September 28, 2001

Ellen Ochoa the First Latina in Outer Space

Ellen Ochoa was born May 10, 1958 in Los Angeles, California, but considers La Mesa, California, to be her hometown. A graduate from Grossmont High School, La Mesa, California, in 1975; received a bachelor of science degree in physics from San Diego State University in 1980, a master of science degree and doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford University in 1981 and 1985, respectively.

As a doctoral student at Stanford, and later as a researcher at Sandia National Laboratories and NASA Ames Research Center, Dr. Ochoa investigated optical systems for performing information processing. She is a co-inventor on three patents for an optical inspection system, an optical object recognition method, and a method for noise removal in images. As Chief of the Intelligent Systems Technology Branch at Ames, she supervised 35 engineers and scientists in the research and development of computational systems for aerospace missions.

Selected by NASA in January 1990, Dr. Ochoa became an astronaut in July 1991. Her technical assignments include flight software verification, crew representative for flight software and computer hardware development, crew representative for robotics development, testing, and training, Assistant for Space Station to the Chief of the Astronaut Office, directing crew involvement in the development and operation of the Station, and spacecraft communicator (CAPCOM) in Mission Control.

STS-56 crewmembers pose for onboard (inflight) portrait on the aft flight deck of Discovery, Orbiter Vehicle (OV) 103. In front are Commander Kenneth Cameron (left) and Mission Specialist 1 (MS1) Michael Foale. In back are (left to right) MS3 Ellen Ochoa, Pilot Stephen S. Oswald, and MS2 Kenneth D. Cockrell.

In a taped interview before a classroom of young students Dr. Ochoa had these comments about her decesion to become an astronaut:

"A lot of my friends in the astronaut program decided when they were very young that when they grew up that they wanted to become an astronaut. They decided from a very young age that thats what they would do; they would go to college and study engineering, and try to join the program.

"But for me, it was a little different. For one thing, when I was your age, we had astronauts who landed on the moon for the first time -- probably when I was about your age, about eleven. But at that time, there weren't any women astronauts and also very few who were scientists. Most of them were pilots in the military at that point. So it didn't occur to me when I was in school that this was something I could grow up and do. But as the space program evolved as I said we've moved more from piloting into science and engineering.

"While I was at Stanford and I was working before becoming an astronaut, I was involved in doing research in equipment like lasers and holograms. Maybe you've seen some demonstrations of a laser or holograms either at your school or in a museum. And we were looking at those specifically for processing images -- for example, trying to find a particular object within an image. You might use that on a manufacturing line if youre trying to inspect equipment and youre looking for defects; or you might use it on an autonomous lander to Mars when youre trying to land around a particular spot and youre using a video camera to look for it. And you can use optics to help you find the right place. Those were the kinds of things I was looking for and those were what some of my patents are in.

"One of my primary jobs on the shuttle is to handle the science experiments and to make sure that they were operating correctly. And in the film you will see a group of experiments outside the shuttle in the payload bay that are taking the measurements that I was referring to.

"And one of the things that had to be developed for us to operate from inside or even from the ground is a way of connecting the data and the power to the instruments in the bay so we dont have to go out and operate them.

"And there was a group from the German Space Agency as well as NASA that got together and developed what they called a space-slab system that allows any set of instruments no matter what they are doing to let them be hooked into a particular palette or piece of equipment that we take up and then from the shuttle we are able to provide it with power. Well be able to send computer commands to the experiments and the experiments will be able to send data back to us. And we can do that remotely, so that is one thing that had to be developed for us to be able to do experiments in space.

"One of my other jobs on the two flights that I've been on is to operate the robotic arm that we have and maybe you've seen that on TV, too.

"We have a fifty foot long arm that we can take up on the Shuttle and we used it to display and retrieve a science satellite. This arm is a lot like your own arm. It has a wrist, joint. It has an elbow joint, and it has a shoulder joint. And we can operate it in a variety of ways. The most common way is that we have two hand controllers -- kind of like a video game where were trained to operate the arm to move all the joints at once so we can move from one position to any other position by moving these two hand controls. We can also operate it just joint by joint. So, if we want to move just the wrist joint or just the shoulder joint, we have a way of doing that."

SPECIAL HONORS: NASA awards include the Exceptional Service Medal (1997), Outstanding Leadership Medal (1995), Space Flight Medals (1994, 1993), and two Space Act Tech Brief Awards (1992). Recipient of numerous other awards, including most recently the Women in Aerospace Outstanding Achievement Award, The Hispanic Engineer Albert Baez Award for Outstanding Technical Contribution to Humanity, the Hispanic Heritage Leadership Award, and San Diego State University Alumna of the Year.

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