The first Hispanic woman in space did not grow up with dreams of becoming an astronaut. Ellen Ochoa was born in 1958 in Los Angeles, and she grew up in the town of La Mesa in San Diego County. She was a high achiever and graduated as the valedictorian of her class at Grossmont High School in 1975.
In college, at California State University, San Diego, Ochoa changed her major five times before finally choosing physics. It proved to be an excellent choice, as she graduated again as the valedictorian of her class, in 1980. Ochoa went on to earn her master’s degree in engineering from Stanford University in 1981.
While Ochoa was in graduate school, a number of her friends applied for jobs at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Her friends’ involvement with NASA sparked her interest, and she eventually decided that she too want¬ ed to join NASA—to become an astronaut.
After she earned her doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford in 1985, Ochoa first took a job on the tech¬ nical staff in the Imaging Technology Division at Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore, California.About this time, Ochoa’s brother had received his pilot’s license, and he encouraged her to do the same.
She got her license, and in 1988, she went to work at NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, near San Jose, California. Within six months, she had been promoted to chief of the intelligent systems technology branch, where she worked on optical recognition systems for space automation.
In 1990, Ochoa took the next step toward fulfilling her ambition when she was selected to train to become an astronaut. She went through a year of intensive training before qualifying in July 1991.In April 1993, Ochoa joined the flight crew of the space shuttle Discovery and made histo¬ ry as the first Latina ever to fly into outer space.
Her job on the mission was to use a robotic arm to deploy and retrieve a 2,800-pound (1,270-kg) satellite. The satellite conducted atmospheric and solar studies, including gath¬ ering important information about the Sun’s corona, the outermost part of its atmosphere. The trip lasted more than nine days.
Ochoa made a second trip into space in November 1994, as the payload commander aboard the space shuttle Atlantis. During this eleven-day flight, she conducted more solar studies, focusing on the Sun’s energy and the effect it has on Earth’s atmosphere.
After this mission, Ochoa continued to work for NASA on robotics and space station research and development. She has gone back into space two more times, as a member of the Discovery crew in 1999 and the Atlantis crew in 2002.