by the crew living aboard the station. “We have a couple of special meals planned where we've brought some special food and music,” Ochoa said in a pre-flight interview. “And I think we're all really looking forward to sitting down together and swapping stories” (NASA, 2002).
During that mission, the combined crew from the space station and the shuttle worked together to install a 12,000-kilogram truss, which would eventually support the acre of solar panels that provide power to the station’s laboratory (Figure 7). Ochoa once again served as one of the robotic arm operators, helping to maneuver the truss and move crewmembers around during space walks. “It's just an incredible international venture where you have people from all over the world getting together, assembling an incredibly complex [station], and working together for items that really benefit people around the world,” Ochoa said (NASA, 2002).
Back to Earth
Back on the ground after her fourth and final space flight, Ochoa continued to make history as she took on new roles at NASA. In 2002, she became Deputy Director of Flight Crew Operations at Johnson Space Center, the facility where she had originally trained. In 2012 she was named Director of the Johnson Space Center, becoming the first Hispanic director and the second woman to lead the center.
In addition to her leadership duties, Ochoa continues to conduct research and to share her excitement about science and space with others – especially students. “I’m not trying to make every kid an astronaut,” she explained. “But I want kids to think about a career and the preparation they’ll need” (Stanford, 1998). As Ochoa’s inspiring life and career demonstrate, scientists do not fit into a single mold. They follow many paths and their varied interests and backgrounds often enrich their work. (For more about how scientists build on their individual experiences, see our module Creativity in Science: How Scientists Decide What to Study.)
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