Spotlight on Engineering: Ellen Ochoa, Astronaut & Inventor

Usually, girls weren't encouraged to go to college and major in math and science. My high school calculus teacher, Ms. Paz Jensen, made math appealing and motivated me to continue studying it in college.
-Ellen Ochoa

Ellen Ochoa was born in Los Angeles, CA in 1958. Her parents Joseph Ochoa and Roseanne Deardorff met in high school and married in LA in 1947. She was the middle child of five children of Joseph, who worked as a retail store manager, and Roseanne, who worked as a homemaker. Joseph had experienced discrimination while growing up in Arizona and although he was bilingual, he spoke English only at home, fearing his children would experience the lash of discrimination if they spoke Spanish or had an accent when speaking English.

When Ellen was one yr old, her father was promoted to superintendent and transferred to San Diego, where she grew up in La Mesa. Around this time her mother, being a strong advocate for education, enrolled at San Diego State University. Roxanne only took one or two courses each semester while she raised her children and graduated 22 years later.

Ellen Ochoa: Astronaut and Inventor. By Anne E. Schraff

Ellen Ochoa: Astronaut and Inventor. By Anne E. Schraff

As a child, Ellen was an eager reader, especially books about fantastic worlds, like The Hobbit and A Wrinkle in Time. Aside from being a great student, Ellen participated and excelled in after-school activities, like music, where she played the flute and sports. In junior high, her parents divorced, and Ellen and her siblings lived with their mother. In high school, she found her love of math in her calculus class taught by Ms. Paz Jensen. Although her high school had excellent math and science classes, many teachers didn’t encourage girls to take those subjects. In 1975, Ellen graduated valedictorian of her class.

She received a four-year scholarship to Stanford but turned it down due to the additional expenses that her family couldn’t afford. She received a B.S in physics from San Diego State University in 1980. Between 1981 and 1985, Dr. Ellen Ochoa earned a master’s and a doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford University, where she co-invented an optical inspection system, an optical object recognition method, and a method for noise removal in images.

In 1988, Dr. Ochoa joined NASA as a research assistant at Ames Research Center. Two years later, NASA selected her as an astronaut, and she moved to Johnson Space Center. In July 1991, Dr. Ochoa became the first female Hispanic astronaut and the first Hispanic female to go in space.

Dr. Ochoa was awarded Outstanding leadership medal (1995), Space Flight Medals (1993, 1994, 1999, 2002) and recognized with NASA’s highest award, the Distinguished Service Medal (1997), and the Presidential Distinguished Rank Award for senior executives in the federal government. She also has five schools named after her.

Currently, Dr. Ochoa is the 11th director of the Johnson Space Center. She is the first Hispanic Director and the Center’s second female director.